The symptoms are real. Energy is low. Vision for mission becomes narrowly focused as the next crisis arises. After a decade or so of intense and dedicated service, the close intimate relationship with the Divine wanes. The time spent in Scripture study includes only material for sermon preparation and teaching; reading consists primarily of “how to” or “problem solving” for the work of the local congregation; prayer, while still vitally important, too often concentrates on professional responsibilities; creative efforts are almost always linked to worship and special services; the imaginative edge of writing is limited to the pastor’s letter in the weekly church paper, the sermon, or crafting language for policies and procedures for governing boards.
If this sounds like you, then you need a time of rest and spiritual refreshment—a space of recreating and restoring—called a sabbatical.
Not a vacation
A sabbatical typically includes time for travel, rest, prayer, and the broadening of one’s sense of God’s work in the world—a time to pause, step back, and behold God and creation from a new perspective. Nourishing one’s soul and discovering a new perspective calls for both a change of pace and a change of location.
More intentional than simply taking a break, the sabbatical consists of more than just a vacation. This is a time for the pastor to distance self from the demands of leadership, to gain fresh vision and energy—a time to focus on comprehensive renewing and reequipping for long-term ministry. The sabbatical could also be a time when the whole congregation can reflect on its ministry together, perceive new goals, and accept new vision for the future.
Local conference (if that’s the organizational system of your denomination) and congregational understanding of the issues and support of the sabbatical concept become vital. The conference for which the pastor works, and the congregation(s) they serve, must stand fully behind the temporary departure and be prepared to fi ll the gaps while the pastor is away.
A year before the sabbatical begins, the conference and the congregation need to receive preliminary descriptions telling the nature of the sabbatical (a specific study or spiritual growth program), the period in which the sabbatical would take place, tentative plans for the pastor’s leave, financial arrangements, and possible plans for the continuation of various ministries during this time. Discussion and agreement upon such matters as salary, housing, and benefits (travel, book allowance, and study costs) must also take place. Church members should understand that these are preliminary ideas that local church leaders—working with the hiring body (again if that’s the case)—will finalize as the time draws nearer.
Frequent communication with the congregation becomes critical during these planning days, for the congregation has a commitment and a stake in this shared ministry. Part of the congregation’s work as well, this venture cannot be viewed as an individual project. These intervening months also allow the congregation to ask any questions of concern. Congregational members often have little concept regarding how pastors spend their time. In preparation for the sabbatical, logging a typical month could be beneficial for both the pastor and for the congregation. Sharing that with the church would be helpful for a fuller understanding of the pastor’s time.
A log sheet that I have used from time to time includes most everything I do over a period of three weeks: sleeping, sermon preparation, gym time, calling hospitals and/or homes, staff time, family time. I try to leave nothing out of the record.
In consultation with the church, assign administrative duties. Keeping a log will enable the pastor and church officials to identify even those small tasks that simply get done without anyone’s knowledge except for the pastor. In the pastor’s absence, someone must be responsible for major pastoral duties as well as for the seemingly insignificant tasks.
Who becomes responsible for weddings or funerals with the pastor gone? Who will write the weekly pastor’s column in the newsletter? Who covers calling the hospitals and the nursing homes? Who keeps the preaching schedule? Who becomes the chief administrator?
Include the family in the sabbatical planning and in sabbatical time. A friend who recently returned from sabbatical had encouraged his family to share in the preliminary planning so that this did not appear to be just a personal adventure. Part of their planning included the family meeting the pastor at the final stage of sabbatical. Remember that this leave will significantly impact the lives of spouse and children for one to three or more months.
During the sabbatical, keep a daily journal. We all know how easily some events will slip from our minds in a matter of hours—moments that could be precious to recall in the months that will follow this sabbatical. Record those incidents, especially if they have nothing to do with the original proposals of the sabbatical. These may be the serendipitous moments of experiencing an “ah-ha” life-changing incident on this holy trek. The journal will be a valuable tool for recalling your entire time with God.
Plan for reentry
Reentry will not be as easy as it may appear. Remember that family and congregation have not seen you for weeks, possibly months. Changes have occurred, and this may prove to be a challenging time. My friend, mentioned above, included his family in the latter days of his sabbatical. They joined him for ten days at his final destination before he returned home. Although he continued to do some sabbatical tasks during this time, the family was present with him, to reconnect with him and to understand what these days had meant for him before they all returned to their daily routines.
Reentry also includes those people who have accepted particular administrative duties back at the church. What will happen to some pastoral duties such as letter writing, calling, preaching, and administration that have been carried out by others while the pastor has been away? These are critical questions of reentry.
Using the sabbatical
The possibilities of study, reflection, and renewal during this sabbatical time are legion. The sabbatical could range in time from several weeks to several months. Few churches, however, can afford to offer the pastor a sabbatical year, as universities do. The duration of the sabbatical would be agreed upon beforehand.
One friend used his three-month period to renew his sense of awe about the God of creation. Traveling across the country and into Canada, he began with a time of solitude and meditation in a spiritual retreat center on a six-hundred-acre nature preserve. From there, he moved on to Niagara Falls and national and state parks in the United States, finding intentional quiet spaces where He learned more about the God who created all these wonderful things. He completed his sabbatical in North Carolina at the Topsail Island sea turtle project, using his skills to care for injured loggerhead turtles at the turtle hospital.
Another colleague focused his three-month sabbatical on communication in a media-saturated culture. During his time away from his congregation, he learned how to preach and communicate more effectively in a society where the values and the communication patterns are shaped by mass media. He attended conferences on fi lm and language that helped him reflect on modes in which people receive messages through the arts. During the sabbatical, he consulted with the director of the Mass Media Department of a major university.
Another friend, with his wife, took a three-week journey that began in Athens and concluded in Istanbul. The travel took them across Greece, to many of the historic Greek Islands, and overland through Turkey. They visited places familiar to New Testament readers—including Corinth, Ephesus, and Crete—where some of the earliest Christian congregations were formed. Byzantine sites cherished by Christian traditions offered insight into the life and worship of millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians and faithful Islamic people through the ages.
Another used his two-month sabbatical to enhance an already lengthy ministry when he would return home. He began his leave by attending a conference, “New Visions for the Long Pastorate,” in Baltimore, Maryland. He wanted to learn how to better serve his congregation in the years ahead. From that beginning, he traveled across the United States, visiting and consulting with ministers who were serving exceptionally long pastorates and inquiring how they were growing in ministry.
The daily journal mentioned before will give ministers a source to begin writing about their sabbatical experience with the desire of enhancing the ministries of colleagues throughout the nation. In this sharing, ministry becomes a collegial act.
Larry Kleiman, pastor of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Carmel, Indiana, viewed his sabbatical as “an adventure around the world” lasting for three months. Upon his return he wrote, “I realized that we had been forever changed. I also sensed a fresh and energy-filled desire to engage in the ministry of this congregation. Such surprising realizations continue to surface. . . .” He concluded his summary by saying that both pastor and congregation are “strengthened, renewed, and spirited forward in growth . . . in such an experience.”
Many models for a sabbatical exist, any one of which can fi t the needs of the pastor. Some use this as an opportunity to engage in disciplined study. Others have combined study with travel. Whatever choice, a sabbatical may benefi t the pastor with a change of scenery and pace, a rediscovery of the gifts and graces by which God called the pastor into ministry, and renewed energy for the tasks of ministry.
Congregational benefits of a sabbatical
In the longer vision of the minister’s sabbatical, the congregation should expect to benefit from renewed leadership through ministers who are both physically and spiritually refreshed and who are aware of new developments and stimulated to more effective ministry. As a result, both the congregation and its ministerial staff have the opportunity to be exposed to new programs and ministries that will benefi t the church.
A sabbatical for the minister does not have to be met with anxiety and inactivity. During the minister’s absence, the sabbatical can provide a means of partnering for effective ministry within the congregation. It may become an opportunity for individuals to discover their own particular gifts that could benefit the church even after the minister’s return.
Martin Padgett, president and chief executive officer of Clark Memorial Hospital in Jeffersonville, Indiana, was board chairperson of First Christian Church in Jeffersonville while his pastor was on a three-month sabbatical.
Following the pastor’s return, Padgett wrote, “I feel we [the congregation] benefi ted by this experience as much as he did. . . . We had to make decisions based on meaningful discussion and not by just looking to (our pastor) to tell us the answer to whatever issue we had. . . . (He) returned from his time away with revived enthusiasm in every aspect of his role as senior pastor. Since he has returned, we have added additional services, programs, and attendance. . . . The congregation feels the renewed energy we have.”
The sabbatical period can provide a time of growing for individuals and for the congregation as well, with worship teams getting excited about creative plans. Individuals may discover a new vision for evangelism while others may find opportunities to step into new roles. The congregation benefits from the opportunity to discover leadership skills by assuming some administrative and pastoral duties in the pastor’s absence. Sabbatical can be a time of discovering new strengths for ministry within the congregation and watching an authentic ministry of the laity emerge.
The sabbatical is a time of growth, risk, and change for everyone; these processes will take place in the minister, in their families, and within the congregation. These are also times of beginning again, refreshment, renewing vision, and reconnecting with those influences that led us into ministry in the first place.