Over the past two weeks we have been looking at the practice of ministry sabbaticals. We looked at objections some have to the notion of a sabbatical as well as what a sabbatical is and how it differs from a vacation. Now that we have dealt with the idea of a sabbatical, let us turn to some of the practical aspects of a sabbatical, putting together a sabbatical policy.
Don't Reinvent the Wheel
One of the first steps in putting together a policy is to not go at it alone. When we were researching for Redeemer Fellowship's sabbatical policy, we got ahold of a number of churches and asked to see theirs. The response was very encouraging. From small churches to large, all were willing to share what they have put together to help us put together our policy. Do not be afraid to ask other churches for assistance. If you are part of a denomination or a network there will surely be others that are willing to help you along. Gather up the research and do not reinvent the wheel.
Once you gather up some resources from other churches, read through and mark up what is common among them all. If all of them incorporate certain aspects then those aspects may be important in your own ministry sabbatical policy. Let others who have gone before help you in best communicating to the congregation what is necessary and important for a policy. During our research we found the following as common threads among polices we studied.
All of the policies we studied began with an introduction. Within the introduction were points of instruction, eligibility, and guidelines. The instruction was for the congregation. It laid out the purpose for a sabbatical as well as the frequent misunderstandings concerning sabbaticals. Eligibility had to do with deciding after how many years of service a pastor qualified for a sabbatical. This depended on the size of the church and ministry. Some churches made eligibility every 3 years, but most were after 7 years of full-time continuous service. Guidelines consisted of duration (typically 4, 6, or 8 weeks), proper sabbatical proposals, and vacation time (typically time on top of sabbatical time).
I know it sounds weird but it is important to clearly lay out expectations. As much as pastors love the people God has blessed them with, it is important that they spend time away during their vacation or sabbatical. Even though the pastor is technically "off-duty," because of the calling God has given them, they are naturally looked to when they are present. Even if a pastor is not able to leave town with their family, they should go to a neighboring church and worship with them. This aspect of the policy also educates the congregation to not call, email, or text the pastor while they are on break. Instead, if they have a need, they are to contact another staff member or elders.
This varied from church to church. How to compensate a pastor on sabbatical? What was standard in the policies was regular pay and benefits. But for some pastors, this is not enough. For a proper sabbatical, it would be ideal if they were able to leave town for a bit with their family, this can be expensive. Even though the pastor is on sabbatical, their monthly bills do not take a break. I know this is a touchy subject and hard for a pastor to bring up, so allow me to do it: A pastor should not have to come back from their break worried and anxious about their bills. Make sure to include some special compensation that will help offset the costs of their vacation. If you are going to err, err on the side of generosity. Think about taking a special offering, or better yet, work into your budget plan a sabbatical compensation of 3-5% of their total compensation package.
Finally, have a plan set for accountability. Some churches required that a pastor put together a sabbatical proposal, loosely outlining what they plan to do. Whether it was to write a book proposal or take classes, it was discussed so that the sabbatical was properly taken and refreshing of the soul can take place. Once the pastor comes back, it is important for them to share with the congregation how their sabbatical went. Remember, the church has sent you off and are praying for you during this time, allow them to share in praising God with you when you return.
In our next and final installment, I'll be focusing on planning and preparing for a sabbatical.