Stepping Away From My Church
Sabbatical: An extended period of leave from one’s customary work, especially for rest and to acquire new skills or training. A break or change from the normal employment routine.
I just left my congregation for five weeks. I wasn’t ill. No family crisis demanded my presence. Not an extended vacation. Not a forced absence prior to permanent separation. Instead, I took a sabbatical.
Every five years of service my church gives each of its ministers time off—separate from our normal vacation time—for a sabbatical. We step back from our regular duties in order to recharge our spiritual batteries as well as to gain new insight and ideas in how we can better lead and serve the people in our congregation.
Most churches wouldn’t think of doing such a thing. The thought of being without their pastor (the absence of other staff ministers may also present a challenge, but the pastor occupies the most visible position) for several weeks at a time creates such corporate anxiety that the inevitable questions often put a quick stop to even considering the issue. Congregations ask themselves: Who will preach while the pastor is away? What if someone dies—who will conduct the funeral? Who will minister to the congregation in the event of some crisis? Won’t people stop attending and giving while the pastor is absent?
Having just returned from my third sabbatical in the last twenty years of ministry (two at my previous church and my first at the church I now serve), I can say from experience that sabbaticals are worth it—for the pastor as well as the church. All the questions congregations ask about sending their pastors or other ministerial staff away for a period of time can be answered, and the end result is so positive that every church ought to consider adopting a sabbatical policy.
From the congregational side, the pastor’s absence can be handled pretty easily. In our case, we have several excellent preachers on staff as well as in our congregation. The people I asked to fill the pulpit in my absence were well known to our church. The reports I heard back from their sermons were excellent. In fact, a couple of people sent me emails suggesting if I didn’t return quickly, I might lose my position—a threat I love to hear, to be honest. Nothing so thrills me as a pastor than to learn how the people I’m working with are growing in their ministerial skills to the point where they’re well respected by our people. I live for that.
Yes, attendance declined somewhat during my month away but not any more than was expected. On the up side, giving actually improved. So much so that I wondered if I shouldn’t stay away more often.
From my side of the equation, the sabbatical rolled out pretty much as I anticipated. I had several goals in mind when I left (in our church policy, the minister leaving on sabbatical must have a plan approved by key lay leadership). These aren’t listed in any sort of priority and worked pretty much together:
- I wanted to visit other churches with specific styles of worship services that I felt would be engaging for my congregation.
- I yearned for some time where I could simply be still before the Lord and listen carefully to His Word and Spirit. To recharge my own batteries as well as to seek His direction for the next season of ministry at my church.
- I wanted to complete a writing project that’s been occupying my attention for a couple of years.
- I needed to step out of the daily pressures of pastoring a large, complex and wonderful church and simply catch my breath. I preach and teach multiple times every week, and the constant expenditure of energy that ministry requires has to be replenished.
- My wife and I looked forward to re-connecting. I love and appreciate Pam more than anyone on earth, but the spiritual demands of ministry often mean that the daily needs of marriage get pushed to the end of the line. That’s not a good (or biblical) situation, and the sabbatical gave both of us the chance to re-calibrate our marriage.
Thanks to the graciousness of my wife, the far-sightedness of my church and the generosity of a couple of individuals in the congregation who made their private residences available to me, I was able to accomplish each one of these goals.
I kept a journal during the sabbatical and recorded as much as I could the many different experiences these weeks held for me—everything from the enriching conversations between Pam and me to the great worship services we were able to attend to the many occasions the Lord spoke to me through his Word to the occasions when friends in other states called with specific encouragements the Lord gave them to give to me. None of this would have happened, I think, if my church family hadn’t given me the opportunity to be away.
An older friend in ministry told me once that churches who have sabbatical policies are wise enough to recognize that it’s better to give their pastor a sabbatical every five years than to have to find a new pastor every seven years. I don’t know if that’s exactly true, but it makes a lot of sense. Pastoring today is so pressure-packed that wise congregations recognize the need—and the mutual benefit—of giving their ministers periodic time away from the church.