Give Me a Break!
How to ask for a sabbatical
As our board meeting was ending, I made a tearful and humbling confession: “I feel like I am driving down a dirt road behind a truck. I can see nothing but a cloud of dust. I am struggling with vision and direction for our church.”
For more than a year, our staff had scrambled to adapt to evolving COVID-19 mandates. I was so consumed with keeping my head above water I had little margin for planning our next steps. I had prayed for a fresh vision, but nothing was clear. I felt discouraged and incompetent. I was even beginning to question my calling.
After that emotional moment with my board, I debriefed with a trusted colleague. I admitted I had been working at a pace that was not sustainable. Since the start of the pandemic, I had not taken a regular sabbath, much less a vacation.
I also realized it had been seven years since my last sabbatical. I knew I needed to get one on the calendar.
Perhaps you recognize the need for a sabbatical but are not sure how to ask for one or whether your church even offers one. If that’s you, stay tuned.
What Is a Sabbatical?
In addition to a weekly sabbath and annual vacations, a sabbatical is part of a comprehensive approach to stewarding a ministry calling. A sabbatical may include rest, education, travel, study, and prayer.
It is a good practice to schedule a sabbatical every five to seven years, with each one lasting between one and six months.
Our church provides all pastors with a one-month sabbatical every seven years. Sabbaticals have not always been a part of our Assemblies of God tradition, but a growing number of ministers, churches and districts are recognizing their value.
Why You Need It
To become better leaders, pastors may attend conferences, read books, and even engage coaches. However, many of us ignore the need for rest and reflection.
People expect pastors to be on call 24/7. They expect us to be scholars, counselors, anointed preachers, visionaries, general contractors, authors and caregivers. After years of carrying the weight of all these expectations, many ministers burn out.
After my confession to our board, I realized I had been depleted for quite a while. It is past time for an extended break when vision is lacking, energy is waning, joy is fading, and depression is rising. If you’re questioning your calling, that is a clear sign you need to get away and seek God.
A sabbatical benefits not only the leader, but also his or her family and church. Even those who are skilled at separating work and family inevitably carry home some of the stress. A sabbatical provides an opportunity to reset and refocus on what matters most, including family.
The church’s ministry is more effective when leaders are healthy, and getting adequate rest is a vital part of maintaining good health. A sabbatical can also enhance longevity. Often, a pastor will return with renewed passion and vision for ministry. And leaders who take time to rest set a positive example for other members of the congregation.
Requesting Time Away
How do you ask for a sabbatical if your church does not offer one? The tension surrounding such a request causes some pastors to remain silent and continue down a path toward burnout.
Perhaps you recognize the need for a sabbatical but do not want to appear self-serving. Remember that rest is not just a human concept; it’s God’s idea (Genesis 2:2; Leviticus 23:3).
If you’re questioning your calling, that is a clear sign you need to get away and seek God.
Consider your relationship with the board and their personalities when deciding whether you or another person should request the sabbatical. If you make the request, be humble and avoid an entitlement or martyr mentality. Pastoring comes with a unique set of challenges. However, it is counterproductive to commu- nicate to board members that your job is more demanding than theirs.
There may be value in asking and preparing another person to advocate for your sabbatical. Your spokesperson should have a relationship with the board and a personal interest in your health and effectiveness. A board member or church leader could make the request.
Alternatively, another pastor or presbyter could speak on your behalf. Many district leaders are willing to help you address this topic with your board. Input from leaders outside the church carries weight and may help relieve some of the tension.
If no one is available to present your case, a letter or an article outlining the benefits of a sabbatical could serve a similar purpose.
Preparation and clear communication will significantly influence the outcome of your request. Be ready to negotiate, but present your board with a proposal from which to begin discussions. Here are six considerations to keep in view:
1. Present a policy, rather than a one-time request. A new policy for all pastoral staff members will appear less self-serving and will benefit future pastors.
2. Settle financial questions. Typically, pastors continue to draw their full salary during sabbaticals. Churches may also provide compensation for education or travel.
Our church provides an honorarium in addition to the pastor’s salary. Some churches offer nothing, and others cover all expenses.
If any of your responsibilities will require compensating someone else while you are away, you will also want to include this in the discussion.
3. Identify the purpose. Since a sabbatical is different from a vacation, clearly communicate the reason for taking one. Ideally, a sabbatical should incorporate elements of rest, study, reflection, dreaming, and most importantly, deep communion with God.
4. Put together a plan. A leadership vacuum can lead to chaos. During your initial request, you may not have all the leaders in place, but outlining each of your responsibilities demonstrates you have thought through the implications of your absence.
When I took a sabbatical while serving as lead pastor of a smaller church, I was the only full-time staff member. A board member who had recently retired offered to take over the management of daily operations. A local retired pastor agreed to preach each Sunday I was gone, for a small honorarium. We empowered key volunteers to step in as leaders and cover other responsibilities. This had a lasting and positive impact on our church.
5. Establish your exit and reentry strategy. Inviting a board member to communicate the sabbatical policy to the congregation will help curb assumptions. A formal send-off is a good way for the congregation to participate in the sabbatical process. In blessing you and praying for you, they are a part of creating a healthy church.
The plan for your reentry is also important. Upon returning, you might want to present a brief report to the congregation and board to demonstrate accountability and the value of a sabbatical policy.
6. Express gratitude — but don’t apologize — for the time away. Taking a sabbatical is good stewardship.
When I realized the benefits of a sabbatical, I no longer felt like it was self-serving. My prayer is that you will arrive at the same conclusion. If your church doesn’t offer a sabbatical policy, it may be time to start a discussion about the value it could add.
A sabbatical is an investment churches make in pastors, so pastors can continue investing in the kingdom of God.
This article appears in the Summer 2021 edition of Influence magazine.