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.

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.

Study & Planning Break

February 4, 2009

One of the practices I learned about through my burnout experience several years ago is the importance of getting away regularly for the purpose of clearing my head and heart, being with God, and hearing His voice. It’s not as intense as it may sound by the title I give it, but I call it a Study & Planning Break.

I try to do at least two of them each year, though the one I write from now is long overdue. It’s been about a year and a half since my last one. Sometimes, the personal pace of life, family, both spouses working, kids school schedules, let alone church life and schedules, just get in the way.

Matter of fact, doing these is like leaving home for vacation ONLY in the sense that trying to get out of town and away from home can be a big hassle. All kids of things to arrange, tasks you want completed before you leave so your mind can be free, and the like. This one was certainly that way when I left on Monday (today is Wednesday).

You can do these almost anywhere that they work for you. This one happens to be at a friends place in at Lake Tahoe, about 400 miles north of my home. Since I love to drive,and that’s one way that really helps me clear my head, the drive is part of what I need and enjoy very much. It may not be that way for you, so maybe that wouldn’t work.

I try to schedule them so that I can have AT LEAST 3-4 days of time. So, for this one, I drove on Monday and will drive home on Saturday. That gives me four full days, Tuesday – Friday.

I always plan for the first day (yesterday, Tuesday) to be a day of decompression:

  • Lots of sleep
  • Lots of quiet (I read this week that it’s good for preachers to remember that God’s first language is silence! It takes time to get acquainted with it. You have to do it on purpose.)
  • Moving slowly
  • “Mind Dump” (writing down tasks coming to mind that haven’t made it to my to-do list yet)
  • Light reading (usually something NON-ministry related – you can see a review of the book I just finished here)
  • Taking a long walk
  • Seeing a movie

Then, on the 2nd – 4th days, I’ll focus on mapping out my message direction for the next few months. This week, I am preaching Sunday, so I’ll use some time to write this weekend’s message. I’ll calendar, read (usually something related to an upcoming series or two, as well as reading larger chunks of Scripture than I normally do when  at home), write, take walks.

On these breaks, I follow my body clock. I’m a night owl, so I enjoy working late and sleeping in, which doesn’t happen at home very naturally. That means I’ll take naps when I feel them coming on.

I use Time and Newsweek magazines for some research, so I’ll let them collect for weeks and then fly through them, tearing out what I want to use and file. I’ve got a box of them to go through while I am here.

I do a lot of relfection on these breaks, and enjoy long periods of time just talking to the Lord and listening for what He wants to say as well. Sometimes I go home with a strong word and other times not. Either way, He and I have had some good, long periods of time just being together.

That’s kind of what the Study & Planning Break looks like. I’ve done them alone, but they’re always safer and more fun to do with a friend. On this one, a friend who I haven’t connected with in a long time was able to come with me.

It’s important in selecting your “break-mate” that you both understand and are not awkward about the need to give each other a lot of silence and solitude. I always look for someone who I know I won’t be a distraction to and he won’t be to me either.

I also purposely look for someone who I know I’m going to have fun with. I am too reflective and not very funny naturally, so it helps me to have someone who I know is going to get me laughing!

Any habits you’ve developed along these lines that you can share? I’ve had a number of Pastor-friends who have made mention that they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves on a retreat like this. Maybe sometime, if enough interest is generated, we’ll do a small group “Pastor For Life” Study & Planning Break. Would you be interested?

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