Sabbaticals in The Life of a Pastor

If you’re a pastor you know what it feels like to carry the burden of all the sheep. You endure interpersonal conflict regularly, you step into situational trauma and grief readily, and if you are making a difference for the Kingdom you experience intense times of spiritual warfare on a consistent basis. You rarely if ever feel off duty and always feel on call. The Bible warns those who teach and lead to not only take care of their doctrine but their life as well (1 Tim 4:16). To be a good steward of our spiritual, physical, and emotional health we need to take both shorter times of abiding and rest also periodic long breaks to reset and rest.

Is a Sabbatical Biblical? Granted most of us would benefit from a rhythm of rest and work in our own life but the focus of this blog is for us to better help our pastors and their families get healthy and stay healthy. The practice of sabbath rest and longer sabbaticals may be gaining attention but is not a new one. Under the old covenant a sabbath day was commanded in Scripture each week (Exodus 20:8-11). The wisdom of this type of rhythm in a believer’s life still stands. We see in the New Testament a wonderful invitation to come to Christ for soul rest (Matt 11:28-30). Taking a sabbatical is usually a longer and less frequent rhythm but comes from the same biblical root (from Hebrew: shabbat (שבת) (i.e., Sabbath), in Latin: sabbaticus, in Greek: sabbatikos (σαββατικός), literally a "ceasing", a rest from work, or a break, often lasting from a few months to a year.

Taking a sabbatical is usually a longer and less frequent rhythm but comes from the same biblical root.

Pastors Are Not Bullet Proof: Even Jesus “departed” from great ministry opportunities to be with His Father in prayer or to rest (Mark 1:35; Luke 4:42). Solitude for soul rest is a discipline that pastors need to practice as well. The problem is that the typical pastoral culture today is one of productivity over personal reflection, action over abiding in Christ and sadly more isolation to avoid demands than solitude to pursue Christ. Often when a pastor finally does take a break you might see a proposal to the elders of the church about 10 things a pastor promises to accomplish on his “study break” or a book project he will tackle while “resting”. This creates the expectation that sabbaticals are really just longer times out of the pulpit to accomplish something you could not get to. A break to work on a project is great but this is not the biblical purpose of a true sabbatical and is not going to achieve soul rest.

A Potential Guide for a Pastor’s Sabbatical Each church leadership has to decide when sabbaticals are best taken but I would suggest a 3 month break every 5-7 years and shorter sabbaticals every year. If you want to keep the saw sharp a summer sabbatical lasting one month between the longer breaks is helpful. Because many pastors have asked the best way to spend a longer sabbatical time I have outlined 5 stages that most leaders go through and how to best achieve soul rest. There will be a rhythm of spiritual discipline added in each stage that should be carried forward.

Stage 1: Disconnect (one to two weeks)

You really can’t enter in to soul rest for the purpose of deep reflection and restoration without disconnecting from the regular routine. This might mean no work phone during this period or limited contact. A break from social media or email. Well organized delegation of duties and responsibilities that allow one to relax and unplug. It can be helpful to have a coach who mentors you with goals that achieve renewal and accountability that protects your time. It may mean getting away to a remote place or different environment that you don’t associate with work. I suggest a minimum of one week to fast from your phone, e-mails and work any work contact. Create a back door for emergencies such as your coach’s phone, elder, or associate pastor who is the only one who can reach you. After the fast only allow certain times of the day for looking at your phone and I would suggest not adding back into your routine any social media or email review for the next month. Add the discipline of solitude and deep connections times with Christ here.

Stage 2: Decelerate (and in some cases Detox, weeks 2-4)

Stop and smell the roses doesn’t really appeal to most of the pastors I know but the idea has merit. Enjoy the things you usually take for granted. Date your wife, hang with your kids and see what they are passionate about. Go work out, eat slowly and savior your food, talk with your spouse or a close friend while hiking or sitting by a fire. Think quantity time, not just quality, being present in the moment, and watching for how God is showing up around you. Read good books and take time to digest the best lessons. This may be the time to go on a family vacation but try to keep this low stress and highly relational. A great habit to start if you don’t already do this is to go on at least three prayer walks with your wife each week. Move from what seems urgent to what is important in this stage. If you are showing signs of burnout, compassion fatigue, or secondary stress (highly self-critical, cynical, detached, defeated, little satisfaction in things that normally would be enjoyable) you may need to add some intensive counseling or a guided retreat time to this stage. Add the discipline of disillusionment here. In other words, you commit to being disillusioned with anything you are putting your identity or hope in that is not Christ Himself. If ministry has in anyway produced idolatry in you identify it, confess it, forsake it, and talk to someone you trust about it.

Stage 3: Discernment (weeks 3-8)

As the soul is quieted you will find that insights come more readily. Times in the Word will become more refreshing, and God’s will become more in focus. This is a great time to talk with your spouse about what God is teaching you. Don’t step into preacher mode, get side by side and share from a place of wonder and vulnerability. Also ask her about her walk and if needed ask forgiveness for not leading well. Listen to her, don’t problem solve, she has likely been waiting to be led like this for some time. Ask her for insight into healthier rhythms for your marriage and family, how you could be more present at home, and where she see Christ growing you. Talk to your closest friends and family about what you are experiencing and journal regularly. Add the discipline of prayer walks into your rhythms here, and ask you wife to join you when possible.

Stage 4: Debriefing (weeks 9-12)

As the time of discernment brings simplicity and clarity you will want to debrief with a biblical counselor or coach. I encourage leaders to think in terms of what they have heard from God about self-care, rhythms, and ways to include abiding in Christ both personally and as a family. Hopefully you have journaled regularly and can articulate insights that lead to a “new normal”. Meeting with your coach helps process through this each week. Where has personal sin, the demands of ministry, or the stress of life caused you to develop habits that are less than healthy? Where is God asking you to change? Where might ministry habits or the culture of leadership need to change? Asking your wife to join you for some counsel to correct any marriage issues or just to enrich your marriage may be needed. At the end of this stage you ought to have a plan that enhances intimacy with God and others. This plan can be fluid but there should be some non-negotiables for you, your marriage, your family and your leadership that will need to be collaboratively shared with those you do life with. Add the discipline of asking for honest feedback here. Find a confidant and get in the rhythm of asking for advice, insight, and help weekly.

Stage 5: Re-deployment (weeks 10-14)

As your sabbatical comes to an end you must give attention to how to reengage ministry. The amazing thing is the church somehow ran without you! You need to come back with an attitude of gratitude for everyone who made the time possible. As you have reset and recalibrated some important things in your life remember others have been living in the old normal. You will want to meet with some individually to share insights and plans. If you are lead pastor, you will want to address the whole leadership team before you return full time. Not so much “there is a new sheriff in town” more “I have not been the best leader and model of health…I want to share what God has taught me with hopes it will bless you”. I would suggest inviting your coach to this meeting if they are not already part of the team. Talk about personal insights, rhythms, goals, and new strategies of health and care. Remember that most of your leaders need encouragement and vision that not only says how you are going to go forward but how we are going to go forward. Ask for advice on how to reenter ministry and let your coach facilitate an open discussion. Add the discipline of leading with transparency here.
Bring Healthy Rhythms Forward

If you are a pastor or pastoral staff person feeling a deep soul weariness and have not had a sabbatical in many years I highly recommend adding this life-giving rhythm to your life.

You will be tempted to let the stresses and demands of ministry cause drifting into old patterns that were not as healthy. Bring something forward from each stage of your sabbatical on a regular basis. Disconnect weekly with an extended quiet time. Decelerate monthly with an abiding day. Perhaps plan a short staff or elder retreat quarterly. Create space for extended prayer times to discern God’s will both personally and as a leadership. Debrief after busy ministry seasons and check the health of your staff and key leaders. When others go on sabbaticals always set up a time to re-deploy by a purposeful re-entry plan. If you are a pastor or pastoral staff person feeling a deep soul weariness and have not had a sabbatical in many years I highly recommend adding this life-giving rhythm to your life. If you are a leader in the church and you know your pastor has not taken this time I urge you to be an advocate for him and to help him plan this time soon.

Questions to ponder:

  1. When is the last time you stepped away and really sought rest for your soul?
  2. Is your pastor or pastoral staff in the habit of taking sabbath rest weekly and sabbaticals periodically?
  3. How might you help your church leadership create sustainable habits of soul-care?

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