The pastor needs a sabbatical: How to tell and how to get one

In the academic world, professors receive sabbaticals every so often–the word implies seven years, so that’s probably the norm–during which they pursue some program of continuing study approved by their superiors.  The idea is for them to be continually growing in their effectiveness as educators.

In the ministry, a sabbatical might be for six weeks up to a few months.  Most churches are set up to be pastor-dependent and need their main guy at home to keep the program on track and the people focused.

But if they plan well, this can be a win-win thing for everyone.

In 42 years of pastoring six churches, I received two sabbaticals, each for six weeks.  The first, in the late 1970s, was spent in continuing education.  I began by driving to Chicago for the Moody Bible Institute’s annual Pastors Conference, a full week.  I remember a hundred things about that wonderful week to this day. This was followed by four weeks on a college campus in Kentucky during which outstanding Christian leaders spent a week each with us (Carl F. H. Henry, Ray Steadman, etc). The first weekend–confession coming up!–I drove to Cincinnati for two Reds baseball games, heard a debate between Madalyn Murray-O’Hair and a Church of Christ minister, and visited Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace.  (I was getting my money’s worth!)

The second sabbatical came twenty years later, in another church, another state, and involved visiting churches across the land.  I sat in the services of seventeen churches and interviewed a bunch of pastors, then returned home to make some long overdue changes in how we were doing church.

I strongly recommend sabbaticals, both for the ministers as well as for the churches.  It gives the preacher a time to rest and grow and learn and listen. Any church will reap excellent benefits from that happening to their minister.

Here are some aspects of this subject.

One.  The pastor needs to take the initiative with the leadership of the church.  He will need to have thought through the reasons for his request (since he will be asking his leaders to sell this to the church) and his plans for the time.  That is, they will need to know both the why and the what.

Two.  The pastor and leadership will need to figure out the finances involved.  The pastor might need expense money, perhaps for travel and schooling, for a Holy Land trip or archaeological dig.  Also, in his absence the church will want to engage excellent preachers to fill the pulpit, and the cost of that needs to be planned.

Three.  Everything needs to be in place at least six months in advance.  This allows the program to function smoothly and the pastor’s family to make their own plans.

Four.  The best “why” of a sabbatical is that the minister needs an extended rest, and he wants to be refreshed for the remaining years of his ministry in that church.  No pastor wants to be accused of coasting during the last years of his ministry prior to retirement.  And a good way to keep that from happening is to give him a break of a few weeks to take a retreat, enroll in some classes, see some other part of the world, and listen to some good teachers.

Five.  The pastor considering this should ask around and find veteran pastors who have had sabbaticals and pick their brains on the subject.  Each will have ideas as to what the pastor can do and how to sell his people on the project.  They can tell you what they did and what they wish they’d done, as well as any mistakes they made.

Six.  The pastor and leadership should not wait until 100 percent of the congregation is supportive of this.  No matter how well you sell it, many people will think they are funding a six weeks’ vacation for the preacher.  Ignore them and go forward.  (And let’s not be too hard on the preacher if that conference he wants to attend is being held on the shores of Honolulu.)

Seven.  If the congregation has a few retired pastors or denominational leaders among the members, they might take the lead in urging the congregation to support the sabbatical.  They will know churches that have had successful experiences with this.

Some questions about sabbaticals…

–Should a staff member preach in the pastor’s place while he’s out?  After all, this can save the church a lot of money.  Answer:  Each case is different, but one danger may be that some will start looking upon the staffer as their pastor.  It’s not unheard of for this to go to the head of the assistant and soon he is spearheading a movement to replace the preacher.  (This is called a suicide mission, I say to any assistant.)

If the church has a competent assistant whom everyone enjoys hearing, let him preach a few times during the sabbatical.  But intersperse those times with outstanding guests.  Most congregations will appreciate the opportunity to hear guest preachers a few times.

–Should the pastor hold revivals and preach in other churches during the sabbatical? The temptation will surely be there. Answer:  It should be spelled out clearly that he will not preach at all, except in the case of an emergency (funeral, etc).  The idea is for him to rest, and unless this is spelled out in the agreement, he’s probably going to cave in to the invitation to preach.  He shouldn’t.  (If he promises not to preach but violates the agreement, your church has more problems than we can address here.)

–When he returns, how should he report to the congregation? The church will want to hear what he did and how they got their money’s worth.  Answer:  He should take a Sunday evening, the full hour, and tell the church what he did, where he went, what God said to him, etc.  (If the church does not have Sunday evening services, schedule one, to be followed by an ice cream fellowship.)   Caution: If the minister has returned with a new agenda for the church, this is not the time or place to reveal it. A better approach would be to put to use the leadership techniques he has developed over the years, such as starting with a few leaders, informing them, dealing with their questions, and gradually widening the circle.  If he has photos of where he went and what he saw/did on the sabbatical, good.  However, the congregation will not want a travelogue, nor should the preacher waste his time preparing one.

–What if the congregation is too divided on the issue? This will be the first some members have heard of such a thing. Answer:  Then, back off.  But keep the matter alive within the inner circle, and bring it up again in a couple of years.  Sometimes, the Lord’s people are slow to accept a new idea, but give them time and they will see the wisdom.

–I can hear staff members insisting, “Don’t we get a sabbatical too?”  I’ve actually had this conversation with a few. Answer:  First, let’s get the pastor on a regular rotation, every 7 or 10 years.  Then, if this works out well, longtime staffers could be included.  But frankly, only the rarest of churches would grant this.  Just saying.

Okay, now…

The easiest way to get started?  Print out this article and hand to a half-dozen of your leaders.  Give them a week, then invite them into your home for coffee and discuss it.

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