The Practice of Ministry Sabbaticals, Part 4

by Jim Fowler July 8, 2015

Planning and Prepping for a Sabbatical

Over the past three weeks we have been looking at the practice of ministry sabbaticals. From the common misconceptions, to what a sabbatical is, to how to develop a policy.  In this final segment I would like to suggest some practical ways to prepare both the pastor and the church for an upcoming sabbatical, and explain the importance of a transition period once the sabbatical is over.

Preparing the Pastor

Responsibilities

It is very important that a pastor going on sabbatical thinks through and delegates their regular responsibilities.  At the very least, list them for staff or the elders to follow-up on.  For those regular meetings (community group, counseling, discipleship), let them know that you will be unavailable and who to contact in case of an emergency.  Work with the elders to put together a preaching calendar for the time you are away and any other Sunday morning responsibilities you oversee. Ensuring that your regular responsibilities are looked after will help the sabbatical go smoothly. This is especially important if it's the first sabbatical the church has given. Don't leave the church hanging — or worse, don't create a stumbling block for the next minister because a sour sabbatical taste was left behind.

Emails

While on sabbatical it is expected that the pastor will not be checking his emails.  Pastors need to plan ahead and create an auto-response to their emails that contains the dates you will be away and who to contact if needed.  Here is a sample auto-response:

Thank you for your email. Throughout the month of June, I am on sabbatical and will not be able to respond to email. Thank you in advance for your patience while I work through the messages I have received in July. You may reach the church office at (phone number) or (email address). If this is an emergency or if you need to reach one of the pastors, please reach out to ___________ or _____________.

There may be time sensitive emails that come in, so it’s a good idea to assign someone to check the pastor's emails regularly to respond to any immediate concerns.

Heart

If you are heading into a sabbatical, begin to quiet your heart now. You are given a wonderful blessing and opportunity to rest. Take time to read, pray, and thank the Lord for the upcoming gift. This will help you begin your sabbatical well. It is hard for people to abruptly just flip the switch once a sabbatical begins. Preparing your heart before hand helps the transition.

Preparing the Church

Point of Contact

Let people know who they can contact while the lead pastor is away. Communicate effectively that while the pastor is away, members should not try to contact him. Another elder or staff person should be ready to handle any questions or concerns. If people do not know who to get a hold of, they will most likely reach out to whom they are used to. Give them the information they need.

Outstanding Tasks

Take some time as a leadership to sit down with the pastor and see if there are any outstanding tasks that need to be handled.  While these could be their regular responsibilities, try to find out if there are any special projects that should be taken care of or even started. 

Lifting Up

Take time every service to lift the pastor and their family in prayer. Remind your people to be lifting them up during their devotions. Invite them to share in this experience.  They may not be with them at the beach or writing a book proposal, but they can be with them in Spirit by partnering with them in prayer. 

Transition Back

Space

Once the sabbatical is over, give your pastor time to transition back.  Allow them to ease back in and don't overwhelm them.  They have plenty of emails to go through, meetings, and possibly phone messages. Don't bombard them on day one with everything you have been waiting on. Allow them to get settled.

Debrief

Pastor, spend time hearing from your staff and elders on how things were while you were away. Find out about their struggles and joys. Thank them for not only handling their responsibilities, but also taking on yours so that you could rest and be refreshed. Make sure there is no root of bitterness. While this is unlikely, there can be instances of bitterness that lead to separation and animosity. Thank them and hear about their time.

Praise

Take time to share with the congregation how the sabbatical went. They have been partnering with you in prayer, lifting you up and seeking the Lord's presence on your behalf. Allow them to share in the joy.  Allow them to see that the Lord has answered their prayers. Show your appreciation for the sacrifice the church made so you could take the time to focus on your God, your family, and your life.

It is my prayer that your church incorporates a practice of ministry sabbaticals. There are enough burned-out pastors. Let us not add more. But, do not wait till the breaking point to have a sabbatical, or incorporate proper weekly Sabbath rhythms.  Ultimately, this is not just about time off, but resting in the Lord. As David writes:

For God alone my soul waits in silence;

from him comes my salvation.

He alone is my rock and my salvation,

my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken. (Psalm 62:1-2)

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