In Defense of the Sabbatical

Pastoral ministry often feels like a 24/7 calling. A pastor can't leave the care of the people of God at the door of the office when the clock strikes 5 PM. While pastoring in the First World requires considerably less sacrifice than it does in most parts of the Second or Third World, it has its own unique challenges and sacrifices. Late night counseling sessions, sudden emergencies and hospital visitations pull a pastor away from spending time with his wife and children. There are the challenges of overseeing staff members. There is the important labor of identifying, training and leading elders and deacons. There is the opening of the home to visitors and members alike. If he belongs to a denomination, there might be quarterly meetings and committee work. In a smaller church, it is not uncommon for the solo minister to have the primary responsibility of giving oversight and guidance to the administrative needs. Then there are the undesirable burdens of discontent and divisive individuals in the church. Add to these the challenges posed by opposition in the community and one can begin to grasp the wearisome nature of ministry. 

The pastor's family also makes exceptional sacrifices. A solo pastor's children don't see him very much on the weekend when most other fathers spend quality time with their families. The children of senior or solo pastors will almost never know the benefit of having their father sit next to them in the service in order to teach them how to worship. A pastor's wife helps carry the weight of the burdens that weigh down the heart of her husband. Even when a pastor wisely protects his wife from knowing details about congregants that she does not need to know, he cannot protect her from knowing that he is burdened by a number of aspects in the life of the congregation. No matter how many protections a minister may put in place to guard himself and his family, the demands of ministry always take an extraordinary toll on pastors and on their families. It is no surprise that we see so many pastors falling into sin on account of not taking time to feed their souls spiritually. One can easily begin to see why it would do local churches a world of good to grant their pastor(s) suitable vacation time, days off, study leave and Sabbaticals. 

In his excellent 2007 article, "Taking Care of Your Pastor," Chad Van Dixhoorn  writes:

"Increased vacation, adequate study-leave, and regular sabbaticals (along with the more creative ideas that you may have) could aid churches in their quest for ministers who are both godly and gifted. It may aid those whose abilities need room to grow or provide someone with the time to write...It will help seasoned pastors ward off that extreme weariness that causes so many to fail, and will help new pastors get a good start in their ministries."

I am writing this a week away from a short Sabbatical that our elders graciously built into my call package when we organized in May of 2015. To that end, I wanted to explain one or two aspects of Sabbaticals that churches might want to consider. Historically, ministerial Sabbaticals have been viewed differently than extended vacation time. A man may get 3-6 months off in order to work on a project that he has not had time to work on with his regular schedule. This may include vacationing in a spot where he can work on a book, dissertation or some other pastorally related project.

While churches that give their pastors Sabbaticals generally give them 3-6 months leave from their pastoral duties, pastors face certain dangers when they are away from the congregation for that length of time. For instance, many pastors have grown discontent when they are away from pastoral work for several months. It is easy to convince oneself that you need a new pastorate, while you are away from the burdens of ministry and sitting on the porch of a farmhouse or in a chair on the beach. In turn, some ministers end up using their Sabbatical to look for a new call without telling the elders of the church. Another danger is that members in the congregation who are discontent with the pastor can seek to take advantage of the pastor's absence in order to stir up sinful dissent among other members of the flock. While the ruling elders of the church ought to be competent to protect against such dissension, discontentment can be powerful and spread swiftly when the pastor is not in clear sight. 

One way pastors can guard against the potential dangers that might accompany a Sabbatical is for them to ask the elders to divide the Sabbatical up into smaller breaks over a few years. That was the approach that I took with the elders at New Covenant. Rather than take a whole 3 months at once, I asked for 3 months broken up over a 3 year period  (3-4 weeks a year above and beyond my vacation time). This has worked out quite nicely. It has given me an extended break and an opportunity to work on writing while spending more time with my family at the beach or mountains. It has also given me a zeal to get back to the pastoral call to which the Lord has called me. 

However, in whatever shape or form it may take, I would encourage all local churches and sessions to show love to their pastor(s) by granting the adequate time for them to rest their bodies, refresh their souls, recalibrate with their families and refocus their labors. I am certain that the members of the congregation that does so will ultimately also be the beneficiaries of the blessing of the pastoral Sabbatical.