A Sabbatical For a Small-Town Pastor? The Why & the How

This summer, I had more focused time than I’ve ever had with my wife and kids. We made memories we will never forget and built into our relationships. I rested more than I have in years. I went for prayer walks just because I wanted to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation and to spend some extra alone time with the Lord. I studied for a writing project without interruption and made progress on a book idea that I could not have made if it were not for the focused time. I never felt guilty or like I was behind on ministry responsibilities for 10 weeks. I refocused on my identity as a child of God rather than as a pastor. This was possible because my church gave me a sabbatical, and it is not only possible as a small-town pastor, but beneficial.

How It Helped
I want to first convince you that especially if you have been at a church for seven years or more, a sabbatical will be good for you and your church. Then we will look at some “nuts and bolts” of how to plan a sabbatical that will be a time of intentional rest, refreshment, and reset for you and your family, as well as your church.

Improved Health

At the start of sabbatical our family had the opportunity to go to Florida due to the kindness of our church family and of a couple in our church who owns a home in Florida. It was there that I began to realize how badly I had needed the sabbatical but also that I needed to change patterns when I returned. Multiple times in the first two weeks, when we were getting ready to go do something fun I began to have symptoms of severe anxiety. This went away with rest, showing me how tired I was. I did my best the entire sabbatical to get a full night’s sleep and at the end of the 10 weeks I had a noticeable difference in even having conversations with people—being more alert and able to focus more on them.

I also began to run again, something I used to enjoy and had not regularly done in over a decade. Post-sabbatical, I feel stronger and more efficient at work due to these health changes. While I’m still struggling to manage my schedule and get enough sleep, I now know what it feels like to be healthier. I’m working towards that and I’m still making time to run. What could God do for your physical and emotional health during a sabbatical?

Reset in Ministry & In My Personal Walk With God

I had a church member tell me just the other day that since sabbatical, there has been something different—in a good way—about me as a pastor. What we think we put our finger on is that in just over two months of being away from our church and ministry responsibilities, I was able to dig deeper into my identity as a child of God rather than first as a pastor. This has given me confidence as a leader, an area that I needed to grow in. I feel more freedom to lead because my roots are deeper in caring more about what God thinks about me and my leadership than what others may think.

Most years I attend other churches on Sundays during vacation two or three times. Visiting other churches Sunday after Sunday was deeply refreshing to me. I took sermon notes every time simply for my own soul’s growth, not for my next sermon or teaching opportunity. I also wrote down a few take-aways from every church we visited so that I could bring back helpful ideas to incorporate into our own church. After sabbatical I heard from many church members that one of the best things for them was to realize that even though they missed me and my family, that they could still be the church without me. If a sabbatical helps your church to focus on the fact that you are not Jesus, your sabbatical could be just as spiritually important for them as it is for you.

Family Relationship Investment

An entire article could be written on what this special time did for the relationships between my wife and me, and our kids. The three main sabbatical goals we had expressed to the church from the beginning were relationships, rest, and writing. Relationships were the most important. As you know, ministry has a way of stretching us and ministry in a small town often requires wearing more hats. We went into sabbatical with gratitude, realizing that our son leaves our home in four short years and trying to be intentional about time with him. By God’s grace, my wife and I planned for some time away and also as a couple at home both while the kids were at camp and with trusted friends for a few days so that we could focus on our marriage. Time with your family is never wasted time. It is good to work hard in ministry and with excellence for God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31), but it is also good to rest and play together (Genesis 2:1-3). When was the last time you had weeks where you hardly spoke about church and ministry other than in prayer? For us it had been way too long, and sabbatical gave us the space to do that. It was also good for our church to know that we were intentionally focusing on our marriage and parenting.

Writing or Study Project

Many pastors plan time for a writing or study project during sabbatical. I found this to be special time that made a genuine difference in my book idea. I made progress that was the fruit of having consecutive days to concentrate and see how concepts and Scriptures tie together. My only caution would be to plan this time in carefully, and no more than a week per month off. You and your wife know your situation better than anyone else, but I had a pastor friend who recommended two weeks of writing time during my two months off and I wish I had listened to him rather than planning for three. The important thing is to plan for a project that is life-giving and not an assignment you have to turn into your church when you return. They will be excited to know what you’re working on during this time, but set expectations so that they realize it is time for God to feed your soul whether that is through reading, writing, or a combination.

How We Planned It

Discussion with leadership

In my situation, the church had offered a sabbatical after five years but the timing (2020) was not right. So I discussed it with them and we agreed that 10 weeks was about the right amount of time given that I took a sabbatical after seven years and given the church’s schedule, staffing, and ability to bring in other speakers. We discussed logistics and problem-solved beginning about 18 months out and found this gave us enough time to plan well.

Communication With Congregation

Another elder, rather than me, communicated with the congregation about the sabbatical a little over one year out. We found that having another leader be the point person for the sabbatical gave him the chance to explain why a sabbatical was needed for me and how it would work, while also giving the congregation an opportunity to share excitement as well as concerns that could be addressed. I did help in the communication by writing a PDF that explained what the focus of our sabbatical would be and what our current plan was for the church, but he e-mailed it out for me so that I could still communicate with the congregation about sabbatical but with his help and support in discussing it with the congregation.

Intentional Budgeting and Church Life Planning

Part of those discussions first with leadership and then with the congregation included intentional budgeting. We budgeted to bring in enough pulpit supply that we could have half sermons from our own staff (if you don’t have another pastor on staff, elders and other leaders could preach as their gifts and desire allow even if it’s only a couple of times), and half sermons from pastor friends and ministry leaders. We planned to give the special speakers a gas/food stipend and to put them in a local Inn, in addition to an honorarium, so that we could bring speakers from further away who could still be rested and ready to serve our congregation well. We also planned the sabbatical during a time that many regular church ministries were already taking a pause for the summer.

Intentional Planning With Your Wife

If you are married, the most important one to plan sabbatical with is your wife. Listen to her. Hear her heart and value her thoughts and desires as you plan. Talk through every aspect of it, even well before sabbatical discussions with leadership. Talk and pray about what your goals and needs are, and how you can intentionally plan for maximum good effect on your marriage and your kids. We found our plans changing over time because I was turned down for a sabbatical grant but then on their own initiative and without our knowledge our church took an offering so we could do things we could not have done otherwise with my pastor salary. It was fun and marriage-building to dream and pray together about what God could do in our lives during the sabbatical. Because of this planning, it was even a joy to work on house projects together that had been left on the back burner too long due to our normal ministry schedule. 

Enjoy!

I once heard a pastor encouraging younger pastors to plan in regular sabbatical times even if they are only every seven years or so. He explained that after several sabbaticals at his current church and long ministry there, somebody said to him, “It must be nice.” He knows that he works hard, and that he is fulfilling the ministry God has for him, and that a sabbatical is good for him, his family, and his church. So with some of that confidence in God that can come with sabbatical time, he simply smiled and replied to his church member, “It is nice.” Fellow small-town pastor, if you are overdue for a sabbatical, I hope that you will be saying the same thing soon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: