Planning for a sabbatical is interesting. Also interesting are the discussions surrounding it. Some pastors, desperately needing one, wishfully happy, and others who believe in it give a holy thumbs up. There is also the ‘what-about, I didn’t, yada yada’ statements. Here is the thought process that lead to the sabbatical I’m about to embark on. Going from a skeptic to a strong believer in the concept, I hope healthy sabbaticals build deep roots in ministry culture. Good rest is as vital as hard work. After all, God started it.
God started it
The concept of sabbath resting starts with God. In six days God worked and on the seventh he rested. We, who are finite, not omnipotent, should catch on quick that we need rest. God expanded this sabbath concept to every seventh year. He intentionally built rest into how he organized the nation of Israel. Why? Because businesses is the vaccine against relational intimacy. We can destroy ourselves by doing good things. Sabbath, according to Jesus, was made for man. While work is honorable and good, being a workaholic is not the opposite of laziness. They both lead to ruin.
To be or not to be?
In interviewing many long standing pastors I found a recurring theme one called “the wall.” Apparently between 7th and 10th year at a a ministry a wall is hit where you are spent. One pastor said his ministry was fairly easy and he got to year ten, though friends of his hit the wall much sooner. At the wall, you you have to recharge and learn how to outthink yourself. This is why pastors often only last 5-7 years at a ministry. Often too early early to have an impact. This consideration is significant. Sabbatical helps pastors stay long term and break through the wall. This is significant for church health, community outreach, and the spiritual growth of the pastor.
When transitioning between my prior ministry and my current one, I treated part of the time as an unplanned sabbatical. My council of wisdom suggested to do that. The amount of learning that rook place was massive. At that point in life I saw the need for sabbaticals as poor pacing by pastors, or luck. At then end of it, I became convinced of the need for sabbaticals for three key reasons: 1) It was the first time I could reflect on my previous 10 years of full-time ministry without the pressure of the job. This lead to learning that would not have happened. 2) Studying became fun again. It allowed me to reconnect to why I do what I do, and the passion behind it. 3) I learned that losing your first love is often not by sin but by doing good things. It is amazing how well you can connect with God when you’re not busy. Fresh insight, vibrant passion, and a clear focus are essentials in ministry.
In starting my current ministry I was up front about taking a sabbath on my seventh year. Two key reasons for this. First, I was convinced of the value after my unplanned one. Second, I believe in leaving it all out on the field. If you have a solid rest plan it frees you up to push hard when you need to. In endurance sports the mantra is “drink before you’re thirsty, eat before you’re hungry.” In the ministry world a big part is “rest before you’re tired.” God planned for rest. The concept of rest is present in the new testament as well. Rest really is a faith issue.
Act of faith
The sabbath ultimately was a test of faith. The question asked of the sabbath is: Will God be first in your life? It’s for good reason the Psalmist said ‘cease striving and know that I am God.’ In western christianity we undervalue rest and almost worship being a workaholic. For Israel stopping to rest was about trusting God in obedience. While Christians are not commanded on the sabbath, the principle still holds true about resting and trusting in God. Why? Because it often takes stopping to hear God most clearly. As westerners we are not comfortable with mystery aspects of our faith. Stopping to hear God one key one. It is hard to follow God when you can’t hear his voice. For the pastor, taking time away forces you to organize your church in a way that you can hand off the ministry and be gone. For the church it forces them to do the work of ministry and fulfill the mission God gave the church, not just participate in the ‘pastor whomever show.’
The yeah but crowd
Honestly, it is sad that so many pastors have to fight hard to sell the concept that should be a no brainer to healthy churches. My church has been supportive and encouraging in this concept. I wish other pastors also had that freedom. I dislike it when pastors talk about hardness of ministry, even though there is a unique weight to being a pastor. The role of pastor is unique, and the sabbatical is a useful to help navigate that.
Here is the cold hard truth: At a pastoral conference I attended, Pastor Aubrey stated that only 1 out of 10 pastors makes it to the finish line. Most burnout or have moral failure. Number one causes for such? They’re tired and so burnout or make bad decisions that kill the ministry. But that is not the cold hard truth. The cold hard truth is this: Do we really want a church environment where we discourage pastors to get away and focus on their relationship with God and their family? There is a significant spiritual struggle in ministry that tests the bounds of a pastor’s relationship with God, his family, or both. The church in North America sees too much carnage of fallen, spent out pastors.
The bottom line:
Pastor, planning for rest and soul care is a vital part of your ministry. God rested, and he is all powerful. You’re not. Church, the strength of your pastor’s relationship God and the health of his family is what carries him to the finish line. Jesus wept over Jerusalem because she killed they prophets and all those sent to her. Don’t devour your clergy. Yeah, but crowd, just because you didn’t doesn’t mean your pastor shouldn’t. A disconnected from God and depleted pastor does not help church health. Sabbaticals are not a long vacation. It is a time to rest, renew, and recharge the pastor and his family for effective ministry.