How to Score a Sabbatical
Twenty years ago I was coming apart at the seams. As a pastor I was dealing with a number of challenges—and I was not dealing with them well.
My young congregation was experiencing impressive growth, but I'd become a workaholic. About the same time my wife became unexpectedly pregnant with our third child. To add to my stress, the associate pastor and I were struggling to get along. I was emotionally exhausted and spiritually flat.
Since I'd been at the church for seven years, my conference superintendent privately suggested I take a three-month sabbatical. But when I approached the church council with the request, the council members balked. What? You want to leave the church for 12 weeks? And collect a salary for doing nothing?
After a long discussion, it was decided that the church could not afford the luxury of paying for a pastor's extended "vacation." My absence, they feared, would negatively impact weekly giving.
To their credit, the council relieved me of the administrative details of my job description. They also encouraged me to limit my time in the office, get more rest, and seek the resources of a Christian therapist.
Disappointed by the decision, I devised what I called a "sabbatical-in-the-office." It included renewed attention to church/home boundaries, diet, exercise, sleep, and personal counseling. My jerry-built sabbatical had some positive benefits. I was treated for clinical depression and improved. I even wrote an article about it for Leadership Journal. But the long-term impact of not having a legitimate sabbatical soon became painfully clear. Within four years I had resigned from the church, all the while continuing to deal with issues of depression, burnout, and resentment. In retrospect, here are the steps I wish I had followed to secure a sabbatical.
Discuss sabbaticals at the outset. Before starting in a new ministry role, express your expectations about sabbaticals. Ask if your new or prospective employer would be willing to give you time away for personal renewal after you have been at the church for a certain number of years. This is the best time to broach the topic. If your leaders honor the request, ask that a future sabbatical be written into the terms of your call (along with annual vacation, sick days, study leave, conferences, etc).
If the church has not granted sabbaticals previously, it will likely express concern over the financial cost. Anticipate this reservation. What such churches should realize is the greatest cost associated with health insurance increases for pastors who burnout or experience stress-related illnesses. In addition, when a congregation invests in the personal renewal and spiritual growth of its shepherd, the flock doesn't need to deal with the major expense of finding and moving a new pastor every few years.
Based on what I have observed, sabbaticals are often granted at different anniversaries of a pastor's tenure. Even though sabbatical comes from the word "Sabbath" (or seventh), pastoral ...