The Practice of Ministry Sabbaticals, Part 1

by Jim Fowler July 2, 2015

Why Don’t More Ministers Take Them?

As I talk with church leaders from time to time, there appears to be a lack of appreciation or education on the practice of ministry sabbaticals.  A proper understanding of sabbaticals can be worked out as one comes to learn what they are, what they are not, and what the benefits might be to both pastor and church. 

Some churches and pastors, however, will not even consider a sabbatical. But I think there is sin that lies beneath the refusal to implement a regular sabbatical for seasoned pastors; it is the sin of unbelief that manifests itself in pride and control.

Sin of Pride

The first manifestation of unbelief has to do with the pastor. Some do not go on sabbaticals because they genuinely feel that the church would crumble without them.  They may not say it as such, but they lack faith that God can use the elders, staff, and leadership to manage the affairs of the church and the day-to-day operations as well as they could. Sometimes a false humility rises up where a pastor insists that they are unworthy of going on sabbatical.  This is still a form of pride where the individuals “sacrifice” themselves for what they perceive as the good of the ministry. 

Sin of Control

A second manifestation has to do with the church as well as the pastor. There are great churches out there that have leadership with tremendous hearts for the glory of God and others.  Without realizing it, a leadership and church can fall into a controlling nature unintentionally.  It is easy for some who are not in full-time ministry to devalue and not see the need for a sabbatical.  Some may think that ministry should be run the same way as any other line of employment. "What makes pastoral ministry so special to warrant a sabbatical?" they say.

But the role of pastoral ministry is unlike other professions — not better or more valuable to the Kingdom, of course, but different.  Most professions (though certainly not all) are 9-to-5, and employees can leave their work at the end of the day.  In ministry, it would be ideal to go home and disconnect, but the nature of the work engulfs them not just physically and mentally, but emotionally and spiritually.

I am surprised, in the limited experience that I have had, how much ministry takes a toll on me. Pastors are continually dealing with issues not only with logistics of ministry, but in the lives of congregants.  Obstacles such as family stress, marital problems, financial problems, faith issues, sin issues, overall health/direction of the church, and inner church conflict, requires much from the leaders who are shepherding and caring for the people God has entrusted them. Denying ministry sabbaticals because one cannot relate, is to try and control a situation because one does not agree with it or understand.

Some pastors refuse to go on sabbatical because they fear that their job may be lost.  They may think that if the church functions well without them, the church may not see their value. So they control the situation because of their lack of faith by trying to ensure the security of their position.  Churches do this too.  They can fear that if the pastor is away, he may not want to come back and would use the sabbatical to look for other employment.  

What if We Are Willing but Not Able?

I do want to clarify on one point. There is a big difference between a church and pastor not being willing to have a ministry sabbatical practice and they're not being able. There are small, faithful churches that do not have the means financially or logistically to allow such an extended rest for their shepherd.  How could a church of 60 with one staff person function well for four weeks without a "lead shepherd?" Some may say this is another example of a lack of faith, but I don't think that is necessarily the case.

In any event, for many churches, seeking to implement sabbaticals for the pastor will take much planning and discussion on everyone’s part.  A decision on what the church needs and what the expectations are would need to be clearly presented. Also, a plan on how the elders would shepherd while their pastor is away needs to be thought through and planned. How a sabbatical looks for a smaller church can look different from other churches. 

Regardless of a church's size, there is a responsibility to love and care for pastors, not to run them ragged. 

Next time: What exactly is a sabbatical?

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