My plan was to wait seven years, and then life happened. By God’s grace, my external elder board put a paid sabbatical into my job package before we ever moved to start our church. It was available to us after five years.
In the early years of our church plant, we miscarried our first child, lost my wife’s younger brother to an untimely death, and battled infertility for three years. On top of that was all the normal pains of planting a church. All this led me and my wife to bouts with circumstantial and spiritual depression. And because of the season of our young church, we had to keep showing up, working hard, and loving others.
The compounded grief we experienced forced us to face our limits and losses. By God’s grace, we met the demands of ministry, but ministry was taking it’s toll. We lost joy, and we could see a crash coming.
When we hit the five year mark, my elders recommended we go ahead and take that two month paid sabbatical. Our policy, our need, and God’s timing was perfect.
Why Sabbaticals Should Be Part of a Pastor’s Benefits
The longer I pastor the more I’m convinced that the church should encourage and enable their lead pastor to take paid sabbaticals beyond their normal vacation time.
This is a special benefit that others don’t get in their profession; however, pastoring is unlike other jobs.
Pastors experience emotional extremes and spiritual attack unlike most professions. In one day, a pastor wades from a painful, heavy experience into joyful celebration and back again. He can’t bring his sorrow from his previous meeting into his next meeting. Because of this on-going weightiness, leaving work at work can be difficult because pastors love their church. As Paul once put it, pastors carry their church “in their heart” (Philippians 1:7).
…if more churches knew the secret sacrifices a pastor and his family made, I believe they would thank them a lot more.
On top of this weight of leadership, the pastor’s family sacrifices just as much. No matter how diligent a pastor is to guard his family, there are always seasons where he must work extra hours, leave the house unexpectedly for a crisis or his concern for the church affects family time. Every great pastor has a great wife beside him—most churches never realize the depth of this truth.
Pastoring is hard–not just the job-but also emotionally and spiritually. Yet many pastors aren’t thinking about getting a sabbatical. They’re happy to spend and be spent—as they should be (2 Corinthians 12:15).
A pastor and his wife don’t do what they do for “thank yous”—they sacrifice for the love of Jesus and people. But if more churches knew the secret sacrifices a pastor and his family made, I believe they would thank them a lot more.
Strength to Run the Marathon
Our goal should be longevity in ministry—a lifetime of serving King Jesus. A sabbatical is a tangible way to say, “We love you, and thank you for serving us!” It’s a way to help your pastor finish his race well.
Now there are two qualifiers that need to be made:
First, pastors are not entitled to sabbaticals. A man may feel like he needs a sabbatical because he is lazy. His work ethic is poor; so, he is exhausted by the chaos he creates for himself. Other men may feel they need a sabbatical because they are workaholics. They work more than they should, and feel spent because they are operating beyond their limits.
This is where a plurality of leadership is priceless. I thank God for the initial group of men who determined our sabbatical policy, and I thank God for the plurality of elders in my church who told me to take it. Notice, I wasn’t the driving factor in either of those events.
Second, a stated purpose and plan for the sabbatical is helpful. Our goal during our sabbatical was to process our grief and experience refreshment. I created a plan with specific books to read, new and more intense spiritual disciplines to practice, daily physical exercise, and family trips to experience.
A sabbatical is a tangible way to say, “We love you, and thank you for serving us!”
This provided direction and structure for the time away. Sabbaticals can take all different shapes—time to work on special projects for the good of the church or personal development for the pastor. The point of a sabbatical is everybody should win—the pastor, his family, and the church.
A Story of the Benefits of My Sabbatical
When my church gifted us our sabbatical, we felt so loved.
Personally, the sabbatical was the first time in my life where I didn’t feel pressure to be or do something. It was a life-changing experience of the gospel—that I am loved by God apart from what I do. That experience was transformative.
As a family, we made such sweet memories that we still talk about. Some seasons of ministry are intense for my family, but our sabbatical was a counterbalance providing the rejuvenation we needed. We grew in our love, and being away for two months provided fresh vision for a more holistic life.
For our church, there were two primary benefits. First, the church didn’t die. In fact, it grew while I was gone. This was a beautiful reminder to everyone that our church is Jesus’ church. And while people grew to appreciate me in my absence, they also grew in confidence that they don’t need me.
Second, my time away put wind in my sails and provided space for fresh vision and excitement for ministry. I’m healthier; therefore, our church has been healthier. Health or dysfunction always slides downhill. Taking care of your pastor is taking care of yourself.
And isn’t that the way Jesus called us to live as Christians? He said, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16).
Your pastor and his family have chosen a lifestyle of putting themselves last in order to put you first. By joyfully giving them a paid sabbatical, you are now choosing to put them first and yourself last.
God is honored by this! He loves it when we, like Jesus, “consider others better than ourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
Putting It All Together
To wrap up what I am commending here to churches:
First, if your church does not have a sabbatical policy for your pastor, then write one (preferably while gleaning outside wisdom from pastors of other churches).
Second, develop the kind of leadership team where a lead pastor’s instinct is to lay down his life for the church and the team’s instinct is to lay down their life for the lead pastor. This team will be primed to speak the truth in love to make the decision for when a sabbatical is needed.
Third, develop a purpose and plan for the sabbatical so that everyone wins—the pastor, his family and the church.
Finally, enjoy watching and experiencing what the Lord does through the sabbatical.
To my fellow pastors out there, remember that Jesus is your strength. If you’re on a sabbatical or in the trenches of ministry, Jesus has and always will provide for you, your family and your church. Abide in Him, and bear much fruit (John 15:5).
Here are some resources that I recommend on the topic of Sabbaticals:
1) Leading on Empty by Wayne Cordeiro. I found his chapter “Finding Solitude in Sabbaticals” to be the most practical information on the topic of creating a sabbatical.
2) The Emotionally Healthy Leader by Pete Scazzero. In this book, Scazzero has a chapter called “Practice Sabbath Delight” that is indirectly helpful to sabbaticals in that it helps you once your actually in the time away to deal with the heart issues that come up.