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The Missions Pastor Sabbatical

From mid-December 2021 to mid-February 2022, I had the opportunity to take a Sabbatical. Historically, my church has not implemented rhythms of Sabbatical rest for our pastors. Some of our leaders have taken a few weeks or a month, but I was the first to endeavor on a full two-month Sabbatical. My church, Cornerstone, is a wonderful place to work. The culture of transparency and front door conversations has created a joyful and undramatic work environment. The vision to reach our city and major university campuses in the US and around the world is an incredible thing to be a part of. Churches with a big vision and expectations are fun and exciting to work for, but they can also gradually exhaust those who are working in them.


Too often in modern evangelicalism, we have heard stories of pastors whose unhealthy personal lives and overwork have led to affairs, food addiction, pornography, alcohol abuse, etc., who have become emotionally or spiritually abusive, or who experience burnout and resign. Others have gotten burnt out but continue in their roles because it's the only job that will pay them enough. With all the news of lead pastors falling because of moral failures, burnout, and abuse of authority, our leadership team has been asking, “Is it possible to lead in a megachurch and not fall?”


Statistics point to high stress levels among pastors. Forty percent of pastors face high stress levels one to two times per week, and 12 percent face it every day (source). Fifty percent of pastors work more than fifty hours per week, and 15.5 percent work more than sixty hours per week.


We can hear these statistics and give into a fatalistic fear, or we can try to find a better way, a way of working for the Lord out of rest instead of endless striving. We believe it’s possible to do ministry this way, so we decided to combat the “rat race” paradigm of ministry by implementing periods of rest for our staff. The aims of these periods of Sabbatical rest include: helping our leaders experience real physical, spiritual, and emotional rest; giving them a new perspective of what is important in ministry; and helping them reprioritize what their main ministry tasks will be moving forward.


But Sabbaticals aren’t simply for the person going on Sabbatical; they also allow other staff and lay leaders to: step up and take on new areas of leadership; assess the work and ministry responsibilities of the one going on Sabbatical; and evaluate what needs to continue after they return from Sabbatical.


BIBLICAL & HISTORICAL FOUNDATION OF SABBATICALS

Rusty McKie, pastor of Sojourn Community Church in Chattanooga, TN, wrote a great little book titled, Sabbaticals: "How-To" Take a Break from Ministry before Ministry Breaks You, in which he gives four basic principles for sabbatical rest from the Scriptures:

  1. Rest is grounded in Creation (Exod 20:8–11). We rest because we are human, not God.

  2. Rest is grounded in Redemption (Deut 5:12–15). We rest because we are free and no longer slaves.

  3. Rest is grounded in the New Creation (Heb 4:8–11). We rest because we are sojourners and have not arrived.

  4. Jesus, our Sabbath Rest (Mark 2:27–28). We rest in Jesus because he is our life.

Sabbaticals have historically happened in mainline churches for pastors and at the university level for professors. In recent years, 17 percent of businesses currently offer Sabbaticals to their employees (source). The practice of implementing Sabbaticals is still pretty new in Evangelicalism, but increasing rapidly.


WHY SHOULD PASTORS GET SABBATICALS IF LAY PEOPLE DO NOT?

As I considered whether or not to take a Sabbatical, one of the main reasons I wasn’t warm to the idea was that very few of our lay members have that opportunity. I think of my dad, who has worked for almost fifty years in the water-softening business and likely never taken more than five days off at a time. With so many working so hard to give and support our staff, how can we consider giving our staff paid time off?


It’s important for the ministry of all Christians to flow from a place of personal, spiritual, and emotional health. Taking time off from leading a small group, being an elder, etc. should be a regular practice to make sure our members are staying spiritually and emotionally healthy. Full-time ministry in a church is not intrinsically more demanding than ministry that happens in a secular workplace, but pastors do face some unique challenges in their role. Rusty McKie gives an illustration of the challenge of life-balance that many pastors struggle with:


“Most folks in our churches live on a three-legged stool composed of their spiritual, professional, and family life. If one of those legs wobbles, they have two others they can lean on. For pastors, however, those three things tend to merge into a single leg. When you sit on a one-legged stool, it takes more concentration and energy . . . the physical, emotional, and spiritual endurance needed for pastoral ministry is unique . . .”


Every individual is responsible for their personal health; however, it’s helpful for church leaders, elders, and deacons to recognize that the role of the pastor often blurs the lines between vocation, church, family, and self. It is also helpful to recognize that a pastor’s work requires emotional and spiritual energy in a way that is pretty unique. Thom Rainer gives five reasons why pastors should get special consideration for time away:

  1. A pastor has emotional highs and lows that are unlike those in most other vocations.

  2. A pastor is on 24-hour call.

  3. Pastors need time of uninterrupted study.

  4. Pastors who take Sabbaticals have longer tenure at churches.

  5. Pastors who are given Sabbaticals view the time off as an affirmation from their churches.

Because the nature of a church staff member’s work demands emotional and spiritual energy that is not easily renewed through a vacation or a little extra sleep, there is reason to consider giving pastoral staff extended times of rest.


All Christians are prone to sin that can lead to burnout, but sins like fear of man, the idol of accomplishment, greed, and lust for relationships to fill a void can particularly haunt pastoral staff. Every staff member is personally responsible for their choices, and it is not the church’s fault if someone on the team burns out or falls due to personal sin. But if we know that staff members are going to face added pressure that can lead them towards these sins, then we ought to consider how we can help them carry the burdens they face in their ministry.

A Sabbatical is an intentional season of spiritual, emotional, and physical rest in order to remember that Jesus’s yoke is easy and his burden is light.

PURPOSES OF A SABBATICAL

A Sabbatical is not meant to be a time of doing nothing. The goal is not to give our staff time to binge-watch Netflix, eat out a lot, get a house project done, or travel for months on end. A Sabbatical is an intentional season of spiritual, emotional, and physical rest in order to remember that Jesus’s yoke is easy and his burden is light.


There have generally been three different types of Sabbaticals in the academic, business, and church worlds:

  1. Study Sabbatical - Time away from work to pursue a specific degree or accreditation.

  2. Work Sabbatical - Time away from normal work to pursue a particular area of work or interest. This could include: pastors taking time off to write; professors doing research on a particular topic; a business person or engineer pursuing a particular area of research and development.

  3. Rest Sabbatical - Time away from work to pursue spiritual, emotional, and physical renewal.

While each of these types of Sabbaticals can be beneficial, the one we’re talking about here is the Rest Sabbatical. You may consider giving a study or work Sabbatical to certain staff members at various times in the life of your church, but these do not really reflect the historical practice of a Sabbatical. They are more like purposeful leaves of absence.


A Rest Sabbatical has three goals:

  1. Physical and emotional rest and renewal;

  2. Spiritual rest in the Lord;

  3. Space to envision the next season of life. This will likely take, at minimum, two months. The research I have done says that it takes a month to detox and get into the actual rejuvenation period, and this was true of my Sabbatical as well.


MY SABBATICAL EXPERIENCE

My decision to take a Sabbatical was born out of a place of borderline burnout. Now, this is not the optimal time to take a Sabbatical; it’s better to take a Sabbatical in the midst of relative health. But that was the stage I was in, and I was in need of it. I had begun to see signs of workaholism, cynicism, pessimism, disenfranchisement, and lack of implementation of basic self-care activities. Thankfully, this was something God had made me aware of and authentic about, which is ultimately how he led me to take a Sabbatical.


Here’s what my Sabbatical looked like:

  1. I spent the first three weeks on vacation. I went to an NFL game with my best friend and took my family to New York and DC over Christmas. One of my key goals during my Sabbatical was to learn how to have more fun and to do so alongside people.

  2. The next six weeks were focused on rest, enjoyment of creation, and self-care. One of the most important gifts my staff gave me was not setting goals for my Sabbatical. This was key to making sure I went into my Sabbatical not feeling a lot of “should” but, rather, simply pursuing what was restful. This included for me daily:

    1. 1 ½ hours in the Word, prayer, and mindfulness.

    2. 1 ½ hours working out with a special focus on flexibility (I’m not as young as I once was).

    3. 1 ½ hours watching History Vault (documentaries are my jam) because that was fun for me.

    4. 1 hour house projects or whatever else I wanted to do.

    5. Being available for my wife and kids in the remaining time.

  3. Each week I met with a licensed Christian counselor in our city that does not go to our church and has experience walking alongside other pastors during their Sabbaticals.

Self-care and love for God must be prioritized for long-term health and the ability to thrive in ministry.

My routine was pretty simple, but it led to some important revelations for me that I really needed:

  1. I was reminded that I love the disciplines that lead toward loving God and caring for myself. Self-care and love for God must be prioritized for long-term health and the ability to thrive in ministry. Too often I had let family and work take priority over self-care. Therefore, I have scheduled three periods each day coming out of Sabbatical for self-care and love of God:

    1. 7:00-8:00am - time with the Lord; mindfulness; basic physical warmups for the day

    2. 11:30am-12:00pm - prayer and short scripture reading; mindfulness practices; yoga and stretching

    3. 4:00-5:30pm - working out with a lot of stretching and yoga involved

  2. I had a lot of fun hanging out more with my wife. We both really appreciated the time together, and our love for each other is deeper coming out of these two months.

  3. I was able to separate life with God from vocation. This was helpful for just being a Christian, and it also allowed me to release some things I may be unnecessarily holding onto in my work.

  4. Being off email and having another staff member take care of that was incredibly freeing. Coming out of Sabbatical, I no longer have email on my iPhone so that it doesn’t invade my down time.

  5. Having to be gone for two months was really helpful for entrusting work areas to my team. I believe holes were filled for the most part, and what wasn’t filled was good to discover and to look to fix.

  6. I have an app called Welltory that measures stress levels, and mine empirically went down during my Sabbatical.

  7. I learned that I was giving too much time to my kids out of guilt-driven parenting at the expense of self-care. I will now prioritize self-care not only over work, but also over family. At first glance, that sounds selfish, but I learned that I can’t be my best for my family if I haven’t loved God and taken care of myself first. I will give my family quality over quantity.

I learned that I can’t be my best for my family if I haven’t loved God and taken care of myself first.

I can tell you there are few people I know who were more skeptical and fearful of Sabbaticals than me, and I had an experience that went ten times better than I expected. If you think you may need a Sabbatical or would like to see a Sabbatical rhythm implemented in the life of your church, check out a few of the resources below for more information.


MAIN RESOURCES


Gaultiere, Bill. “A Sabbatical Guide for Pastors.” Soul Shepherding.



Miller-McLemore, Mark. “The dark side of sabbaticals.” Faith & Leadership.





LET’S HEAR FROM YOU!


What experiences do you have with Sabbaticals?


What are your reflections on Sabbaticals from the article?


What questions do you have about Sabbaticals?

 

Mike Ironside is Missions Pastor at Cornerstone Church in Ames, Iowa. He has served on staff with Cornerstone since 2006 in varying roles–from college ministry to pastoral staff to being an overseas missionary sent from Cornerstone for two years. Mike is the Director of Cohorts and Content for the Upstream Collective. He also serves as Chairman of the Board for Campus to Campus, a missions organization dedicated to getting US college students connected to church-planting movements amongst college students worldwide.

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