Sabbaticals are Gifts of Grace

Several of my friends in our church have been encouraging me to take a sabbatical.

Fortunately, they are on the personnel committee. And, even better, there is a stipulation in the personnel manual which allows for such an experience for the senior pastor. We don’t have to sell the idea to the church.

I have been postponing the idea of taking a sabbatical, mainly because I have had difficulty getting my mind around the idea of leaving the church for two months. It’s hard enough to leave for a week, not because I don’t enjoy my time off, but as with other jobs, it takes a while to “dig out” of the stuff that accumulates over time. There’s also the possibility of folks dying, getting sick, and other things happening in the church family which might require my attention. There’s also the possibility that some people might not understand their pastor “not being there” during those moments too. The phone can ring anytime, and well, that has the capability of changing my plans in a heartbeat.

I warmed up to the idea of sabbatical after having four funerals in two weeks. Our church is at that age when we are burying some of our long time, faithful members. Churches go through grieving stages as well, especially when they are looking at the prospect of their own mortality and saying farewell to people who have sat beside them in the pews and have had shared life experiences. It’s been a tiring process, and along with everything else that challenges a pastor with administrative tasks and pastoral care, the rationale for a sabbatical is more readily understood.

I believe ministerial burnout is real, and pastors are especially at risk. Some pastors who might not resign have thought it about seriously, and not just the proverbial feeling on a Monday morning. Here is a good article by Peter Chin which explains some of the pressures that come upon a pastor. The title “How to Destroy Your Pastor” is accurate enough for those who have taken it upon themselves to “keep their pastor humble.” While reading Chin’s account of being in the house of an irate church member, I could relate to how tough it can be to be honest with people. Chin was attempting to resolve a problem with a member and wasn’t getting anywhere in that effort. Chin’ reminds pastors and congregations of how things in the church can get toxic when small groups can deteriorate into gripe sessions. I’ve heard about the “gang of two or three” from my Ministering to Ministers friends. It’s a real threat if not handled by others in the congregation.

I’ve used a quote from a book by John Killinger entitled “Seven things they don’t teach you in seminary.” One of the chapters is called “There is a meanness in some people that is simply Incredible.”  It’s hard to explain that to someone who thinks that churches are utopian environments. They are not. But, they can be places for people who understand their own brokenness and sinfulness to gather for the purpose of extending grace to each other.

When a church plans for sabbatical leave for its pastor, that is one of the most gracious things they can do. I am grateful for our congregation for their wisdom and willingness to provide this feature for their pastor. Prolonged stress, conflict, along with the privileges and burdens of leadership can lead someone to say and do things she wouldn’t ordinarily so. And, over a period of time compassion fatigue can set in. It is encouraging to know that there this condition is not unique to this pastor. It is even more encouraging to know that our church recognizes this reality and cares about the spiritual and personal well-being of its pastor. I applaud churches who provide this benefit as a way of encouraging longer tenured ministries.

The other point I would make about sabbaticals is that I believe they can be useful to the congregation as well. Hearing other voices for a period of time can be beneficial. It can provide opportunities for others on staff to step up and be appreciated for their leadership roles in the church. It might offer a season of prayer and renewal for the congregation as they seek the Lord’s direction for themselves and their pastor.

I was glad to hear that the CBF is making such an emphasis at the General Assembly this year. My prayer is that that idea will permeate all of our congregations, and that those who don’t offer sabbaticals will imitate the actions of those who do.


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