Rest and Renewal: Sabbaticals for Pastors
From time to time both pastors and elders of churches ask for advice about sabbaticals. Here are answers to the most often asked questions.
What is a sabbatical?
A sabbatical is a time for stopping; an extended period of paid leave when a pastor steps back from visible responsibilities in the local church he serves.
It is a time for -
- Rest - physical, mental, spiritual.
- Refreshment - physical, mental, spiritual.
- Recharging the batteries.
- Reflection on what has happened and what the future holds.
- Rejuvenation for a new season of ministry.
A sabbatical is not a holiday, but it may include a holiday.
It is a gift, not a right or a reward; however, wise church families will be glad to offer a sabbatical to their pastors.
In some churches, sabbatical provision may have been agreed with the pastor when he started at the church or it may be included in a Covenant of Care agreed by the church with its pastors (for more details on a Covenant of Care see the booklet Caring for your Pastor).
Why are sabbaticals needed?
Regular rest is a necessity: rest that leads to renewed energy for the work ahead.
Some may wonder why a pastor should have extra time away when others don’t have that opportunity. The simple answer is that for faithful hard-working pastors, ministry can be exhausting.
The work of the ministry is a calling, not a job and can be wearying. The serious responsibility of preaching God’s Word and caring for peoples’ souls take their toll. Many find it hard to “switch off” even on a weekly day off.
An exhausted pastor will not be able to serve the church family as he wants or ought. A rested and refreshed pastor is a blessing to the church family.
How often should sabbaticals be offered/taken?
There are no hard and fast rules. There is no one size fits all. Every church is different and every pastor is different.
A sabbatical every seven years fits with the sabbath rhythm we see in Scripture, so that is a great principle to follow. Some churches also allow their pastors two or three weeks of study leave each year to allow them to pray and plan without the pressure of regular ministry.
Personally, having one such week each term was a great blessing, especially for planning preaching for the next term. It is better to plan a sabbatical before a pastor crashes and it becomes an urgent necessity.
How long should a sabbatical be for?
At least a month and possibly up to six months.
Most seem to be for three months, which allows sufficient time to take real rest and to be re-envisioned for what is ahead.
What should be done on a sabbatical?
The priority must be to stop and rest, in the way that will best serve the individual pastor and, therefore, the local church they serve.
What they chose to do will probably reflect their temperament, personality, and interests. The options are endless:
- Complete and prolonged rest.
- A course of study, whether with planned reading or a seminary module.
- Visiting other churches to observe how other churches and leaders do things.
- Attending a conference(s) they have always wanted to attend.
- Studying a book of the Bible with a view to preaching it at some point, having had more time for preparatory thought and prayer than they might usually.
- Simply reading the pile of helpful but unread books on the study shelf!
I have been privileged to have had two sabbatical periods. In the first, I planned to do far too much. Seeking to achieve what I set out to achieve was tiring! For the second I learned from the first.
The first month was spent stopping: I went for walks on my own and with my wife; read a chapter each day of a book on prayer; was available to the family in the evenings; and did some decorating. In the second month, I started to study the book of Lamentations with a view to preaching it at some point in the future, while continuing to take walks, listening to the sermons of others, and reading a bit more. In the third month, I had some time away with my wife, continued with Lamentations and started to prepare to return with a fresh sense of purpose for what was ahead.
It is recommended that fellow elders discuss with a pastor how he intends to use the time, but they also need to trust him to use it wisely.
Where should I go to church during a sabbatical?
Not the church you pastor! Stay away – for your good and theirs.
Find another church you can attend and sit under ministry that will feed your soul. If you have school age children, it may well be that they and your wife will continue to attend “home” church. Try and have some Sundays when your wife can join with you elsewhere so that you can benefit from ministry together.
It is also an opportunity to visit churches from a different theological constituency.
How much contact with my fellow leaders should be kept during a sabbatical?
Again, stay away.
But why not arrange for a monthly coffee or walk with one of them to catch up, pray - but not to discuss church business?
How should I plan a sabbatical?
Planning is best started about a year before:
- Agree the best time of the year for the pastor and the church.
- Plan the preaching cover for the sabbatical period, either using men within the church or inviting others to fill the pulpit (a retired pastor may be willing to cover the preaching for the period of the sabbatical).
- Plan who will cover other responsibilities, including pastoral care, chairing meetings, conducting funerals.
- Agree what, if any, emergencies will be shared with the pastor while he is on sabbatical.
- Work out how to communicate what is happening to the church family.
- Think through the impact on the family.
- Agree what expenses will be covered by the church (eg. the costs of visiting another church).
How and what should be shared with the church family about the sabbatical?
It is easiest where it is agreed in advance that the pastor would have a sabbatical every seven years.
If it has not been agreed in advance, it is wise for the elders to raise the matter with the members, sharing the wisdom of providing a sabbatical, and seeking their agreement in some way.
Congregations are most likely to be concerned about how they will be taught and cared for while the pastor is on sabbatical. It is therefore wise to have thought those details through before sharing the plan with the members.