Sabbaticals for the Shepherds
“Rest time is not waste time. It is economy to gather fresh strength. . . . It is wisdom to take occasional furlough.” – Charles Spurgeon, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits”
All work is hard, but faithful pastoral ministry takes a unique toll on the laborer. Pastors have the exhausting honor of carrying the daily pressure of anxiety for the church (2 Cor. 11:28). Office hours are not sufficient for the unceasing strain of broken marriages, straying sinners, suffering saints, and spiritual warfare.
This is why it’s wise for churches to require rest for their pastors. I’m not talking about a day off (which pastors should guard) or a vacation (which pastors should take) but a required season of rest known as a sabbatical.
Churches are served best by invigorated shepherds. When a pastor is rested and refreshed in Christ, his oversight will be infused with wisdom, forbearance, and compassion. But exhausted and burned-out shepherds have little to give. Their patience runs short, and cynicism runs high. This manner of ministry isn’t good for anyone (Heb. 13:7).
Wisely scheduled sabbaticals can prevent burnout by providing an opportunity to step away from regular routines. These sabbaticals are not glorified vacations. They may include vacation-like elements, but their aim is uniquely rest and rejuvenation for the soul. Sabbaticals allow pastors to cease normal duties, lay down taxing burdens, and reshape existing rhythms to press deeper into God’s grace. In this way, sabbaticals serve both sheep and shepherd.
A sabbatical policy sets expectations for everyone. As a minister who loves my calling, I am helped by parameters that require me to rest. I’ve joked that my elders “sabbatical me” from time-to-time because they know when I need to retreat and be refreshed in the Lord.
Some churches pattern pastoral sabbaticals after the seventh–day rest of the Old Testament. This means every seven years, a pastor takes sabbatical leave. This may serve some pastors well, but I have found more frequent sabbatical plans to be wiser.
The policy should aim to avoid burnout instead of responding to it. For instance, our staff pastors accrue three weeks of sabbatical leave for every year of employment completed. This allows us to take nine weeks off every three years or 12 weeks off every four years.
Implementing a policy like this requires teaching the congregation. Some churches will immediately understand the wisdom of a sabbatical, but others may be suspicious. Teaching through the pastoral epistles and related passages helps the flock understand the colossal responsibility pastors carry (Heb. 13:17, 1 Pet. 5:1–11).
It may also be helpful for the pastor and his wife (if he’s married) to share with the congregation how they experience ministry. Without grumbling, they can explain that pastors are often required to be “on the clock” far past office hours, bear the weight of others’ sin and suffering, and face criticism from those same sheep. As Jared C. Wilson said, “Good pastors can’t take the pastor hat off at the end of the day or leave their hearts for their flocks in the office when they clock out. It’s not something you can just turn off.”
To best steward a sabbatical, pastors should develop a plan. He should work with his family and elders to come up with goals and a travel schedule. Goals may include a devotional plan, family time, physical rest, exercise, diet, counseling, studying, and writing. The plan should not be overly ambitious so the pastor actually rests.
The congregation should also consider how to bless their pastors during the time away. This may involve writing letters of encouragement, setting up a prayer calendar to intercede for him, providing a stipend to alleviate expenses, or offering air miles or vacation homes to facilitate travel.
Before leaving, the pastor should ensure all his counseling cases and teaching responsibilities are entrusted to others. This is the time to lean on fellow pastors, aspiring pastors, or pastors in your broader network for help. And he should consider making plans for reentry, such as meeting with staff and elders for updates on anything he needs to be caught up on.
Developing a sabbatical requires wisdom. As you make your plans, consider the counsel other pastors have shared with me.
1. Don’t rely on sabbaticals to stay zealous. Shepherds are first sheep. If we forget this, spiritual exhaustion is unavoidable. Always aim to minister from the overflow of your fellowship with Jesus (John 15:1–11).
2. Rest but don’t rust. You can unplug from regular rhythms of ministry in a way that doesn’t end up edifying. Properly enjoying movies, games, sports, and entertainment is possible, but so is abusing them. Remember: you will end up loving what you retreat to for rest. Keep entertainment in its proper place, and always aim to enjoy Jesus, who promises lasting rest for your weary soul (Matt. 11:28).
3. If possibly achievable, leave town for at least part of the sabbatical. You may not get to the south of France like Spurgeon, but somewhere ministry won’t be constantly pulling at you is helpful. At the same time, don’t travel too much, as that itself can be taxing.
4. Perhaps visit other gospel–preaching churches instead of your own. For some pastors, unplugging can be difficult at your own church. Attending other like-minded local churches can refresh, encourage, and inspire creative ideas for your own church.
5. Sabbaticals are as much for the pastor’s wife as for the pastor. She needs a break, too. Member, find creative ways to bless the pastor’s whole family. Pastor, consider personal and marriage counseling. Even if things are going well, having a professional help you process personal and pastoral pressures can be life-giving.
6. Withdraw from everything to focus on some things. Guard extended time in prayer and the Scriptures. Your great aim is to draw nearer to Jesus. Make modest goals to write, study, or plan to that end. But be careful not to begin projects that will stress you later. Returning from sabbatical with half-finished projects sets you up for future trouble.
7. Read life-giving material. Aside from Scripture, develop a list of other books and articles you hope to consume. Don’t measure success by how much you read, but by how deeply you commune with the Lord through what you read.
8. Don’t “talk shop” with fellow elders during your time off. I was notorious for trying to ask leading questions to my elders to get any information about what was happening, but they were joyfully tight-lipped to shield me from any news. It was a kindness I remain thankful for.
Sabbaticals are no substitute for regular patterns of rest and refreshment in Christ, but they can serve a pastor’s soul toward a long, faithful ministry.
If you haven’t thought much about the need for a pastor to rest, you may want to read Charles Spurgeon’s article “The Minister’s Fainting Fits” and Christopher Ash’s book Zeal without Burnout.
Pastors Talk, Ep. 164: On Pastoral Sabbaticals with Jamie Dunlop