It would be difficult to overstate how much I am looking forward to the ministry break I have scheduled from June 17-July 7. It has been a demanding twelve months since I last enjoyed a substantial respite from ministry and my mind, body and spirit are ready to turn things down a notch for a short time. I will have more to write about what I hope to encounter while I am away next month but below is a helpful article for any of you who are not familiar with the concept of a pastor’s need for an annual sabbatical. I hope you will come alongside of me when this time arrives and ask our great God to provide a replenishing, enriching time of focus, prayer, reading and spiritual refreshing. If you have someone else who is called to serve you as a pastor, consider that this article might help you help him. Have a great weekend – I’m planning on it. – Jeff
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 is not 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. (FYI from Jeff – this is not gonna happen on my sabbatical!)
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!
Matt Schmucker is the executive director of 9Marks and an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC.