I was five days into a 10-week sabbatical. I delegated all the ministry tasks. The sheep of our congregation were being shepherded and fed. God had provided for travel and time with family beyond my wildest dreams. Yet here I was, getting ready to go out on a boat with my family and friends, and I was starting to have symptoms of a panic attack. I have no fears of boating. I wasn’t sensing fears of “letting go” of ministry. Being out on the water with my family and good friends on a sunny day is the stuff of dreams. But it is also the stuff of anxiety attacks if you have been running too hard in ministry. Somebody once said it well: “the body keeps the score.”
How a sabbatical helped
Maybe for you, it’s something else important in life and ministry that needs the reset a sabbatical will bring. It could be your relationship with God or with family or church members. In particular, if you have been at a church for seven years or more, the rest, refreshment, and reset that a sabbatical can provide may be missing in your ministry plan for longevity and personal and relational health.
In my case, the anxiety attacks went away with rest. That showed 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, there was a noticeable difference in conversing with people. I was more alert and able to focus more on them. I also began to run again, something I used to enjoy but had not done regularly in over a decade. Post-sabbatical, I felt stronger and more efficient at work due to these health changes. While I’m still struggling to manage my schedule and get enough sleep and exercise, I know what it feels like to be healthier.
Some pastors may want to see a counselor during or after a sabbatical. Our needs are as varied as our lives and ministries, but a sabbatical can give you the space to pursue the improved health vital to ministering effectively.
Reset in ministry and my walk with God
I had a church member tell me recently that there has been something different about me as a pastor since my sabbatical. She helped me notice that in just over two months of being away from our church and ministry responsibilities, I could dig deeper into my identity as a child of God rather than as a pastor first. This has given me confidence as a leader, an area where I needed to grow. I feel more freedom to lead because my roots are deeper in caring more about what God thinks of my leadership than what others think.
Most years, I attend other churches on Sundays two or three times while on vacation. On sabbatical, visiting different churches each Sunday was deeply refreshing. I took sermon notes for my soul’s growth, not my next sermon or teaching opportunity. I also took note of a few takeaways from every church we visited so that I could bring back helpful ideas to incorporate into our church. After my 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, they could still be in the church without me. If a sabbatical helps your church focus on the fact that you are not Jesus, it could be just as spiritually important for them as it is for you.
Family relationship investment
The three main sabbatical goals my wife and I initially expressed to the church were relationships, rest, and writing. Relationships were the most important. As you know, ministry has a way of stretching and depleting us. We went on sabbatical, realizing that our son would leave home in four short years. We wanted to be intentional about our time with him and our other children. My wife and I planned some time away as a couple to focus on our marriage while the kids were with trusted friends.
Time with your family is always well-spent. 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).
It had been too long for us, and sabbatical gave us the space to do that. It was also good for our church to know we were intentionally focusing on our marriage and parenting.
Writing or study project
Many pastors plan time for a writing or study project during their sabbatical. I made significant progress on a writing project. This progress was the fruit of having consecutive days to concentrate on how concepts and scriptures tie together. My only caution would be to plan this time carefully, and it should take no more than a week per month off. I had a friend recommend 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 life-giving project and not an assignment you have to turn in to your church when you return. The congregants will be excited to know what you’re working on during this time but set expectations so they realize it is time for God to feed your soul through reading, writing, or a combination of the two.
How we planned it
To plan a successful sabbatical will take some time—maybe over a year. You want something that gives you, your family, and your church rest, refreshment, and reset. It involves discussions with your leadership, communication with the congregation, diligent budgeting, and church life organization. You should also always include your wife in planning.
I once heard a pastor encouraging younger pastors to plan for regular sabbaticals, even if they occur once just every seven years. He explained that after several sabbaticals at his current church and long ministry there, somebody said, “It must be nice.” He knows he works hard and that he is fulfilling God’s ministry. A sabbatical is good for him, his family, and his church. With that in mind, he smiled and replied to his church member, “It is nice.” Fellow pastor, if you are overdue for a sabbatical, I hope you will say the same thing soon.
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