The word “sabbatical” has different meanings, depending on the context in which it is used. It has one meaning in the academic community, another meaning in its biblical usage, and still another in many secular settings.
For the purpose of this blog, I will define sabbatical in simple terms: time off for rest and/or study. The time can be a few days, a few weeks or—on rare occasions—a few months. The church gives the pastor paid leave for rest, rejuvenation and deeper study. I would love to see churches of all sizes provide this benefit for their pastor, even if it’s only for a few days.
Reasons pastors need a break
Having the opportunity to work with numerous lay leaders and pastors, I have a pretty good view of both perspectives. And I am convinced that more lay leaders need to insist their pastors take regular breaks—beyond vacations. Allow me to provide five reasons for my rationale.
1. A pastor has emotional highs and lows that are quite unlike most other vocations. In the course of a day, a pastor can deal with death, deep spiritual issues, great encouragement, petty criticisms, tragedies, illnesses and celebrations of birth. The emotional roller coaster is draining. Your pastor needs a break; many times, it needs to be a break free of the multiple distractions confronting every pastor.
2. A pastor is on call 24/7. Most pastors don’t have an “off” switch. They go to sleep with the knowledge they could be awakened by a phone call at any time of the day or night. Thanks to ubiquitous cell phones and Internet communications, vacations are rarely uninterrupted. Since the pastorate can be an exhausting vocation, a sabbatical can be a welcome time to slow down.
3. Pastors need a time of uninterrupted study. It doesn’t usually happen in the study at church or home. There is always the crisis or need of the moment. Church members expect sermons that reflect much prayer and study. The pastor’s schedule often works against that ideal. The sabbatical can offer much needed, and uninterrupted, study time.
4. Pastors who have sabbaticals have longer tenure at churches. Though my information is anecdotal, I have observed this trend. And while I cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship, I feel confident that pastors who have sabbaticals are much more likely to stay at a church because they are less likely to experience burnout.
5. Pastors who have sabbaticals view such time off as an affirmation from their churches. I have heard from many pastors who share with me this kind of sentiment: “I know my church loves me because they give me a sabbatical.” Pastors need affirmation. Sabbaticals can accomplish that goal.
I estimate that only about 5 percent of churches offer sabbaticals. Yet, for those churches who do, in almost every case that I am familiar with, the relationship between pastor and congregation is quite healthy. I think at least one of the reasons is the sabbatical.
What is your view of sabbaticals for pastors? What advantages can you see to this practice? What disadvantages? What would you add to my five reasons?
Finally, for those pastors reading this, what would a sabbatical mean for your ministry? Have you ever thought of discussing it with your congregation’s leaders? What reasons would you give them for considering one? Once you have composed your list, set a time to review it with your deacons, elders or church council.