Influence

 the shape of leadership

Give Yourself a Break

Discovering the blessings of a sabbatical

Kristi Northup on November 13, 2017

After nearly seven years in the city where we pastor, our elders recognized that my husband, Wayne, and I needed some time off. They offered for us to take a sabbatical in the summer, and we gladly accepted! It was a gift to our marriage, our family and our ministry to take six weeks off from the intense pressures of pastoring.

Many people have asked for our reflections. Here are my answers to a few common questions.

What Is a Sabbatical?

In its basic definition, it is an extended time of Sabbath. There are many different kinds of sabbaticals: educational, writing, vision, etc. Ours was a sabbatical of rest.

Why Do Ministers Need a Sabbatical?

While many people are familiar with educational sabbaticals taken by professors, there is less familiarity with ministry sabbaticals (although awareness is growing).

Pastoring is a job where you are on call 24 hours a day. The stress church planters and missionaries in particular experience is often dangerously high year after year. Because of this, there is a high burnout rate among clergy.

An extended period of spiritual rest and reflection can add years of refueling to the life of a minister.

How Often Should It Happen?

The Old Testament talks about a seventh-year rest, and this is a helpful guideline for ministry. Some churches allow staff members sabbaticals every three years.

One friend who is a lead pastor has it written into his contract to take one month every summer. After an intensely difficult transition, he took his first month of rest this past July. He told us, “I thought I would take more time to read and plan for the future. I couldn’t believe how much I slept and rested the entire month.”

I could see that he and his wife came back with a fresh perspective and strength to move ahead for the coming year.

We had six months to plan for our sabbatical; it would have been difficult to pull off in less time. But sometimes, particularly if there is a personal crisis, pastors should have an opportunity to exit more quickly.

How Do You Prepare?

We reached out to friends who had taken sabbaticals and asked for their advice about what was great and what they would do differently. We received helpful information from our friend Monty Hipp and his nonprofit, The C4 Group.

As the lead pastor, Wayne led the way in preparing our church staff and leaders. He took surveys that gauged people’s anxieties and expectations. We wrote out every task in our job descriptions and assigned the work.

Time off was a gift to our marriage, our family and our ministry.

I prepared and trained my worship team and did most of the travel planning. We also had an overseer who could help our elders if a situation came up that they weren’t sure how to handle.

Several friends emphasized the importance of unplugging from communication related to problems and tasks, a precaution that could help us avoid undoing weeks of mental detangling from our work. That was good advice.

Where Do You Go?

We knew it was important to get away. “Staycations” are a bad idea for sabbaticals; often, they leave people feeling more tired than when they started. We spent nearly the entire six weeks out of state.

Several friends encouraged us not to do something intense like Disney, but to go more low-key. If it’s financially possible, we recommend only moving once or twice, staying in the same location for two to three weeks at a time.

What Do You Do?

A Sabbath is not about escaping or pursuing idle pastimes. It is for spiritual rest. It’s so important to engage deeply with the Word and the healing presence of Jesus to gain spiritual renewal during a time of Sabbatical.

An important part of our trip was staying at a spiritual retreat center. Wayne spent several days at a silent hermitage in Minnesota. Even though he is an extreme extrovert, it was a deep time of renewal for him, and he considered it the most important part of his sabbatical.

How Can You Afford It?

We were blessed to have elders who raised funds from our friends and congregation. A free cabin was provided for part of our stay, and we carefully budgeted for each leg of our journey.

There are other resources that assist ministers as well. Christianhomeexchange.com offers a handbook and possible connections for free lodging. The Lilly Foundation offers grants through its National Clergy Renewal Program. You must start planning well in advance to qualify for some of these resources.

Reach out to your district office. Sometimes people donate homes, and some districts provide a Clergy Cottage for a few days a year to each minister for rest and renewal. 

What Are the Challenges?

There are pros and cons to not using your own cellphone. We packed too much stuff and had to repack it every time we moved.

Re-entry is as important as launch, and it took some time to get caught up in each area. We were well-advised not to preach or lead worship the first Sunday back at our church.

What Are the Benefits?

Time and space provided perspective that we absolutely could not have gained under the pressures of daily ministry life.

We connected with friends and family and spent loads of memorable time with our children. We slept in and vegged out. We realized how deeply we needed more prayer to endure the intensity of the battles we wage against the enemy. Our vision was expanded when we visited thriving churches in New York City.

The advantages weren’t just personal; our church benefited as well. We are launching a second campus soon, and our sabbatical was fantastic preparation for the expansion of leadership.

We have greatly increased our corporate commitment to prayer. We are seeing God move mountains in ways we never anticipated. God multiplies our efforts when we honor the biblical rhythms of rest.

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