Ministry Sabbaticals: A Pastor’s Guide

What is a Ministry Sabbatical? Why should you take consider taking one? Learn about the major benefits for pastors and churches.

There is a lot of confusion surrounding ministry sabbaticals. Pastors and church members alike hold a variety of views on the subject. This article will define ministry sabbaticals with a working definition. We will explain when a sabbatical could be needed and how the church and pastor can benefit. We will also survey a few Scriptures that should inform our understanding of rest and the need for sabbaticals.

What is a Ministry Sabbatical?

Let’s start with a working definition. A Ministry Sabbatical is a planned period of time that allows a leader the opportunity to step away from their usual ministry responsibilities for a specific purpose. This definition has three main parts:

First, a sabbatical is a planned period of time. A sabbatical is not a leave of absence. Nor is a sabbatical an extended vacation. Sabbaticals are a carefully planned event that is designed to benefit both the ministry of the pastor and the church as a whole. This planning is usually done well in advance and should involve the pastor, the church leadership team, and the church body. We will talk about how to create an effective planning process for sabbaticals in a future article.

Second, A sabbatical allows a pastor an opportunity to step away from usual ministry responsibilities. A pastor cannot be “on-call” during a sabbatical. Nor should they be preaching, teaching, counseling, or doing anything that is a regular part of their ministry.  Sabbaticals are unique in that they give pastors space and opportunity to disconnect from their usual role and function. A sabbatical is an intention disconnect from the regular demands, decision making, and responsibilities of normal ministry life.

Third, a sabbatical should have a specific purpose. This purpose usually falls into one of three categories: rest and recovery, addressing a specific issue, or advanced study.

  • Rest and Recovery Sabbaticals are appropriate when a pastor has served for an extended period of time in a specific role. This type of sabbatical allows the leader the opportunity to unplug from ministry, recharge, recalibrate, and return to their ministry assignment at their best. Rest and recovery sabbaticals are the most common (and needed) type of sabbatical for ministry leaders.
  • Issue-based Sabbaticals are given to address a specific challenge in a leader’s life. This could involve addressing an unhealthy leadership style or healing from a specific hurt. Issue-based Sabbaticals should involve a plan that addresses the specific challenge and connects the leader with resources to face the challenge. Resources like counseling, training, or mentorship may play an important role. Implementing accountability measures is also an important part of an issue-based sabbatical.
  • Advanced Study Sabbaticals are given when a leader needs additional time to complete an academic project or conduct an in-depth study. This could involve completing a dissertation, writing a book, or finishing some other project that could have a larger impact for the kingdom.

Why are Sabbaticals Necessary?

The reasons for taking a sabbatical are varied and numerous. Below are seven of the most common reasons to consider taking a sabbatical.

1. An unhealthy pastor is a huge liability.

Examples of pastors failing, burning out, or doing something radically stupid are too numerous to count. Every pastor who falls out of ministry leaves a devastated church in their wake. These wounded churches are left to pick up the broken pieces of a shattered ministry. The reasons for pastor failures are numerous. However, most pastoral failures can be traced back to a lack of health or imbalance in the pastor’s life.  Sabbaticals are a powerful tool to address the deep issues of leadership. They can positively impact the mental, emotional, and spiritual health of church leaders. Taking time to step away from ministry can help a pastor recalibrate priorities, seek God in an unhurried way, and clarify what is really important.  Pastoral sabbaticals provide a unique space to focus on the issue that matter most. They can also help improve the leadership, vision, and focus of a pastor. A tired, weary, or depleted pastor may be more susceptible to falling into temptation or vice. Chronic stress can also destroy a leader’s physical health. An unhealthy pastor is a liability that your church cannot afford.

“When I took my first sabbatical, I has served for 9 years in a normative sized church. I had no idea how depleted I was. My vision and passion had slowly faded away. I felt completely empty and hollow. I was still leading, but not with the strength, stamina, or enthusiasm of the early days. I found myself in a dry and weary land. The church continued to progress, but I was leading on empty. A lack of boundaries, an inability to say “no,” and always feeling I needed to be “working hard” led me to this wilderness. God made it clear that if I did not take a break…I would break.”

2. Pastoral Stress is unique

It is difficult to communicate the level of stress faced by many pastors.  Few people can fully comprehend the constant weight that comes with pastoral leadership. Even the best church members can struggle with understanding the stresses their pastor faces. Expectations can be high and unrelenting. Challenges can be complicated, especially when a church has been in conflict. Spiritual warfare is a frequent reality. Many well-meaning pastors inadvertently fall into the trap of being on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Plus, pastors with small (or no) staff can easily find themselves trying to manage responsibilities that could be handled by others within the church. A pastor will become weighed down by a mountain of issues unless they put in place proper boundaries.  Plus, stress can wreak havoc on your health.

“I was a police officer in a large metropolitan city prior to being a pastor. I thought I knew what stress was. After all, I had worked over 10 years in a large city, patrolled high crime areas, was a supervisor, member of a SWAT Team, and a media spokesperson. How could serving as a country pastor in a normative sized church compare with the stress I had already faced? I was wrong. My role as a pastor placed me into a new world of unrelenting expectations, requests, and challenges. I soon realized that the stress of being a pastor can be brutal.”

3.We live in an age of digital distraction.

Life has gotten far busier over the past few decades. Unrestrained technology can fill every hour of the day with a new distraction.  Social media, text messages, emails, and smartwatches constantly call for our attention.  If your use of technology does not have very specific boundaries the quiet space of your life will be effectively. Studies have shown how a constant stream of media can decrease focus.  We live in a land held hostage by a stream of requests and pleas for our attention. The distraction of technology can have a profoundly negative effect on pastors. When a pastor is distracted, their spiritual sensitively begins to dull.  They slip into unhealthy or lethargic leadership patterns. Worst of all, a distracted pastor is not prepared to resist temptation or love others well. A sabbatical provides a pastor with the unique space to step away from all distractions.

“I thought my laptop, smartphone, and iPad were the tools of my trade. The fact that Jesus and the disciples could be effective without these technological wonders had escaped me. After all, I was “doing ministry” on these devices.  I wrote sermons, encouraged other people, and prepared for ministry with the technology in my life. Yet, with all the positives, these same devices had grown into a constant stream of distraction. A new email, text, or add shifted my mind in a new direction hundreds of times a day. What happened to focusing on the one thing Jesus says is so important?  I desperately needed new boundaries for the use of technology in my life.”

4. God’s work in a church body should be demonstrated.

Some pastors think they always have to be at church; some church members agree. What happens if a pastor steps out of church ministry for a few months? How will the church survive? Thankfully every New Testament church has something going for it…the Holy Spirit. God is more than capable of blessing his church during the absence of a pastor.  His work can continue and advance during a pastor’s absence. If God is leading a pastor to take a sabbatical, He will also provide for the needs of the church. The answers to address these needs are most likely already in the church body. The absence of a pastor can do a beautiful thing in the life of the church. Members, support staff, and lay leaders are encouraged to step-up and exercise their gifts in new ways. Fear not. Taking a sabbatical requires faith from the church body and pastor. God is able. He knows how to shepherd his church during a pastor’s absence.

“My church had never granted a pastor a sabbatical.  How would they respond? Could my absence damage the trajectory of the ministry? Will the church want me to come back? These were just a few of the concerns that peppered my mind. However, I knew God had called me to take a sabbatical. Yet, I wondered how it would all work out.  Upon my return, it was clear that God has done something beautiful in the church. Church members worked together in new ways. Lay leaders stepped up into new roles. To my delight, and the Glory of God, I am happy to report that my sabbatical was profoundly good for the life of our body church…and thankfully, they were happy to see me again.”

5. Few things communicate love like a sabbatical.

A Sabbatical is a generous gift; It is a tangible expression of grace and love. A sabbatical reinforces the commitment the church has toward their pastor and his family. It is also a statement that the church body wants their pastor to be at their absolute best. Plus, a sabbatical can bless the pastor’s family by giving them a wonderful blessing: uninterrupted family time.

“A sabbatical has been the greatest gift I have ever received from my church. It was a sweet expression of their love and care for my family. I will be forever grateful to the church for their faith, trust in God, and commitment toward me. My sabbatical only deepened my love and desire to serve others. It has made me profoundly grateful to serve week after week in the place God has chosen.”

6. Some things require time and solitude

Following Jesus is a journey, not a course. We must never forget that being a Christian is more than learning sound doctrine (as important as that is). Growth it is about being in a white-hot relationship with the living God. Some divine lessons require time. We see this pattern all over the Scripture. Abraham spent time waiting on a promise. Moses spent time wandering in a desert. Paul spent time studying in a far-off place. We grow in our relationship with God as we experience his presence in a real and healthy walk over time. A sabbatical is an invitation to walk closely with God for an extended period of time. It allows a pastor the opportunity to enter into a unique space where God can work in new and deeper ways.

“I did not know what to expect when I took a sabbatical. I brought a stack of books on the journey thinking they would help me go deeper in my walk. However, something unexpected happened. God did not speak to me though the stack of books I had pulled of my shelf. He spoke to me in the quiet places. He did His work as I rested, healed, and relaxed. I came back from my sabbatical with tons of fresh ideas. I found none of the in a book. I returned healthy, whole, and happy to get back to work. God did a deep work in my heart during my sabbatical. I cannot imagine all I would have missed if I had not stepped out of my regular ministry.”

7. A Study Sabbatical can impact the kingdom in a greater way.

Most faithful pastors serve in obscurity. They are only known to a small group of people. That is perfectly fine. God sees every faithful pastor and that is all that matters. However, God can use some pastors to impact people beyond their normal sphere if given the opportunity. A study sabbatical is an opportunity for a pastor to make an impact beyond their immediate community. Completing a dissertation could allow a pastor to pass on wisdom to future generations. Writing a book could strengthen the faith of untold numbers.  A study sabbatical can be the tool that expands impact in new and powerful ways.

“I have written hundreds of sermons. I have given thousands of hours to the study pouring over God’s word. It has been a joy and sacrifice. What if this investment could be shared with others? What if the wisdom gleaned from a lifetime of walking with God could be written down for others?”  

What is the Biblical basis for ministry sabbaticals?

There is strong Biblical support for Sabbaticals. Critics contend there is no specific command from Scripture regarding the practice. However, the Bible contains a wealth of evidence that indicates such a practice is both healthy, wise, and at times, necessary. The length of this article will not permit a comprehensive examination. However, three areas of Scripture are worth serious consideration: 1) The Example of Jesus 2) The way God uses time in the lives of leaders, and 3) the practice of Sabbath.

The Example of Jesus

Mark 6:31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”

Jesus commanded his disciples to physically separate themselves from the busy demands of ministry. His call to “a desolate place” gave his followers the margin needed to rest and be replenished. This command also emphasizes another overlooked aspect of our Lord’s ministry: Jesus was not always available.

Luke 5:15-16 Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

Jesus retreated frequently as ministry demands increased. Retreating to a desolate place separated him from the requests, demands, and questions involved a growing ministry. Note that Jesus did not merely retreat to an unoccupied room; he went to unoccupied places.  The practice of Jesus stands in glaring contrast to many leaders who fall into unhealthy patterns when ministry demands increase. Jesus considered time away from the demands of ministry essential.

The Way God Uses Time in the Lives of Leaders 

Effective leadership is often preceded by large periods of time outside of regular ministry. Scripture indicates God used significant periods of time to prepare the hearts of key leaders. Moses spent forty years in the desert (See Exodus 2:11-7:7) before returning to Egypt and leading God’s people. David spent significant time in the wilderness caring for and protecting sheep. His time as a shepherd shaped how he looked at life and his relationship with God (see Psalm 23).  After conversion, Paul retreated to Arabia for years to study the Scripture (see Gal 1:17-18). Paul retreated for this season time before he would enter his most effective work. We live in an age where leadership is usually developed through online courses, digital media, and internships. The idea that leadership preparation requires extensive periods of time outside of the typical ministry role is unpopular. Nevertheless, God often calls leaders into extended periods of separation and isolation prior to their greatest ministry assignments. God uses periods of time to leave an unmistakable mark on the lives of leaders.

 

The Practice of Sabbath 

The strongest support for Sabbaticals may well be found in one of the oldest (and most central) practices of Scripture: the Sabbath.

Genesis 2:2-3 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.

Exodus 20:8-11 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.  For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Mark 2:27 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

For many Christians, a discussion about the sabbath involves little more that deciding what one is permitted to do on Sunday (which, by the way, is not actually the Sabbath). For others, the Sabbath is nothing more than an obsolete relic from a time long ago. Could we be missing something here? A better place to begin is to ask: Why did God give man the Sabbath in the beginning? Why was keeping the Sabbath so central to the life of Israel? What timeless principals can guide the lives of modern Christians as we consider what God did after he finished his own creative work? I am not calling for some new form of legalism based on a flaky evaluation of a few Old Testament texts. Instead, every Christian should seriously consider God’s original design for rest and how that is exemplified in the Sabbath.

From the beginning, God planned for humans to be intention about rest and the care of their spiritual lives. The importance of this rest is clearly communicated through the various commands and instructions on the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath was an intentional act of rest, fellowship, and the pursuit of a deepening commitment to God. Far from a legalistic checklist, the Sabbath was an invitation to plumb the depths of a relationship with God and others.  The Sabbath also served as a defining characteristic of God’s People that was unparalleled in the ancient world. The massive emphasis Scripture places on the Sabbath should not be missed by modern believers. This ancient practice should inform our own views on the importance of rest and its connection with deepening our relationship with God.

A Word of Warning about Ministry Sabbaticals

A final word of warning is in order. Sabbaticals can be a tool to bless, restore, and reenergize pastors. However, if the need for a sabbatical is brought on by unhealthy ministry practices those issues must be addressed directly. An unhealthy pastor who takes a sabbatical may lengthen their time in ministry. Yet, if core issue are not addressed the benefit will be short-lived. Sabbaticals provide the space for recovery and recalibration. Pastors must be willing in advance to embrace healthy patterns of ministry, rest, and the care of their soul.

“I knew I needed to take a sabbatical from my regular ministry. However, was warned that if I did not make some long-term changes I would never last. I was going to have to change the way I did ministry forever. I would have to learn to say “no” more often. I would need to embrace a new schedule and new accountability measures. Prioritizing my time with God, family, and rest would be critical. I was going to have to be a new man that operated differently from the previous nine years. It was not going to be easy. However, I am happy to report that I made some tough changes and the results have been amazing.”

Be sure to check out the Thriving In Ministry Podcast and we talk all about sabbaticals.

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