Why a Pastoral Sabbatical is Important
When Dave was a youth pastor in Indiana, our then senior pastor went on a sabbatical. He did all of the work necessary to pursue a grant and had the support of our church family. I watched all of this and saw the benefits to it. Our pastor had served faithfully for years and years and the sabbatical was meant to honor his service and also to give him an opportunity to be renewed for the work God had for him to do. He did indeed come back with new excitement and purpose. I knew then that I hoped my husband would have that opportunity if he served at a church for longer than seven years.
When we hit the seven year mark at our current church where my husband now serves as a senior pastor, things were going very well. Our church was growing numerically and there was an excitement among our body for what God was doing in our midst. We were in the middle of a church renovation project. It was a busy time and I didn’t think about the fact that it might be time for our church to consider offering a sabbatical to my husband. It also felt extremely awkward as the pastor’s wife to suggest that my husband might need a sabbatical. Wasn’t that a selfish request?
I know now that it is not selfish at all. Instead, it is wise. The truth is that if a church doesn’t have a sabbatical plan set in place for their pastor(s), it is likely that a pastor will get burned out before a sabbatical is granted. I’ve also learned that a sabbatical should never be used as a punishment. The whole point is to encourage the pastor to rest and to be renewed in their calling. It is meant to be a time to come away and connect with God, but if there is any insecurity about having a job when you return, the sabbatical will not have its desired effect.
Years eight and nine of ministry turned out to be the most difficult years of ministry for us. Without going into detail, I watched as my husband struggled until I realized that I needed to be an advocate for him. While I found this an obvious thing to do for my kids, I somehow felt inhibited as a pastor’s wife. It felt wrong to ask for something that would benefit my husband even though I knew he needed it.
There were days when my husband wanted to leave ministry all together. My prayers were desperate during this time. I knew that God had placed a call on my husband’s life and I knew these feelings were not from Him. And so I begged God to accomplish His will in our church and in my husband’s life. Things got worse before they got better. But through it all, we held tightly to Christ and to the Word of God. We were willing to leave if that was God’s will for us, but the tougher choice was a willingness to stay if that is what God desired.
Ultimately, God kept us where we are. In His goodness and kindness to us, my husband was granted a six week sabbatical that he took soon after our ten year anniversary at our church. For his first week, he just rested at home and worked on a coding project, something that excites him, but that he never has time for. I was still involved with our normal activities, so one day I shared with him a decision that our property team had made. He lovingly told me that he needed to not know these things. He needed to completely disconnect. For me, that was the beginning of understanding what my husband truly needed from sabbatical. He set his emails to auto respond. He turned off notifications. It was a true break from all of the pressures and the trauma of the previous years.
The second week, our family went on a trip of a lifetime to Kauai. In our entire married lives, I have seen my husband relax the most when he is snorkeling and so I wanted him to have this opportunity. For our family to be able to share those memories together was truly incredible. We are so grateful for the support of our church family. It’s what I had hoped for all of those years before as the youth pastor’s wife. God is so kind!
We celebrated Thanksgiving with family which was another gift for us. We have several family members who are in pastoral ministry and the opportunity to encourage one another and spur one another on was exactly what our hearts needed. My husband ended his sabbatical with a week alone at a cabin in the woods. It was the perfect ending to his sabbatical, an unhindered, extended time alone with God.
I have no doubts now that every church should have a sabbatical plan for their pastor(s). Don’t wait until your pastor is falling apart! The week in, week out preaching of the Word, the pressures to be all things to all people (and the corresponding criticisms that come when you inevitably don’t meet all the expectations), and the sorrow and heartbreak that you deal with on a daily basis is a heavy load. If you are a lay person in a church that does not have a sabbatical plan, might I ask you to advocate for your pastor?
We all need times of rest and renewal whether we are in vocational ministry or not. Uninterrupted time with God is part of our growth in Him. We should all seek these times for ourselves, but we should also make sure that others are having and taking those opportunities as well. It’s crucial for pastors and ministry leaders!