Soon, a familiar face will be missing from our Sunday mornings for a while. Nathan Brown, our Associate Pastor of Worship, will be out on sabbatical leave for six weeks, from Labor Day Sunday to mid-October. This isn’t the first time this has happened at FBC. Our Associate Pastor, Alan Armstrong, took a sabbatical a few years ago, and Kathy Talbot, our Children’s Minister, took one last Fall. But since Nathan’s ministry includes a very public role every Sunday, there will perhaps be more questions this time. And since Robert Smart, our Music and Worship Pastor, and I both are eligible for sabbaticals in 2023, now is a great opportunity to talk about this. If you’re not a member of First Baptist, I hope this will persuade you to ask if your church offers its ministers the opportunity to take a sabbatical.
What is a Sabbatical?
A sabbatical is a paid, extended time away from work for the purpose of spiritual renewal and greater ministry effectiveness. At FBC, our employee handbook (which is voted on each year by the church body) stipulates that full-time ministers are eligible for a six-week sabbatical for every seven years of service.
A sabbatical is not a vacation. The purpose is to step away from normal responsibilities at the church to engage in activities that will restore the minister’s soul and help them grow in their skills. It’s also not a time to look for another job elsewhere. In fact, ministers at FBC must stay at least two years at the church after taking a sabbatical. On sabbatical, ministers rest and spend time with their families. But they also do things like:
–Take a seminary course to enhance their knowledge base.
–Visit other churches and get new ideas and inspiration.
–Go to a ministry conference.
–Take a prayer retreat to draw nearer to God.
–Visit the Holy Land, or other spiritually significant places.
–Start a writing project.
–Set personal, spiritual, and ministerial goals for the next stage of life.
–Learn new skills.
–Or anything else that breathes life back into their souls, so they can run the next stage of their race well.
I’ve Never Had a Sabbatical; Why Should My Pastor Get One?
I suspect many of you have never heard of this. You’re wondering why ministers get such a cushy perk. But sabbaticals aren’t a new thing. They have been part of the academic world for many years. Most universities offer their professors anywhere from a semester to a year off at periodic times, for research, writing, or further study. And in recent years, the business world is realizing that sabbaticals are a way to keep their top employees from burning out. (Here’s an article on that trend in Forbes, but there are tons of others on the internet; just search “Sabbaticals in the workplace”).
The idea of a sabbatical comes from the Sabbath concept in Scripture. God rested on the seventh day of creation. He wasn’t tired, of course. He was setting a pattern for us to follow: You need to take time away from the grind. The Sabbath wasn’t only meant to be a weekly event, either. God told the people to leave their farmland fallow (unplanted) once every seven years, so the ground could be restored. In the same way, people whose job is feeding others will end up empty if they don’t have a chance to replenish themselves. Jesus understood this, and often slipped away from the crowds seeking healing, just to spend time with His Father alone. This drove His disciples a little crazy, but Jesus knew that He needed refreshment. If that’s true of the Son of God, how much more true is it of weaker vessels like us?
I need to make two things clear before I go any further. First, I love being the pastor of First Baptist Church. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, and I hope I get to do it until I die, retire, or Jesus comes back. So what I am about to write doesn’t come out of any sense of grievance; I am very well-treated by my church. Second, I realize that many of you work long hours, and face enormous stress at work. I’m not trying to say being a pastor is harder than what you do. But I will say that pastoral stress is different. There’s a reason why the burnout rate among pastors is so high (To cite only one study, last year 38% of pastors told the Barna Group they were seriously thinking of quitting the ministry. Combine that with a lack of pastors overall, and we’re facing a church-wide crisis of leadership if we don’t do something fast.) What’s unique about pastoral stress? I think it’s a combination of two factors.
The first factor that makes ministry uniquely stressful is that spiritual warfare is real. As Paul famously warned us in Ephesians 6, our real enemy is not made of flesh and blood; it’s unseen powers of evil that war against us. Of course, that’s true for every believer, not just ordained clergy. But it stands to reason that the Devil would focus more of his limited resources on church leaders. When a pastor flames out, burns out, or fails morally, it’s a victory for the forces of darkness. It discourages God’s people and drives spiritual seekers away from the Gospel. From my vantage point, I see the result of this spiritual warfare, as many good men and women, who once had a passionate commitment to the Kingdom of God, fall by the wayside. A sabbatical is an opportunity to strengthen ourselves against this onslaught, so we can fight the good fight for years to come.
The second factor is that love hurts. And no, I am not quoting a classic rock song; I’m stating a fact. There are many professions that require caring for others: Medicine and education, for instance. But ministry can only be done well if you love the people you’re leading. I am sure many doctors love their patients, and teachers love their students. But a doctor can still be effective if he simply focuses on the scientific aspects of each patient’s case. And a professor can still be excellent if she is focused on teaching her subject, without ever getting to know her students. But any minister who is any good loves his people. And when you love someone, you make yourself vulnerable to being hurt.
Paul talks about this in 2 Corinthians 11:28-29. After listing the many hazards of being an apostle (what he ironically calls “boasting), including poverty, hunger, beatings, imprisonments, being betrayed by supposed friends, and other calamities, he says that the anxiety of his daily concern for the churches he leads is an equal source of stress: “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” In ministry, you feel it deeply when your church members stumble, as if it was your own child rejecting the Lord. Their criticism cuts like a knife, and their complaints are often incredibly disappointing. When someone who you’ve prayed for late at night, visited in the hospital, and counseled through pain suddenly leaves your church without explanation, it can be devastating. When there is division within the church, and a minister finds himself arbitrating fights over petty squabbles, it can be especially discouraging. And worst of all is the grief. A good minister feels the pain of his people: Health troubles, financial struggles, family breakups, and the deaths of beloved church members all start to add up.
Over years of ministry, these wounds accumulate, and they can suck the life out of us. A sabbatical offers an opportunity to refresh our walk with the Lord, so we can love our people well again.
Good for the Church
Believe it or not, ministry sabbaticals are good for the church, not just the minister. Churches with long staff tenures tend to be healthier than those with a high turnover rate. That shouldn’t be surprising; a minister’s greatest effectiveness comes after he has been at a church for several years. So if a church helps keep its ministers spiritually and emotionally healthy, they will be better leaders, who help produce better disciples, which makes for a stronger church. Healthier ministers are also better spouses and parents. In giving a sabbatical to a pastor, you are not just blessing him; you are giving a gift of love to his wife and kids.
The benefit isn’t just in terms of longevity, either. Pastors need a chance to gain new skills and develop new ideas. Sad to say, few ministers have time for these things in their weekly schedule. There are programs to run, people to visit, meetings to attend, sermons and Bible studies to write, and the many unexpected little crises that pop up every week. I recently read something that made me laugh: “Seminary is like culinary school. I learned how to make a gourmet meal. But actual ministry is more like being on the TV show Chopped. Every week, I’m given a different basket of random foods and asked to prepare something good to eat. Then something explodes.” Just maintaining “business as usual” at a church is a full-time job, and then some. There simply isn’t time for anything new or extra. I suspect most pastors are like me, with a huge stack of books they know they should read, and that stack keeps getting taller. A pastor who gets a sabbatical should come back better at his job, with new skills or sharpened skills and fresh ideas that bless the entire congregation.
Of course, there must be guidelines and accountability. At First Baptist, we have very specific policies regarding sabbaticals. A minister seeking a sabbatical must first submit a written proposal to the Senior Pastor and the Personnel Committee. This proposal outlines the way the goals of the sabbatical (Eg: “To improve my prayer life” “To develop better ways to lead young adults in worship” “To learn about the Reformation by visiting Germany” “To grow in my skills as in counseling people struggling with mental health”), as well as the specific activities to achieve those goals. The church budget contains a small amount for minister’s sabbaticals, and so all costs must be accounted for as well. And of course, as part of the proposal, the minister must show how his responsibilities at the church will be covered while he is gone. During the sabbatical, the minister should stay away from contact with the church. It’s tempting to continue to read emails, watch the service online, and stay in touch with church members, but that would defeat the purpose. At the end of the sabbatical, the minister writes a report for the Senior Pastor and Personnel Committee recapping what he has learned, and how he will implement it in the years ahead.
If you’re a member of FBC, I hope you’ll be praying for Nathan as he takes his sabbatical, and for me and Robert if the Lord leads us to do the same thing next year. If you’re not, I hope you’ll encourage your church to offer a sabbatical to your ministry leaders. No matter what, remember that God made us for work and for rest. We live in such a high-energy age, we often tend to forget that. There’s an old story about two men sawing wood. One worked non-stop, while the other stopped once an hour and spent ten or fifteen minutes under the shade of a tree. At the end of the day, the man who rested had cut down much more wood than the man who never stopped. The non-stop worker asked his partner, “How did you beat me?” “Easy,” said the well-rested man. “Every time I sat down, I was sharpening my saw.”