In my previous article, I explained Why You Should Make Your Pastor Take a Sabbatical. Dallas Willard called it the single greatest need of the church today:
“I can state without wavering that the single greatest need of the church today is the restoration of ministers. What is required is a quite different approach to their life and work. It is a matter of leading them into a massive shift of the dynamics of their personality under God, and one that cannot be done by more books and conferences. They need to be taken out of circulation for a sufficiently long time to re-vision and re-structure their lives in communion with Jesus and his kingdom.”
Read that last sentence again. Willard is calling for pastors to be “taken out of circulation,” or made to go on sabbatical. This begs the question, “What is a sabbatical?”
What is a sabbatical?
If you were to do an internet search for “pastor sabbatical” you would find hundreds of articles, each with their own definition of what a sabbatical should be. Some see it as merely time off for extended Sabbath rest, because that’s where the word “sabbatical” comes from. Others suggest it should be a time of preparation for future ministry. I think the reason there are so many different definitions is because no two pastors are exactly alike. We need a sufficiently broad definition of sabbatical to encompass all the different ways it could be used. Here’s mine:
A sabbatical is time away from the church to reconnect with God and to rediscover God’s purposes for their life.
What should a pastor do on sabbatical?
It seems that everyone has suggestions of things you can do on sabbatical. The Reformed Church in America suggests, “Sabbatical planning should include the church as well as the pastor. Some churches have found that forming a sabbatical committee is a good way to work together.” Churches often begin by asking, “What do we think our pastor should do while on sabbatical?” This is the wrong way to start. Asking this question could turn a sabbatical into one more burden for a pastor to carry. Instead, we should ask, “What does our pastor need to reconnect with God and his purposes for our pastor’s life?”
No matter how the church and pastor work out the details, I believe a sabbatical should include four broad movements: rest, renew, recall, and reinvest.
The first and perhaps longest phase of the sabbatical should be rest in God. This sabbath rest is important because it sets the stage for all the other movements of a sabbatical. Sufficient rest is necessary to have the clarity of mind and spirit needed to really connect with God on a deep level. During this phase of rest the mind, body, and soul are healing from the stress (and even trauma) of ministry.
“Eventually, after your body stops jittering, after your thoughts stop flitting about, after you start feeling your emotions, after your ideal self that performs and pleases is dismantled, after you experience your nothingness and nakedness before God, after you experience unconditional love, then you can hopefully begin to really rest in your body and soul.” (From the Soul Shepherding Sabbatical Guide)
Rest is not easy –
As we begin to rest deeply in the love of God it can be tempting to get back to work. This would be a mistake. Like the athlete who is recovering from an injury, we need to take it slow and rebuild our strength before re-entering the game or we risk further injury. The renew phase is all about living in the love of God until it becomes our foundational reality. During this phase we begin to live in such a way that every day is shaped by our identity as a child of God who is deeply loved. We learn how to live as Father and child again.
Renewal is all about building a relationship with God that will reframe and sustain our lives. We begin to learn to live from our rest in God instead of resting from our work for God. We experience the fullness of God’s life in us – to be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 4:14-19). This presence of God within us will transform how we approach life and ministry. Here we learn how to minister from a place of power through dependence on God (Ephesians 4:20-21). Only then are we ready to recall God’s purposes for our lives.
During the recall phase we ask God, “What do you want to do through my life?” This is a dangerous question that shouldn’t be asked lightly. To truly ask it rightly we need to be fully abandoned to God’s will. This is sometimes called “holy indifference,” which means being indifferent to everything but God’s will. George Muller described it this way: “I seek at the beginning to get my heart into such a state that it has no will of its own in regard to a given matter. Nine-tenths of the trouble with people generally is just here. Nine-tenths of the difficulties are overcome when our hearts are ready to do the Lord’s will, whatever it may be.”
“God’s will: nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.”
Ruth Haley Barton
Having surrendered to the will of God, it’s time to step back and look at the big picture of our lives. What has God been up to? How has he prepared me for this moment in time? What direction is he leading? Working to get clarity on our calling will take time but it will give us confidence when we re-enter ministry. This clarity of call will help us push through the obstacles, conflicts, and sabotage that accompanies leading change. Once we have clarity, we are ready to being planning how to return to ministry in a healthy way.
The reinvest stage of the sabbatical is all about planning and practicing a new way of living. Many find it helpful to establish a rule of life during this phase. A rule of life is a plan of daily living that emphasizes relationship with God at various points of the day. It also includes plans for self-care, which can be so easy to neglect. Caring for the body, mind, emotions, soul, and family must come before ministry or ministry will become self-destructive.
During this phase we ask, “How can I maintain my new life in God while fulfilling God’s clear call on my life?” Remember, if these two things are in conflict you’re doing something wrong. Give yourself some time to practice this new way of living before returning to ministry.
How long should a sabbatical be?
Sabbaticals are typically between 40 days and one year. From a practical standpoint, 40 days doesn’t seem long enough to move through the four phases described above. A year-long sabbatical might create too much distance between pastor and church, thus making it difficult to reconnect. I believe 90 days is the sweet spot – long enough to work through everything at a deep level but not so long that separation begins to occur. However, the short answer to this question is a sabbatical should be as long as the pastor and church think is necessary to deeply reconnect with God.
Where should a sabbatical take place?
The location of a sabbatical is not as important as the fact that the pastor should not return to his church at any time during the sabbatical. Some can take their sabbatical at home; for
When is the right time to take a sabbatical?
The right time to take a sabbatical is before it is needed. When a sabbatical is taken too late, it can be hard for the pastor to return to the church – too much damage has been done. Most denominations recommend a pastor take a sabbatical every five to seven years. This is a good guideline but it may be necessary to take one earlier. If the pastor has had three years filled with conflict, trauma, or emotional hardship, the church would be wise to send their pastor on sabbatical early. What does the pastor need to deeply connect with God? If healing is necessary now or soon, it’s time to go on sabbatical.
What should the church do while the pastor is on sabbatical?
Depending on the length of the sabbatical, it may be necessary for the church to hire an interim pastor. It may be helpful to bring in an expert who can train the church on how to care for their pastor. In some cases, this is a good opportunity for the other elders in the church to experience preaching for several weeks in a row. This will help them understand how to minister to the pastor better. Whatever the church decides, it will probably require some advance planning.