Pastor’s Column: Who Benefits from a Pastoral Sabbatical?

Years ago I approached the board of my church with a proposal that I was worried would seem arrogant and self serving. I suggested that we create and approve a policy allowing the pastoral staff of our church to receive regular paid sabbaticals–times away from their pastoral responsibilities for rest, study, and spiritual renewal. I offered this suggestion a bit sheepishly, acknowledging that, yes, as the founding pastor of the church, I would be the first to benefit from it. I was surprised, however, when the board not only agreed with the proposal but changed my suggestion that the church allow for sabbaticals to instead requiring pastoral staff to take regular sabbaticals. My church board understood something that I had not yet realized—pastoral sabbaticals benefit more than just the pastor.[/perfectpullquote]

My church board understood something that I had not yet realized—pastoral sabbaticals benefit more than just the pastor.

So who does benefit from a pastoral sabbatical?

The Pastor

It should be obvious that giving a pastor an extended time away from day to day ministry responsibilities will be healthy for their physical, emotional, and spiritual well being.  The importance of sabbath in the Bible affirms this, as do the negative examples of the many burned out pastors who eventually leave ministry. A few of the benefits I received from my two sabbaticals included:

Renewed commitment to mission It’s not that before my sabbatical I gave up on believing in the mission of our church, but rather that my need to complete my to-do list each week constantly threatened to overshadow the underlying reason behind what I was doing. The uprooting from daily ministry responsibilities during the sabbatical allowed me to get rooted again in God’s calling on my life and my church. I came back from the sabbatical celebrating that I get to be a pastor, rather than wondering if I should be one.

Renewed creativity. I had the experience in one sabbatical trip of touring a castle in Scotland.  As I was soaking in the delightful history and stories of that place, it suddenly occurred to me that I wasn’t at that moment thinking of how to use the tour in a sermon illustration. The break of the sabbatical helped my mind experience something new without immediately applying it to pastoral ministry. This was the mental equivalent for me of a field laying fallow so that it eventually returns to fertility. When I came home to my church I discovered new wells of creativity and imagination (and I did eventually use some stories from that castle in my sermons).

Renewed humility. Every pastor knows that they are not indispensable, or at least they know that they should know that. When I returned from my recent sabbatical, I heard a few “we missed you”s from my congregation, but many more comments along the lines of, “Things went great while you were gone!” This was a testimony to the strong work of other leaders, but was also an opportunity for me to personally reflect on all the ways I carry an over-inflated sense of my importance.

This renewed humility was a gift and has led to a greater experience of freedom in ministry

This renewed humility was a gift and has led to a greater experience of freedom in ministry—life is a lot more fun when you don’t take yourself too seriously.

The Pastor’s Family

If a pastor is married, his or her spouse feels the pressure of pastoral ministry.  I believe this is true whether the spouse is heavily involved in the work of the church or if they just show up on Sundays. Pastor spouses often experience being seen and related to as Church Mom or Dad whether they want that or not. Not only do pastors often fail to appreciate the pressure their spouses face, but the spouses themselves may not fully realize it.  A sabbatical gives that spouse space and time for refreshing experiences like being anonymous at a church service, no longer processing the most recent pastoral challenge, and having a relaxing Sunday afternoon with a spouse who is neither exhausted nor grumpy.  Pastor’s kids, as well, often need the blessing and rest of a sabbatical.  My kids enjoy participating in the life of our church, but on our recent sabbatical they told me how enjoyable it was to have a whole summer with no one asking them where their Dad was. The sabbatical break also communicated to them that the church recognizes the sacrifices they make as Pastor’s kids, and really appreciates them.

The Local Church

How can it be beneficial to a local church to have a pastor who holds numerous responsibilities and invests a lot of time in the people and ministries of the church be absent for an extended period? Well, for one, just look at the benefits for the pastor I listed above and consider, Does your church want a pastor who is mission focused, creative and humble? And not just for a short season, but for the long haul? But the benefits to a congregation go beyond a refreshed pastor.

More importantly, when the pastor of a church is gone, the church family experiences in a fresh way the fundamental truth that their ministry and mission are not dependent on just one person (other than, of course, the person of Jesus).  Finally, when a congregation acts generously towards those who pastor them, they will experience new joy and fulfillment. Sacrificial giving leads to greater spiritual maturity, both for individuals and for churches, and the sacrifice of releasing a pastor into a time of sabbath rest will build up and bless a church in ways they may not expect.

The Broader Church

Perhaps it’s a bit bold to suggest that your local church is benefiting the worldwide church through giving your pastor a sabbatical. I have found, however, that the gift of a pastoral sabbatical is actually a powerful witness to the Christlike character of the church. When I tell people that my congregation gave me three months away for renewal and extended time with my family, I hear responses like, “Wow, they must be really kind and loving people” or “I wish the place where I work for cared for me like that.”

The Body of Christ is called to extend the compassion of Christ to all people, and one way they can powerfully demonstrate Christ’s love is through taking good care of their own. In the overall life and ministry of a church, the gift of a pastoral sabbatical is a relatively small thing, and yet the benefits it reaps are abundant and lasting.

Rev. Christian Ruch (pictured with his wife, Molly Ruch) serves as the rector of Church of the Cross and his responsibilities include preaching, overseeing the staff team, and providing pastoral care. 

July 3, 2019