Caring for the Pastor: The Sabbatical

Article
02.26.2010

I have often likened pastors to bell towers: unless they are careful, they will ring one bell in their tower repeatedly. What do I mean? Even the best of preachers can begin to repeat the same theme and tone over and over in their preaching. A staleness or tired familiarity—one bell—begins to ring week in and week out. Why?

This exists, in part, due to fatigue. The role of pastor-preacher, if done faithfully, is one of the most taxing jobs in the world. It demands so many skills. It’s emotionally taxing. And it’s both so regular (that sermon is coming!) and so variable (who can predict funerals, illnesses, or member crises?). Congregations need to be aware of this and make provision before the “one bell syndrome” sets in.

One way to care for the pastor is by offering a planned and regular sabbatical. What do I mean by sabbatical?

I don’t mean the biblical “sabbatical year” spoken of in the Old Testament, used to allow farm-land to remain uncultivated and debts to be forgiven (i.e. remitted).

For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat (Ex. 23:10-11).

At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lords’s release has been proclaimed (Deut. 15 1-2).

I do mean the kind of sabbatical that our culture typically understands today. Wikipedia defines the sabbatical this way:

A sabbatical year is a prolonged hiatus, typically one year, in the career of an individual taken in order to fulfill some goal, e.g. writing a book or traveling extensively for research.

Sabbaticals are not vacations. We would encourage the pastor to see vacations as time completely away from his regular work (and geography, if financially affordable) and with the focus aimed squarely on his family. Sabbaticals on the other hand are not work-less and not aimed at the benefit of his family. They are specifically aimed at reinvigorating and renewing the mind and heart of the pastor through research, purposeful travel, writing, etc. In other words, the goal is to begin using some forgotten bells and to hang some new ones in that bell tower for a fuller, clearer, and louder sound.

Things to consider:

1. Start out small: If your church has never considered giving a pastor a sabbatical and seems resistant, start out small and let the idea grow. Have a five or ten year plan in your mind where the sabbatical idea flowers into the full vision you have. My own church allows each pastor to accrue one month of sabbatical time per each year of service. The pastor can take a maximum of three months sabbatical at any one time. Perhaps your church needs to start with a two week sabbatical every two years so that the pastor can take a seminary class. Don’t worry about starting out small, just get started and allow the congregation to get comfortable with the idea and appreciate the fruit.

2. Start out small (again!): This time I’m not addressing length of time away, but the kind of sabbatical the pastor might take. There are “preaching sabbaticals,” where the pastor carries his regular duties but is relieved of preaching duties to allow for more time in his week for reading and research. Then there are “radical sabbaticals,” where the pastor is absent from all duties and absent from the church. Perhaps your church isn’t ready for the radical sabbatical and needs to grow into that by starting with a preaching sabbatical. Again, start out small (if you need to) and let it grow.

3. Care for the flock: Prior to a sabbatical, the pastor and congregation needs to plan for the shepherding of the flock in the pastor’s absence. The purpose of the sabbatical will be gutted if the pastor is regularly interrupted to care for the flock. Assign the preaching, counseling, funerals, and all the other regular duties.

4. Plan the sabbatical: The pastor needs to plan well in advance what he will be doing on the sabbatical, otherwise the precious time away can be wasted.

5. Involve the congregation: The pastor needs to share with the congregation his plans, prior to his leaving, so they can join him in his excitement and pray for fruit. The pastor will benefit from his sabbatical, but the congregation should too!

6. Consider the season: There are rhythms and seasons in a church’s life that need to be considered in scheduling a sabbatical. For instance, in most churches, the fall seems to be far busier than the spring or summer. The pastor should take leave at a good time in the church’s life.

7. Communicate: While on sabbatical, the pastor should consider regular communication with his congregation through open letters or articles in the church’s newsletter.

8. Set parameters: If the pastor does not leave town, both pastor and church should have some understandings about “drop bys” and “pop ins” where the pastor is interrupted. These brief interruptions can halt fruitful thought and easily slide into a resumption of duties.

9. Be accountable: Consider setting up a system of accountability between the pastor on sabbatical and a fellow pastor/elder or board – leader to leader.

10. Plan for the return: If the pastor has taken a “radical sabbatical,” he might consider returning a few days prior to resuming duties so that he can organize and reacquaint himself with both people and situations; it will make for an easier transition. The pastor also needs to remember that the congregation was not on sabbatical; it may need to be eased into his new ideas and renewed energy.

The church that cares for its pastor cares for itself. Consider the sabbatical. And let the bells ring!