Sabbaticals are good for your church not just your pastor. In previous articles I’ve written about the biblical foundations for a sabbatical, why sabbaticals are good for your pastor, and some of the common objections to sabbaticals. In this article, I want to show how a healthy sabbatical for your pastor is also a blessing to the church.
The author of Hebrews lays out the core principle for The Pastor’s Soul and for why you should want to bless your pastor. A healthy, joyful pastor is better for the church—
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. — Hebrews 13:17
Who are these leaders? In Hebrews 13:7 it says they are the people who “spoke the word of God to you.” These leaders may not just be the pastor, in some forms of polity, those who are responsible for teaching the word includes the Elders of the church. Either way, your pastor is someone who leads your by helping you understand the word of God and therefore you should strive to make their work a joy not a burden. Hebrews 13:17 tells you to submit to your pastor (and other leaders) so that their work will be a joy and not a burden. If your pastor is burdened by his work, that difficulty will hurt his ability to benefit the church.
Invest in your Pastor’s Joy
In my work with Pastor-In-Residence Ministries (PIR), we help pastors who have been forced out of ministry. One of the common themes that pops up is that these pastors often struggled because they were ministering in a highly critical environment. This criticism was usually based on unrealistic expectations, differences in understanding the pastor’s role, or indifference toward the pastor’s gifts and limits. In short, the church (or a controlling portion of the church) wanted the pastor to be something other than themself. Working in this environment makes everything harder. Pastors can easily fall into people-pleasing behavior when they are surrounded by criticism. Eventually, all their work suffers and they get fired because of poor performance. If the church had been encouraging rather than critical, these pastors would have thrived.
In my upcoming book, The Weary Leader’s Guide To Burnout: A Journey from Exhaustion to Wholeness (Zondervan Reflective, April 2023), I lay out some practical ways that pastor can recover from this type of environment and how they can build resilience to face it. However, if the church doesn’t do it’s part to invest in the joy of their pastor, the ministry will always suffer from a lack of love. A sabbatical is an investment in your pastor’s joy for the good of the church.
5 Ways a Sabbatical is Good for Your Church
Let’s explore some biblical texts about the relationship between the pastor and the church. I want to show how giving your pastor a sabbatical fulfills several biblical instructions about how a church should treat their pastor and how they benefit the congregation. Here are some ways you can invest in your pastor’s joy for the good of the church.
A sabbatical honors the pastor
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. — 1 Timothy 5:17
In this passage, the Apostle Paul instructs Timothy to teach the church to honor their elders. Elders here is not necessarily referring to those who are older but to those who have been appointed to office of Elder. Those who lead and direct the church faithfully should be honored by the whole congregation. This does not mean we overlook the sins of elders who do wrong, like those who would grasp for power. Instead, it’s charging us to honor those who lead seeking the good of the people. Especially those who faithfully preach and teach the word of God.
In the context of this passage, the phrase double honor, refers not only to the respect we give but also to the financial support the church provides. Earlier in the chapter the church was to honor faithful widows by providing for their needs through their giving. Here the church is instructed to give more than the pastor needs so that they can be generous toward the church and community. An underpaid pastor is in constant stress and cannot be generous without hurting their family. At times they are unable to offer help and may appear stingy. This is not a good look for the church. On the other hand, a generously paid pastor will bless others freely. This reflects positively on the whole congregation. A pastor who is given double honor will honor the congregation in the church and community.
A sabbatical is one way of honoring your pastor both spiritually and financially. It may feel like an extra expense to the church but it’s really an investment in the pastor’s faith and future ministry.
A sabbatical invests in your pastor’s faith
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. — Hebrews 13:7
If you are imitating the faith of someone, wouldn’t you want their faith to be as strong as possible? Time away with God on sabbatical, is a great way for a pastor to build a strong faith. They then bring this faith back to the church and model it for everyone. Your pastor’s faith should be inspiring. However, I think many churches are afraid of having a pastor who is strong in faith because they don’t want to do the work to grow their own faith. They are comfortable right where they are. Don’t let that be your church!
In the letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, Jesus gives very strong warnings to churches that leave their work unfinished (Sardis) or who have become comfortable (Laodicea). These churches will eventually be shut down. Pastors get frustrated by churches that do not grow in faith. They will leave for a more faithful congregation as Jesus instructed his disciples “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (Mark 6:11) When a church has a recurring cycle of pastors with short tenure, it gets harder and harder for them to find leadership. The elders of the church will leave and the church will die.
If you invest in your pastor’s faith (along with the other Elders) and then imitate that faith, the church will remain strong and healthy. Therefore, a sabbatical is good for your church because it’s an investment in your pastor’s faith.
A sabbatical expresses trust in God.
I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I the Lord made them holy. — Ezekiel 20:12
Sabbaticals are based on the biblical command of a sabbath year. Taking that much time away from our primary work always stirs up fear and anxiety within us. That’s part of the design. We induce a little stress into the system to test our faith. When faced with the prospect of having the pastor gone for three to four months, most churches respond with fear—What if giving goes down? We can’t afford it! People will leave the church! What if the pastor decides to leave the church?
These are all reasonable questions but they are not rooted faith. If we trust God’s promises, then sending our pastor on sabbatical is an expression of faith. Sabbatical says, God is in control (not us and not our pastor). It’s an expression of trust that God will provide as he has promised. If we recognize that the sabbath year was part of God’s good plan for us and it was intended to deepen our faith in him, then a sabbatical will too. Giving our pastor a sabbatical says that God knows what is best and we trust him to follow his plan.
A sabbatical makes the church less dependent on the pastor.
One of the objections that people often raise to a pastoral sabbatical is “Who will do the pastor’s job while he is gone?” This question is rooted in the false belief that the pastor does the ministry and the people receive the ministry. However, Scripture paints a very different picture. Ephesians 4 contains the only occurrence of the word “pastor” in the whole New Testament. It says:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. — Ephesians 4:11-13
What does it say the pastor’s job is? Along with the apostles, prophets, evangelists, and teachers the pastor is to equip the people for works of service. The phrase works of service could also be translated as ministry. So, the pastor’s job isn’t to do the ministry for the people but to equip the people to minister to one another. Having the pastor gone on sabbatical gives us an opportunity to share in the ministry of the church (as we were designed to do).
If the church can’t survive without a pastor for 3 to 4 months, then that’s a good sign that some things need to change. It may be that the pastor isn’t doing a good job of equipping. More often, it’s a sign that the church has become too dependent on the pastor and he may be doing their job for them. If that’s the case both pastor and church need to amend their ways or the church will continue to be week and the pastor will burn out. A sabbatical is good for the church because it will show the church where it needs to grow.
A sabbatical reminds the church to share in the ministry.
Related to the point above, a sabbatical is good for the church because it reminds us that the church needs the whole body, not just the pastor. In 1 Corinthians 12-14, the Apostle Paul uses an extended illustration of the church as a body that is united and grows in love. No part of the body can say I don’t need you because we are all needed. We each have a role to play in the ministry of the church and that role must be an expression of love or our work is worthless.
A pastor’s sabbatical demonstrates this point in two ways. First, with the pastor gone for a season we see just how much we miss them. Their absence reminds us not to take our pastor for granted. It should remind us to thank our pastor, to encourage them, and to love them because their whole work (and perhaps their whole life) is an expression of love toward us.
A sabbatical also connects us to the importance of loving service in the body by highlighting things our pastor does not need to be doing. Most pastors are doing far more than they should. Out of loving care and a desire to please, they end up saying “yes” to too many things in the church. They are usually mature and capable Christians, so they can do the work, but they shouldn’t have to. Their focus needs to be on three things: 1) Prayer— seeking God’s will and God’s provision for themselves and the church. 2) The ministry of the word— proclaiming the gospel and it’s implications for our lives. 3) Shepherding— helping people through the pains of life through loving care and counseling. Eugene Peterson called this spiritual direction.
Too many churches see the pastor as the CEO, CFO, and VP of marketing for the church. This business model comes out of the church growth movement. In a very large church these titles may make sense but that’s really lest than 2% of all churches. There’s little reason to look to the pastor as the organizational leader of the church. Instead, he should be leading the church to seek God’s will in prayerful discernment. A sabbatical is good for the church because it’s an opportunity for both pastor and church to re-evaluate their relationship. They can then choose healthier, more sustainable ways of living and working together.
Help developing a sabbatical policy
I hope this article has been an invitation for your church to consider giving your pastor a sabbatical. If you would like help developing a sabbatical policy or planning your pastor’s sabbatical contact me or reach out to PIR Ministries.