What Pastors Should Know Before Their Sabbatical

September 13, 2011

Note from Paul: I’m pleased to introduce you to guest bloggers Martin Sanders and Warren Bird, who published this article elsewhere. They have graciously agreed to allow us to run it here as it so well pertains to “resourcing pastors for a lifetime of life-giving “.

by Warren Bird and Martin Sanders
Most don’t take it soon enough, so here’s how to know when you need one.

Editor’s note: This article is by Martin Sanders, Director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Alliance Theological Seminary, Nyack, NY. and founder of Global Leadership, Inc.  Warren Bird oversees the research division of Leadership Network, has co-authored 24 books, and is a frequent contributor to Outreach magazine.

The good news is that 35% of Protestant congregations say they provide their pastors with opportunity for a sabbatical leave. They affirm the value of a carefully planned period of time in which a pastor is granted space apart from normal ministerial responsibilities in order to spend an extended period of time in study, learning, and reflection.

 

The bad news is that not all pastors ask for or take a sabbatical, even when they qualify – most commonly, it’s available at the end of five or seven years of service. In Scripture, the Sabbath (from which the word sabbatical comes) was not a suggestion. Moses included it in his top 10, and Jesus challenged the ways it had become a chore instead of a blessing. Pastors need a rhythm of rest.

The worse news is that those pastors who do take a sabbatical too often come back reporting that they weren’t prepared and didn’t get the value out of it.

Over the years, I (Martin) have heard too many pastors say, upon returning from their sabbatical, “I didn’t take it soon enough” or “I was not prepared for the emotional roller coaster that I experienced.” I was getting phone calls from friends and former students in ministry asking, as they try to take a sabbatical, “Why am I so angry?” The most surprising piece was phone calls from spouses, “Will you call my husband or wife? We thought it would be a great time of relaxation and laughter, but we’re not enjoying each other. In fact, my spouse is no fun right now.”

In response, I started writing people I knew after their sabbatical and asking for their reflections on what happened. Here are some representative comments from 84 different reports:

– “I tried to accomplish too much; I stayed too much into the mode of doing.”

– “I didn’t spend enough time structuring it in advance.”

– “I regret that I didn’t spend more time just reading my Bible.”

– “I wish it had gone longer. I thought the available 3-4 months felt extravagant so I took less, but now wish I had done the full 3 or 4.”

– “I needed a good friend to process thoughts of the sabbatical, both during and after it.”

– “I wish I would have rested more and thought less, not working on projects or planning the future.”

– “I’m sorry I didn’t give more of myself to my family. It hurt to hear them say things like, ‘When you were home, you came home physically but your mind was somewhere else’ and ‘You didn’t look at me as we talked; your body was there, but not all of you.’”

– “I wasn’t prepared for the feelings that surfaced, such as frustration and anger.”

We believe it’s possible to sidestep or overcome each of those concerns. Here’s what to do:

1. Decide the Focus

Is this sabbatical for relaxation only? (That’s not a very popular option with most church boards.) However, do start with rest, sleeping a lot.

Is it an extended study leave? Many large-church pastors take short study sabbaticals in early January or summer.

Remember that the overall impact of a sabbatical, by definition, is to be a “sabbath” rest. If it’s more than a short vacation or study break, create a chart with a specific working plan while allowing flexibility. Without some level of structure, you’ll be frustrated as also will those sending you on the sabbatical. One model is to envision your time away in fourths: Rest, Read/study, Reflection, and Re-entry with assimilation.

2. Set the Length

The timing of your sabbatical often depends on where you are in life, from your mental health to the needs of your family. It’s better to have shorter sabbaticals at intervals than to wait too long to have a longer one.

3. Prepare Well

Preparation is as important as the sabbatical itself. Too many people spend the first few weeks of the sabbatical “working” to finish up outstanding tasks, using up a big slice of the sabbatical itself just getting ready for the sabbatical.

Instead, plan to slow down beforehand; start the wind-down process a few weeks before it starts. Then the day the sabbatical starts, walk away and start it, no matter what is still left undone.

4. Find a Buddy

Pre-arrange to check in with a key friend, counselor, or mentor who will help you process your feelings, issues, and experiences. The biggest surprise most sabbatical takers report are the deep emotions that come up when they push their “pause” button and begin their sabbatical.

5. Avoid Big Tasks

Guard against establishing big projects to accomplish while on sabbatical, such as writing a book, a leadership manual, or a reworked organizational chart. We know of one person who spent 4 months on his sabbatical building a study in which he could learn and grow. It was a definite change of pace, but the sabbatical ended before he experienced any rest or intellectual stimulation!

6. Make Space for Jesus

It’s important during the sabbatical to feed your emotional side just as much as your intellect. Avoid focusing exclusively on materials that will give you new ideas and stretch your mind. Recharge your spirit and heart as well.

Jesus found life in the Sabbath, and you too can find new life in Christ through your sabbatical. In fact, one of the best activities you can do on sabbatical is to renew your love for Jesus. So whatever you plan for your sabbatical, include a generous time to read the Gospels, perhaps looking especially at Jesus’ times away and especially how he handled interruptions. Most of Jesus’ miracles came as an interruption, as he responded to a need. If after a sabbatical you’re more able to turn interruptions into welcome ministry opportunities, then you too will have learned the secrets of a successful sabbatical.

Pre-arrange to check in with a key friend, counselor, or mentor who will help you process your feelings, issues, and experiences. The biggest surprise most sabbatical takers report are the deep emotions that come up when they push their “pause” button and begin their sabbatical.

Rx for Churches Creating a Sabbatical Policy

– Qualifications: Specify what roles this covers (lead pastor only?), when it can happen (after X years of service at that church), and for how long (X months).

– Budget: Be clear about who pays for travel, education or other expenses, when, and what documentation is necessary.

– Goals: Set measurable written objectives or expectations for the sabbatical period.

– Communication: How will the sabbatical be announced to the congregation, and what report is expected after the sabbatical concludes, and to whom?

– Ethics: Have an honest quiet conversation about the pastor’s future and fit in the church. Some pastors take a sabbatical in order to secretly look for another church position, resigning as soon as they return.


Martin Sanders oversees the Doctor of Ministry program at Alliance Theological Seminary, Nyack, NY. A published author, he is also founder of Global Leadership, Inc.
Warren Bird oversees the research division of Leadership Network, has co-authored 24 books, and is a frequent contributor to Outreach magazine.

Some Truth About Burnout, And Some Antidotes

August 3, 2010

The New York Times had an excellent article about Clergy Burnout this week. I encourage you to clikc the link and read it. It’s got some good information.

However, packed full of antidotes to burnout is a blog post from Perry Noble. I’d encourage youeven more to click that link and soak in the truth it may painfully bring to bear!

If you are so inclined to do so, leave your thoughts about the articles before you leave here.

John Piper Taking Leave

April 5, 2010

John PiperYou may or may not have heard that John Piper, Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is taking an extended 7 month long leave of absence, starting on May 1.

You can read his statement here.

You can read the Bethlehem Elder’s response here.

I commend John for taking this step to care for himself, his marriage, his family, his church family, and the wider Body of Christ.

If you’re a regular here at Pastor For Life, you know that I strongly believe in the Biblical pattern of sabbaticals and the entire concept of self-care. You can’t help others if you can’t help yourself.

Thoughts?

Reducing Stress Proving To Prolong Life

January 6, 2010

FoxNews.com is carrying a story on the effects of stress reduction being proven to add years to one’s life. Honestly, none of us know how long we’ll live, only God does. However, we’re called also to be good stewards of our resources.

NOBODY can live WITHOUT stress. That’s not good either. At the same time, lack of stress is not what most Pastors face, and reduction of it can be a good thing, but it has to be intentionally sought.

Read on for more of this story and feel free to share your thoughts on it below!

Reduce Stress, Extend Your Life, Thanks to DNA’s ‘Life-Expectancy’ Gene

By Anita Vogel

– FOXNews.com

We’ve heard for years about the benefits of reducing stress. Now scientific evidence suggests that one of those benefits may actually be a longer life.

Chromosomes (stained blue) end in protective caps called telomeres (stained yellow), which are shorter in those suffering chronic stress.

We’ve heard for years about the benefits of reducing stress, and how we should make time for activities like meditation, yoga, and plain old relaxation. Now scientific evidence suggests that one of those benefits may actually be a longer life.

Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco have discovered an enzyme that plays a key role in normal cell function, as well as in cell aging and most cancers. It’s called telomerase, and it produces tiny units of DNA that seal off the ends of chromosomes, which contain the body’s genes.

The DNA units are called telomeres, and among other things they work to protect the quality of the gene, and how often a cell divides which determines the lifespan of the cells. What’s exciting about this discovery is the notion that telomeres can be lengthened to prolong cell life — and along the way treat age-related diseases like blindness, cardiovascular problems and neurodegenerative disorders.

So how can telomeres be lengthened?

The answer could be easier said than done depending upon who you are and your lifestyle. Stress reduction in this era is almost an oxymoron, but if your life depends on it, you might start to prioritize things differently.

To get the best example, UCSF researches chose to study women caring for gravely ill children with chronic illnesses and disabilities. They found that women who were the most traumatized by their situation had significantly shorter telomeres. They reached that conclusion by comparing that group to women with decidedly more normal levels of stress.

The hope is that these eliminating the stressors in these women’s daily lives may lengthen their telomeres and prolong their own overall lives.

Getting de-stressed takes work and determination, however. For some it will involve a change in lifestyle and they way they view stress and hardships — think yoga instead of sitting around worrying. The next time you have an extra ten minutes, consider stealing it for meditation … it could do wonders for your health and longevity.

The USCF Research is considered groundbreaking, and the team who discovered the telomere won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. Hopefully they’re on to something

Rest That Sleep Can’t Provide

November 4, 2009

Josh Patterson, Executive Pastor at The Village Church in Highland Village, Texas, wrote this great post recently on the topic of real rest …

I spent the last two weeks away from work and one of those weeks in Jamaica on vacation. I had no agenda and not a lot of responsibility. I didn’t have e-mails to return, no pressure to return calls or make meetings. My most pressing decision was which book to read. It really was a great couple of weeks.

But, there is a kind of rest that sleep cannot provide. There is a kind of rest that a vacation or time away from work doesn’t produce.

During my time away, I reflected on the nature of rest and what is necessary to quiet the soul and rejuvenate the spirit. I was reminded of three things: 1) sleep always helps, but is not the panacea. It is important for me to have adequate sleep each night in order to function optimally. That said, sleep alone doesn’t cure a tired soul; 2) time away from the normal routine allows me to disconnect, but doesn’t ensure I will connect with the Lord. I can turn off my phone and e-mails to help quiet my mind. This is necessary and beneficial. It was great for me to simply engage with my family and not consider all the responsibilities at work. That said, time away and a vacation means that you will have to face your weary soul either at your house or on vacation. Your heart goes with you; 3) the rest that revives and rejuvenates is the rest that is promised in the gospel. God has promised His children that we can cast our cares on Him because He cares for us. He has promised His children that He is greater than the world. He has promised to exchange my burdens for His easiness. He has promised His children that there is contentment and peace in His promises. So, in the gospel of Jesus Christ I am promised rest today and for all eternity.

In the end, I am reminded that most nights I can make a decision to get adequate sleep. Each day, I can do the necessary things to unplug and disconnect from work. Each week, I am afforded a day that is completely and wholly undivided for the sole purpose of rest, worship and connection with the Lord. Vacation and time away has reminded me that rest is a grace I overlook daily. And, that’s the kind of rest that I truly need.

Even The Contemplative Struggle With Burnout

July 30, 2009

You may or may not have heard of Father Peter Norden, founder of a large social justice agency in Australia called Jesuit Social Services and a well-known Prison Chaplain down under. He recently announced his resignation from the ministry after 40 years, citing burnout.

Interesting juxtaposition, in that Jesuits are known to be practicing contemplative spirituality  in every way. You can click here to not only read some of his story, but listen to a radio interview done with him where he is very frank about recognizing the lack of self-care throughout his ministry career.

Also interesting is his take on what he calls the “institutional” church, and how he is carrying on his faith in God, but not necessarily a faith in the institutional church.

Many here know that I work alongside Pastor Pete Scazzero, author of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. The thesis of the material is that you cannot seperate your spiritual maturity from your emotional health. Going further, Scazzero contends that living a life of contemplative spirituality is a primary way to bring the emotional life and health into line with your spiritual life.

Scazzero often says “the two, emotionall healthy spirituality and contemplative spirituality, go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other.” Father Norden’s story seems to be additional confirmation to this assertion.

Read, listen, and share your thoughts below.

(Special thanks to Bernie Federmann, Pastor of Lompoc Foursquare Church in Lompoc, CA, for alerting us to this story)

Creating a Culture of Balance

July 5, 2009

I recently read a great paper available from Leadership Network on how Pastors in their 20’s and 30’s are dealing with the stress and strain of ministry life. It was an excellent read and encouraging to hear that these guys are thinking much differently than I was trained. It gives me hope for the future of the Pastor and the future of the Church.

If you’d like your own copy to enjoy, click here.

I’d be very interested in your thoughts and comments if you end up reading it. Post them here below.

Governor Mark Sanford Could Be You or Me

June 30, 2009

It has been stated throughout the unfolding of the circumstance for South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford that he often would retreat after legislative sessions because they would wear him out. Retreating and refreshing is good, but at some point, Mark made some dangerous decisions about his integrity. Most likely, those decisions came in weariness and fatigue. They almost always do.

Pastor Gary Lamb recently said that in the couple of weeks after his resignation as a result of his affair, he had received over 30 anonymous emails from Pastors who admitted in those emails they were currently in the middle of an adulterous affair.

As stated in this post, there are a number of politicians who have admitted their moral failings recently. Is it just me, or does it seem like this is happening left and right?

We could list (and it would be LONG) Pastors who have shipwrecked their families and ministries because of sexual indiscretions as well. In the last post on this issue, I stated that we too often make our public figures more than human.

I don’t mean for this post to communicate that we should do that, but I also can’t help but wonder if God is not cleaning house among us. I’m talking about Pastors, not Politicians. It’s very interesting to me that this is happening with Politicians as well, but my primary focus here is Pastors.

The focus of this particular post comes back to self-care. It sounds like Mark Sanford had somewhat of a good sense and rhythm of self-care, though not knowing him it’s hard to really say. But it’s notable that he knew himself enough that when he was tired, he would get away to refresh.

Obviously, his trip to Argentina wasn’t about refreshing himself. But Argentina didn’t happen overnight, and affairs never do. They start slowly and grow in a process of decisions that lack integrity and honesty with important people.

How are you doing in this area? Are you taking care of you? Have you gotten away lately to be restored in energy, passion and vision? Are you taking your Sabbath and spending honest time with your family and friends?

Summer Days Got You In A Daze?

June 23, 2009

Summer brings with it all of its splendor and, hopefully, the anticipation of some down time with family and friends. How are you facing it this year? Are you excited about, ready for some time to refresh relationships, maybe see some friends or family you haven’t seen in a while? Or are you feeling like closing the door on your bedroom, ready for somebody to wake you up when it’s time to go back to work?

There are lots of great assessment tools available to help you gauge your burnout potential and current status. I want to suggest one here that can give you an idea of where you stand as you dive into Summer. This is a perfect time in ministry life to wind down, ease back, relax a little more and let the rest rejuvenate and restore. Sometimes it can be helpful to know where you’re at in your own body, mind and soul, and what your level of need is to be refreshed.

Maybe it will help you plan what kind of vacation you really need this year. Go ahead, try it out.

Good Stuff Coming From Gary Lamb’s Pain

June 20, 2009

When I speak of anything good coming from someone’s pain, it’s not news to any real leader. The best stuff of life and ministry, especially when in leadership, comes through pain. We have all felt the sting of where Gary is at in one way, shape or form. Maybe not in ways disqualifying you from ministry (though maybe so), but maybe painful in other ways we could go on and on about.

Disappointment …. discouragement …. half-heartedness from leaders (or ourselves) …. betrayal …. gossip that cuts to the core …. (you fill in this blank)

Among the so many things being said (and that will be said again at someone else’s expense and pain), I have found a few things that stand out. Ironically to me, the things standing out are being said not by those well-known, but by those who are faithfully plowing the ground God has given them and have lasted well.

One such person is Marty Duren. I haven’t met him, but I’ve perused his blog some. And this week I came across his “Thoughts Regarding Fallen Pastors”. Worth your time to read and process. Good stuff.

If you have found like material that isn’t being said by everyone else, please share it in the comments.

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