The idea of a sabbatical for a pastor or staff member is still not understood by many church members. They either see the sabbatical as a way to ease a pastor into termination or deal with a problem. Quite to the contrary, the church that provides a sabbatical for a ministerial staff member is not only doing a good thing for the minister but for the church as well. The practice is being encouraged by organizations that provide grants for pastoral sabbatical, but many churches now build this into their personnel policies as well as their budgets.
When I was chair of our church’s personnel committee several years ago, we expanded the sabbatical program to provide a sabbatical for every minister after each five years of service. Although it took a while for this to become a regular practice, our present ministers are taking advantage of the opportunity.
A sabbatical allows a minister to do several things. First of all, it provides time for the minister to slow down and get a little distance from the day to day challenges of ministry. It provides breathing space for personal and spiritual reflection.
Second, it can provide time for the minister and his/her family to spend some real quality time together on an extended vacation. Most sabbatical grants expect the minister to have some fun during this time and to travel.
Third, most ministers use the sabbatical for some personal and professional development. This may be taking a course on a topic of interest, spending time with a respected leader or mentor, writing and research, or overseas travel.
This is all very good for the minister, but it also benefits the church. The minister returns refreshed with new energy and insights as well as appreciation for a congregation that cares enough to provide this time. Although I have not found any research on this, but my hunch is that a sabbatical program increases a staff minister’s tenure at his or her church.
The church benefits from being exposed to one or more different voices from the pulpit. Our church has invited supply preachers who serve for two consecutive summers. My colleague Mark Tidsworth is serving as the sabbatical pastor in a church for the entire time the pastor is away.
The time that a minister spends on sabbatical allows the congregation to benefit from a leader who returns with renewed vision, stamina, and commitment to congregational life and health.
I encourage churches to consider the value of providing ministerial sabbaticals, but I also encourage ministers not to miss the opportunity take a sabbatical.