6 reasons pastor sabbaticals are good for your church
Several years ago I experienced deep spiritual fatigue. You can read about this burnout in The Year I Lost My Mind. During this time, I had an intuitive sense that I needed rest – the kind of Sabbath rest that deepens
Sabbaticals seem to be reserved for academic institutions and large churches. The average person doesn’t get one, but they probably should. Research Shows That Organizations Benefit when Employees Take Sabbaticals. More and more companies are learning that as they give all their employees time off to rest, the company sees an increase in productivity, the employees feel more valued, and they come back with renewed energy and creativity. How would you benefit personally and professionally from a sabbatical? Take a moment and dream about it. Now, wouldn’t you like to offer that to your pastor? Here are some additional reasons that a pastoral sabbatical is good for your church.
Extended Sabbath rest is commanded in scripture.
God commanded a year of solemn rest for the land in Israel every seven years (Leviticus 25:1-7). In an agricultural society this means that the majority of the people would rest too. It was part of their worship of God and a way to learn dependence on him. This isn’t exactly the same as a sabbatical, but it shows that the principle of regular, extended rest is good because it was God’s idea.
Times of solitude prepared or recharged leaders in scripture.
Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Paul, and many more leaders had times of solitude with God to prepare them for ministry. For Moses it was 40 years tending sheep before being called and 40 days on the mountain with God later in ministry. Elijah needed more than 40 days to recover from depression and to rediscover his call to ministry. Jesus took 40 days in the wilderness to fast and pray right before his ministry began. Why do you think Satan chose that time to tempt him? Paul spent 3 days in silence and darkness after seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus; he also spent years in Arabia preparing for ministry, and he had several extended breaks during his ministry. Why do we demand pastors continue in ministry for years and years without giving them time for renewing their souls in God?
A sabbatical forces the pastor and the church to trust God.
Taking time off forces us to recognize that God is in control. A weekly Sabbath is designed to keep us from putting too much trust in our own work. It allows us to see that God is able to keep things going without us. This frees us from the striving and worry that comes from thinking that everything depends on our work. A sabbatical is similar; both the church and the pastor learn that the pastor is not the center of the church’s work – God is. The pastor also learns that he needs to be spending extended time with God on a regular basis in order to lead well. He is reminded that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and he is just an under-shepherd. If he is to do his work well, he must first follow Jesus. A sabbatical is a time of remembering and returning to this reality.
A sabbatical makes the church less dependent on the pastor.
When the pastor is gone on sabbatical, the church will learn that God can still work through them. They learn to take greater ownership for the ministry and stop relying so heavily on the pastor to do the work. This forces other leaders to grow into their calling. When the pastor returns, these leaders are more effective and the whole church is better off.
Most church leaders are forced to take a year off between terms (usually every three or six years). This time off provides needed rest and renewal and allows other people to step into leadership roles. Why is the pastor the only one not given this opportunity?
A pastoral sabbatical will also bring organizational problems to the surface as illustrated in The Dark Side of Sabbatical. Why would we want to know that? These problems will surface eventually. A sabbatical provides a time when they can be seen and addressed before they become urgent. Churches may learn to solve these problems while the pastor is away or they may decide to wait until the pastor returns and solve them together. Either way, problems can be addressed before they become a crisis.
A sabbatical helps the pastor minster out of intimacy with God.
Being a pastor can be hazardous to one’s spiritual health. For centuries, pastors have struggled to maintain a close connection with God while serving the church. In earlier times, it wasn’t unusual for a pastor to leave his church for a month or more to recharge. Now, it is rare for pastors to be allowed this time away. Maybe this is why we are seeing record numbers of pastors burn out and leave ministry. A sabbatical allows the pastor time to reconnect with God intimately and without the interruptions of ministry. It gives him space to confront his own dark side and to combat his temptations (again, think of Jesus in the wilderness).
A sabbatical gives the pastor renewed mental health.
The only way to truly recover from compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, or burnout is to take extended time away from the cause of the problem. Many pastors use vacation time to recover, but this often robs their family of quality time. Additionally, vacations are rarely long enough for true recovery. Usually the pastor regains some health but doesn’t ever get back to full health. This means the pastor is continually operating at a less than healthy level, which means he isn’t ever at his best. No wonder so many churches struggle; they are following a continually fatigued pastor.
In upcoming articles we will cover the following subjects:
What is a sabbatical and how should it be structured?
How can a small church afford to send their pastor on sabbatical?
How can we overcome the fears and objections associated with pastor sabbatical?
Here are some additional resources on pastor sabbaticals:
From Focus on the Family
Sabbatical for Ministers: The Benefits for Pastors and Congregations by Dale Wolyniak. (PDF)
From church leadership expert Thom Rainer
Five Reasons Your Pastor Should Take a Sabbatical
From Soul Shepherding
A Sabbatical Guide for Pastors
From the Vanderbloemen Search Group
3 Reasons Your Pastor Needs a Sabbatical
Reformed Church in America
From IX Marks
Caring for the Pastor: The Sabbatical
A message from Pete and Gerri Scazzero upon returning from sabbatical:
Speaker: Pete & Geri Scazzero
A round-table discussion from The Gospel Coalition
Two pastors and a businessman discuss whether it’s really necessary for every pastor to get a sabbatical.
In this video: Ryan Kelly, Rick Phillips, Bob Doll
Please, leave a comment below. I personally read all the comments and I try to respond within a day. Or we can interact on Twitter (@PastorsSoul) or on our Facebook page.
© Sean Nemecek, 2018. All rights reserved. Request permission.
Sean Nemecek, (M.Div. Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) is the director of The Pastor’s Soul, and pastor at First Baptist Church in Tustin, Michigan since 2001. A third-generation pastor, he grew up listening to pastors and their families talk about the realities of ministry. Now he wants to use this knowledge to bless the church. Sean is married to Amy, a poet and freelance book editor. Together, they have a 17-year-old son.