I am thankful that the Indiana Ministries Board of Directors made a provision in the Employee Manual for ministry staff to take a sabbatical. A little over a year ago, the Board strongly “encouraged” me to take a sabbatical in 2015. We were talking about the demands of ministry and the need for pastors (and state pastors) to stay fresh and passionate when a motion was made and passed that required me to practice what I preach. I appreciate the Board reminding me of this provision and insisting that I make plans to model intentional self-care.
In the last nine years that I have been involved as a staff member in state ministry, there are a number of times I’ve recommended a sabbatical to a pastor and talked to the church board about the need for the pastor to take a sabbatical. Many of these situations were prompted by emotional depletion, burn-out, fatigue, and/or significant crisis in the pastor’s life. While there are times when an impromptu sabbatical is needed, I think the best practice is for the board to approve a 13 week sabbatical every six to seven years for ministry staff and to incorporate that into the church’s employee handbook.
I often find that the idea of a sabbatical seems a bit strange to church people. Many view it from the perspective of their own job and few are afforded the opportunity to take a sabbatical. So they conclude their pastor shouldn’t have one either.
Sabbatical is an Old Testament concept that involves a period of rest for renewal of spirit, refreshing of hope, and kindling of passion. While one of the primary Old Testament references is about letting the land rest every seven years, reality is that personal rejuvenation is far more important.
Ministry is a strange job. Yes, I know it is more than a job. But it certainly has job components. In many ways it is unlike other jobs. The demands of ministry take a spiritual, emotional, and relational toll on a pastor or associate pastor. Without time for renewal, those demands can wear a pastor down and even knock him or her out of ministry.
My mother-in-law was extremely involved in ministry (youth and then singles) for over 30 years when I invited her to join my paid staff. After about six months she told me that being on paid staff was so different from being on volunteer staff. People’s expectations and the demands of the work were so much greater than she had previously experienced or imagined. Studies about the mental, spiritual, and emotional health of pastors support that.
Pastors are constantly in a giving mode. Coping with time pressures and people’s expectations are a weekly reality that can erode time with God, cause pastors to have unrealistic expectations for themselves, threaten time for oneself and one’s family, and result in significant energy drain. As soon as the week (Sunday evening) is over, the next week begins with the same demands and responsibilities. I know every job has demands. I also know that ministry takes it toll on pastors at a much higher level than most jobs. Without periodic time for a sabbatical break, the drain becomes cumulative and there is little to nothing left to give.
A sabbatical is not a vacation. Rather, it is a time for a pastor to . . .
• Relax. Read that as simply doing nothing. Take time to break the normal schedule and slow the pace so you can reconnect with yourself, your spouse, your family, and God. Most pastors I know have great difficulty just relaxing in God’s presence.
• Refresh. This is engaging in activities that refresh your body, soul and spirit in order to recreate you at your deepest level. Usually these are fun things that pastors skip or limit due to time demands.
• Restore. Ministry can zap your passion as you deal with people, problems and people problems. Periodically, pastors need a break so that God can restore the passion, as well as the pastor’s relationship with Him.
• Revision. This can include spending time with a mentor or someone else who speaks into your life and does a little meddling. Journaling about personal discoveries can also be helpful.
• ReEngage. Resist the temptation to simply jump back in at the end of the sabbatical. Have a plan that allows you to ease back into responsibilities over a couple of weeks. If you lack this plan, your freshly recharged battery will drain quickly.
Most pastors overload a sabbatical with too much doing and pack it too full. I think part of this is to assuage the false guilt of taking a sabbatical. When I finished the second draft of my sabbatical plan, I had a couple of my mentors look at it. They said my plan involved too much. I had to eliminate several things before they would approve it.
I will be on sabbatical May-July. I’m easing into it with a week of vacation in April and a church planting conference at the end of April. I’ll be back in the office after the first week in August, but Tori has been given instructions not to schedule any appointments that week so I can ease into work and have dedicated time to get caught up with staff.
I am going to model being totally unavailable during sabbatical. Tori and Jeff will be handling my emails. I won’t be answering my cell phone. Staff knows not to contact me. Jeff will be the state pastor in charge during my sabbatical. I have full confidence in him and the rest of the staff to handle any decisions and situations that arise. My biggest fear in going on sabbatical is that they won’t even notice I was gone.
By the way, I have every intention of returning to Indiana Ministries. I have known some pastors over the years who did not return from their sabbatical. After de-stressing and breaking the ministry tread mill, they either walked away from ministry or changed assignments. To use a line from the Terminator, “I’ll be back.” The staff, board and I are working on Vision 2020 and I am extremely excited about it. Unless God has other plans that I know nothing about, I plan to see Vision 2020 through and a few years after that.
Thank you for your support. I love my role with Indiana Ministries, and I am incredibly excited about what God is doing in our state and beyond. I appreciate the opportunity to serve with you. A last thought. Some of you need to plan and take a sabbatical. I’d be glad to have that conversation with your board if you’d like me to.