Focus on the Family

6 Reasons Pastors Should Consider a Sabbatical

Having a “planned sabbatical” with a clear goal will benefit the pastor and the congregation. Here are six reasons to consider a sabbatical.

More pastors are taking sabbaticals than ever before. Sabbaticals generally last anywhere from 40 days to a year and allow the pastor to step aside from his regular ministry duties for rest, renewal, and reflection. Some take what might be called “emergency sabbaticals” due to unhealthy ministry patterns, fatigue, and burnout. Though not ideal, they are sometimes necessary. However, having a “planned sabbatical” with a clear goal will benefit the pastor and the congregation. 

Here are six reasons to consider a sabbatical. 

1. Rest 

This reason is the most obvious. Pastoral ministry is not physically demanding (at least most of the time), but it is demanding in other ways. As Thom Rainer explains, “In the course of a day, a pastor can deal with death, deep spiritual issues, great encouragement, petty criticisms, tragedies, illnesses, and celebrations of birth.” 

The emotional roller coaster of ministry can tax the pastor, especially over several years. Many pastors regularly “burn the candle at both ends.” Inevitably, that kind of pace takes its toll over time. A sabbatical can provide much-needed rest and renewal beyond what a pastor can gain from a few weeks of vacation each year.

2. Pursue God 

Like many Christians, pastors sometimes fall into the trap of finding their identities in what they do rather than who they are in Christ. Pastors look more like Martha, who was “anxious and troubled about many things.” They should strive to be more like Mary, who was concerned with “one thing”– time with Jesus (Luke 10:38-42).  

A time of sabbatical helps the pastor re-orient his life and ministry in the direction of Christ. Scottish pastor Robert Murray McCheyne (1813-1843) explained it best: “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness.” The 21st-century pastor must wear many hats and meet a variety of expectations. Pastors often forget the value of modeling a godly and prayerful life. 

Christianity is all about the pursuit of God. Pastors would do well to slow down and give themselves wholly to knowing Christ (John 17:3, Philippians 3:10-11).

3. Clarify Your Calling 

All pastors and elders have the same basic job description. God calls them to preach “Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23) and “devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Pastors are to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2) and “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). These responsibilities are non-negotiable. However, every pastor also has a unique calling that transcends these core components. 

Sometimes it is necessary to take time to reflect on this. Ask God, “what do you want to do through my life? How can I best use my gifts for your glory?” A sabbatical affords time to consider these matters.  

One of the most essential ministry skills is the ability to say no to many things. The pastor must often turn down good opportunities to focus on what is necessary. However, the pastor will not be able to tell the difference without a clear sense of calling.    

4. Spend Time with Your Family   

Let’s be honest. Sometimes the pastor’s family gets the short end of the stick. The kids don’t have much access to Dad. His wife often sacrifices time with him so that he can be available to others. 

Ministry is demanding. There were times when the apostles wondered how they would carry on (2 Corinthians 1:8-10). The reality of ministry is that every pastor will suffer and sacrifice much. However, he should strive to free himself up as much as possible for his family.

During a sabbatical, the pastor will find some much-needed family time. A sabbatical can also help the pastor find new rhythms and routines that will help him protect his family time when he re-enters ministry.     

If God has blessed you with a wife and children, take time to enjoy them. They are good gifts of God (Psalm 127:3, Proverbs 18:22). 

5. To Stretch (and Strengthen) Your Church 

A pastoral sabbatical can be tough on congregations. After earning their trust over the years, having a pastor absent for a time can be a stretch. If there is a downside to sabbaticals, it is this. However, the church can also benefit and perhaps even grow in strength. 

One of the pastor’s primary callings is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12). A pastor who does everything is failing in his God-giving calling. Leadership equips healthy congregations to use their spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11). 

As a pastor steps aside for a time, the leadership and the congregation must step up, particularly in smaller churches. This action doesn’t just happen automatically. This scenario is possible when a pastor has consistently fed the church with the Word of God and trained it for ministry.     

6. Study and Plan Ahead  

Paul told Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Though it shouldn’t be so, in the craziness of ministry, a pastor sometimes neglects the ministry of the Word. 

A sabbatical can provide considerable benefits in giving uninterrupted time for study. Pastors can dive deep into the riches of God’s word and better equip themselves to feed God’s people. It also allows preaching pastors to study and plan months (and even years) in advance.  

Is a Sabbatical for You? 

The church you serve needs to be on board with it. Planning for a sabbatical is a lot of work, and no two sabbaticals are alike. Many denominations now recommend pastors take a sabbatical after serving five to seven years at a church. Though it is not for every pastor, most pastors would benefit from a sabbatical. 

As you thoughtfully and prayerfully consider these matters, remember the glorious invitation that Jesus gives to all. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). 

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