Updated: Nov 26, 2020
The Senior Pastor of my church takes a one-month “study break” every year. But that’s not a sabbatical. A sabbatical is an extended period of time when a pastor or full time Christian leader is released from their “day job” to get away, to grow spiritually, relationally and emotionally and perhaps to study a spiritual topic of personal interest.
A friend of mine is the founding pastor of a large church, Christian school and several other ministries in California. In response to a family crisis, his church gave him a sabbatical. That time away was so powerful and refreshing that upon his return he wrote the following open letter to his church.
This blog is super long, but I’m praying that if you are a leader in your church you’ll invest the time to read it and then ask the Holy Spirit if you should be an advocate for your pastor to him/her one of the greatest gifts a grateful and wise congregation can give your pastor – rest. An Open Letter To the Church
Open letters seem to expose scandals or address controversial issues. This letter is none of that. Seems like everyone I know has a story, or two or three, about what is wrong with the church. This Open Letter is what is right with it in one particular area – pastoral care. My family loves Jesus and his church more today because of how my wife and children saw the leadership and people of our church care for us. It is such a good story that I felt led to share it.
I have pastored for ten years at one church and was in much need of a break. My dedication to the flock, my inability to self-care, and some serious challenges to the organization paralyzed me. Yes, I had a need for rest and replenishment. The challenges of ministry and some family challenges pushed me to the brink. Yet, given all that was going on, there just didn’t seem to be any way for me to get away. Even though we had a church policy for a Sabbatical, I couldn’t find an off-ramp that worked. I was stuck, running on empty, having trouble sleeping and on the road headed for a crash.
Most leaders want to prove to the Board they made the right decision. No leader wants to come to the Board and say, “I need a break.” Before, not when, that time comes, let me tell you how my Board and congregation cared for me, and my family.
Get a policy Board members get a Sabbatical policy for your pastors in your HR manual today. Yes, you initiate the conversation. Don’t let the pastor do it. He/she either won’t and frankly can’t. It feels too self-serving. Make the policy at least 3-6 months every 7 to 10 years and make it for all your pastors, not just the Lead Pastor. Give the power to grant the Sabbatical to the Board. Yes, the Board initiates the break and established the parameters around it. It is the Board’s gift to the pastors and it is an investment for a lifetime of ministry.
Don’t let the pastor initiate their break The Good Shepherd in Psalm 23 has to “make the sheep lie down in green pastures“ (Ps. 23:2). Notice that the sheep won’t lie down on their own. They have to be made to lie down. Both sheep and shepherds struggle with rest. In my opinion, pastors know how to care more for their flock, than they do their own families and their own lives. The Board has one employee and it is the pastor. Care is the investment of sustainability and loyalty. It feels so much better to have the Board lead the discussion and the pastor follow. It feels awkward, perhaps even humiliating for a pastor to ask for help. Yes, we should be able to do it. I get it. But, on behalf of my tribe of pastors, initiate the policy and procedure. Your pastor will thank you and his/her family will thank you.
Get a Sabbatical advisor Few Board members have training on how to care for the leader. I knew my Board loved me and wanted to care for me. I just didn’t feel like it was right for me to be the one to tell them how. Then, one day a retired pastor came into to our Boardroom unannounced and schooled us all. My friend, a third-party voice is such a gift. He/she can bring expertise on Sabbatical practices, honest assessment of pastoral pressures and provide the opportunity for the Board to disagree without having to challenge their pastor. I, for one, was not part of any of these Sabbatical conversations this third-party retired pastor had with my Board. What I found is that my Board and Advisor created a plan that went far beyond what I could ask for myself, or my family. I would rather follow their plan than submit my own. Parts of it were hard, like meeting with a counselor throughout the Sabbatical, but looking back, they were right. Their plan was exactly what I needed.
Have the Board ask the Pastor for a plan Once again, the Board must initiate this. It feel super awkward for the pastor to lead this “rest” discussion. The Board, probably the Vice-Chairman or the Executive Committee, need to go to him or her and say we need the following:
What will it take for you to get away?
Who do you recommend fill the holes when you are gone?
Who is filling the pulpit while you are gone?
What do you need from the Board when you are gone?
My Board wanted me to go on Sabbatical right away. But before I could leave, I presented to them a list of tasks that needed to be done or reassigned. Once we got our hands on it, we marched right through it. For us it took a month, but knowing that break was coming made that list worth tackling.
Get your pastor a counselor For the record, I am not a fan of counseling. The pace is too slow for me and often, I can’t always tell where all these discussions are going. And on top of all that, it’s costly. That being said, I needed someone outside my organization to process my pain. I needed a distant third party who gave me the gift of focus, a sympathetic ear and the space to feel. After a few sessions, I soon learned I had a knot of emotions inside of me that I didn’t know how to release. My counselor gave me a safe place to let out some of these emotions. While I still have more work to go to deal with all these emotions, I am grateful for those counseling sessions to process my struggles and receive comfort.
Give them time with their spouse and family Yes, we need a break, but we also need time with our families. It is not a Sabbatical if the pastor is separated from their family. My Sabbatical came during the school year and I feared I would have time off alone apart from my wife and kids. That’s not refreshing. It was a problem I did not know how to figure out. Our church runs a school where my wife works and my daughter attends. I needed access to my family, but I didn’t know how to ask for it. I could use my chair and authority to do it, but that didn’t feel right. What was I to do? To my great delight and shock, and it tears me up to write this, I didn’t have to do a thing. My own church and school employees, in conjunction with the Board, figured it out without me asking. People in my organization found solutions to give our family time together. They advocated for me and made a way for our family to be together at various times during my break. Talk about being loved. When my wife and kids saw that, they were amazed. A pastor’s spouse sees clearly the pressures and pains of ministry. His/her children see the sleepless nights and the periods or rejection and accusation. They all feel the weight of the organization and the demands of the flock. Yet, my church showed my spouse and children the generosity and love of God’s people. It has made us love this church and people all the more. It also made us all eager to want to come back. What a church!
Send them away with a party and some money A pastor cannot rest staying home. Every time he/she goes to the gym or the grocery store or to a school event, it may create a conversation that brings them back to work. Simply stated, the pastor and his family need to get out of town for rest and that costs something. Obviously, they can’t get away for the entire time and obviously the church isn’t expected to flip the bill for everything. But give them something from the budget. It is the right gesture and my gut tells me, they are worth it. Our church also sent us away with a ten year Star Wars celebration on a Sunday. People came to church dressed in Jedi gear and we had a picnic after service. Yes, I got my own light saber presented by the Board. It is super cool. This celebration also opened the door for people to give us gifts as we went to Sabbatical. It was extremely loving. People were so generous and it gave us some means to get away as a family.
Keep the time frame of the pastor’s return open-ended This sounds radical and it is. My church empowered my counselor and the vice-chairman of the Board to discuss when I return and how I return. Once again, I am stupid loyal. I don’t know how to do this and I don’t know what I need. And I understand, no one gets these types of breaks. That being said, I write from the perspective of one who has now been in the ministry chair for 20 years and I implore you, give your pastor the benefit. For me, when I stopped and let go, what I have been avoiding finally caught up to me and it was painful to face. The inner world of the soul is a difficult place to navigate and it takes time to unpack all the things that come out. The right time and the right place of your pastor to come back is more important than a set deadline. You want your pastor to come back ready and excited to get back in the chair. Each week you give him/her is rain to their soul. Trust God. Be patient. Pray for replenishment for your pastor. It is an investment for your church for another decade of ministry.
Open up your vacation home to your pastor and his/her family Once again, I am not comfortable asking people for anything. It just doesn’t feel right to me. But I am asking on behalf of my tribe of pastors. Ok, I have time off, a little bit of money and no place to go. This is not going to work. Then, God’s people opened up their resources. One person said I have a place in Croatia with a Mini-Coop. Why don’t you and your wife travel Europe together for a month? Another said, I have a place in Oahu. Why don’t you bring your family for a month? One relative opened their home in Orlando near Disneyworld. Some even paid for our airplane tickets to travel. There is no way most pastors will ever own one of these destination spots. We gave up earthly riches for heavenly ones. That is the price of ministry. For those people who have been given a vacation home, I ask on behalf of my tribe of pastors, be generous. Share what you have with a family who needs it. Throw in the cost of the plane tickets. Your pastor probably won’t ask for it, so I am. You have it. They need it. It will be one of the best gifts you ever give the church.
Leave your pastor alone The Board needs to ask the congregation to leave the pastor and his/her family alone. Pastor’s are not wired to ignore the sheep. If they are at all in proximity of the flock, they will gravitate to step back to work. The pastor and his family need space. Give it to them. It may seem odd to only do small talk when you see them at the store or in the gym, but respect this boundary. One church conversation can take them out of rest and put them back into work mode. Don’t be the person who violates their sacredness of this season. Give them space.
Marriage retreat The best investment in any church is a strong marriage of the pastor, if the pastor is married. Ministry is tough on a marriage. Like it or not, the health of the church is tied to health of the pastor’s marriage. For my wife and I, we were stuck and needed help so we spent we spent an entire week in a Standing Stones Retreat. Seven days and nights in a home with another couple working on our marriage. Time away to re-find each other and to be mentored. We met a couple that continues to be in our life and they taught us to spend 30 minutes each day listening to each other. For my wife and I, it was the best week of our time off and the best gift our church could have given us.
Emergency connections Nobody talks to the pastor on Sabbatical. Not the pastors. Not the Board. Not that person who find themselves facing a serious life challenge. No one. The pastor is on Sabbatical and the community needs to figure it out. It is not only a gift for the pastor, it is gift for the community. When crisis comes, people will grow and solve the problem. It is healthy for them to figure it out. If an emergency arises, a crisis that warrants involving the pastor, where people feel we need to contact him/her, have the Vice-Chairman of the Board contact the pastor’s spouse. Together they decide if they tell the pastor. This will safeguard his/her season of rest.
Give them opportunity to see other churches Visiting other churches is a gift and a necessity. It gives the pastor’s family an opportunity to see other houses of worship and be in a place of receiving with little spotlight on them. It is also honoring to the community at large. It is also necessary because if a spouse or child visits their home church without the pastor, inevitably someone will ask them questions about the pastor which they want to avoid. For me, I loved touring the wider body of Christ each Sunday and sitting under some friends’ preaching. Wherever I traveled, we went to churches and I loved what I saw. My highlight Sunday on my Sabbatical was watching our Catholic friends have mass on top of Diocletian’s burial spot in Split, Croatia. Diocletian’s was one of the worst persecutor’s of the Early Church. Thousands were killed under his brutal region. Today, his grave is the foundation of a church, a place where Christ followers take the Eucharist each day. History proves that the gates of Hell will not prevail against Christ’s church.
Stay faithful to your church and give When the pastor is off, people feel free to float to other churches. Please don’t. The absence of leadership is a test to a community. No organization likes a personality-based church. It’s time for the church community to prove they are following God’s word and not a charismatic leader. Leadership is best demonstrated when an organization continues without the leader. Give new faces in the pulpit a chance. Be patient as people take on roles they are not used to doing. And give. Nothing is more disheartening to a pastor than coming back from Sabbatical with deficit in the budget. That’s a Sabbatical killer.
Regular check-up meetings with the Pastor The Vice-Chairman of the Board is the only link to the Pastor while he/she is gone. Meetings are not about how the church is doing, but how the pastor is doing. Reports on how the Sabbatical is going then goes back to the Board. It takes discipline for both to not bring up the church, but it is necessary. I know for me, if I hear a particular church challenge, it takes my mind, my emotions and my spirit back to that chair. And when I go there, the pressure returns.
Sabbaticals are a good time to bond with the denomination Filling the pulpit when the pastor is gone is a unique challenge. A combination of inside and outside voices worked best for us. Sabbaticals are a time for the other pastors on staff to carry a larger load of the pulpit time. It is also a time for the congregation to hear other voices not typically able to come. One connection that advanced our church was calling our denomination and telling our state leaders what we were doing as a church. Asking them to fill the pulpit for 3-4 weeks at a time gave our church the unique gift to be reminded of the beauty of our movement. It connected our people to voices that many just don’t get to hear. It was such a win to bring them in. Even when I returned, my first weeks were sitting in the front row taking notes while my denominational leader preached. It showed the entire congregation I, too, can receive and not always need to be up front.
When they come back, let them observe for a month When a leader is gone an organization is forced to figure things out. Sometimes, their new ways of doing business are better than what the leader brought. If the leader comes back and simply does what he/she was done before, then all that growth evaporates. Collaborating with my counselor, my board decided to let me come back for a month, but have no responsibility. I did not have to show up to any meetings. I could not sit in the leader’s chair. My job was simply to observe. When I came back to my church and observed what had progressed, I was so encouraged. Rather than lead the meeting like I always did, I became an observer and a participant. For me it wasn’t an odd thing at all. Leading is a ton of work and I was glad to watch someone else carry the load determining the agenda, gathering the players and facilitating the discussion. People were forced to figure things out and then did. I could tell that some of the operational places I had carried before my Sabbatical were now in better hands. This time of observance also gave me time to watch them lead and to hear them speak on Sundays. The organization had moved on without me and we were better for it. I also discerned my job had changed. For ten years I have been drowning in operational challenges. Now, I see for the first time, I can let these go and be a pastor. I can’t emphasize enough how this on-boarding plan was so helpful to our organization and me. It was so loving and so helpful for me to discern what my new role was in our church. I also decided to use this time and visit with people in their homes. Some thought when I came to the door, I was coming to announce my departure. I told them I simply wanted to connect. What a gift for us all.
God takes rest seriously. The fact He made us with bodies that require sleep each night is proof of that. Yet, our culture is full of achievement junkies and pastors are among the worst. People of God, Board members, do your church a favor. Lead the conversation. Get your pastor rest. It will ensure their teaching comes with fresh insight, their families’ lives are at a healthy place and their care comes with sincerity and focus. Yes, they should be finding rest on their own, but truth be told, many are stuck. Some burned out. Few ready to quit. They need intervention. Give it to them. In doing so, you may just save a ministry career and give your church another decade of pastoral care.
Final note by Clare: If you’ve found this pastor’s thoughts compelling, consider sending them to the lay leadership of your church (elders, deacons, vestry, consistory, etc.) your pastor will never bring up this idea. It has to be considered, prayed over and initiated by the lay leadership who recognize the value of rest for their pastor.
How following Jesus works in real life.
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