Sabbatical’s; godly gift or ministry minefield?

I’m going to be honest up front, I’m conflicted about the churches practice of giving pastors Sabbaticals for a number of reasons.  I’m ready to be convinced, but as yet I’m not convinced that sabbaticals are biblical for pastors.  As far as I can see it’s the land that has a Sabbath year in all the Old Testament passages that are used to justify this practice.  It is not the priests or the prophets or the king or the people but the land.

And why do we apply it to full-time paid ministers of the gospel but not to others who minister so hard alongside other work?  Shouldn’t the Sunday School teacher, the elder, the deacon, the toddler group leader, enjoy a similar rest?

And practically how does a Sabbatical work in a small church with one pastor and no other full-time workers?  And what does it say to our church family if pastors, as many I know of do, go to church elsewhere during a sabbatical?  And why would we want to?

And finally what will the guys I know who work on the railways, or in a warehouse, make of a pastor who has 3 months off?  (I know it isn’t off, it can be used productively for study or writing, but that’s how they see it).  How weird is that, I think it will just be another barrier to the gospel, some weird middle class church practice, a million miles away from working class realities proving yet again church isn’t for them..

These are just a few of my issues with Sabbaticals; theological, ecclesiological, practical and evangelistic.  But I wonder if my biggest issue with it is that as pastors and churches we are buying into the worldly way of binge resting.  Work, work, work at a burn out pace and then collapse into a period of rest.  Is it a sign that we are not enabling pastors to rest well so that their work is sustainably paced to endure and thrive and produce fruit over the long-term?  Is it that as pastors we have an overactive Messiah complex so we work ourselves into the ground until we need a break?  Is it that our diaries are so full that there is no time to read, take time out for long term planning, visit other places etc…  In which case we need to look at our diaries.

I’d love anyones thoughts on Sabbaticals.

One thought on “Sabbatical’s; godly gift or ministry minefield?

  1. Thanks for that, Al, appreciate it. Here’s my own take on it (admittedly having had a sabbatical 3 years ago, so my comments may be an attempt at self-justification… 🙂

    i. I think you’re right to point to the very limited explicit biblical grounding for sabbaticals. For me, it’s more about wisdom than biblical prescription or pattern. I think we all too often look for a cannot-be-argued-against biblical legitimacy because it’s easier to point to a command than it is to validate wisdom. So I’d agree that it’s not helpful to try to tie the practice to explicit bible teaching.

    ii. Again, it’s true that there are some in the church who work in jobs where sabbaticals have never figured and probably won’t ever do so. I get the point that others in the church have stressful jobs and don’t get to have anything like a sabbatical, so perhaps ministers ought not to have them. When I had my sabbatical (after 22 years of constant ministry) it was with a low-level sense of guilt that stemmed in part from exactly that kind of thought.

    But maybe there’s a case for saying (and showing) that there is a better way? It may not lead to any significant change for others but it might challenge some in our churches who have influence in employment practices to think about the issue.

    I think, too, that it would be a good pattern to set for those who are involved in church ministries. Their case is somewhat different, in that their ministry (e.g Sunday School) isn’t full-time and has defined limits, but I think it’s helpful if a minister’s sabbatical actually leads into a conversation about the need for others to have down-time from the particular ministry they’re involved in. That seems eminently good to me.

    iii. But it’s also true that there are other occupations where sabbaticals do happen. For example, university professors and others who have (sometimes very extended) leave for research purposes. Less glamorously – and always defended to the hilt – are school teachers (and college lecturers) who have extended ‘holidays’ each year.

    Teachers have 13 weeks not in school every year. It is undeniable that part of that time is devoted to preparation for the next term/year but the fact is an extended time away from their usual working environment, and non-contact in terms of those they serve, is not seen as exceptional but necessary and proper; they need time to recover. That’s 13 weeks every year, not every 7 years. I don’t begrudge them it at all; like you I’ve seen how hard they work and the demands it makes on them. I’m glad they have that time off. But others work similarly hard in all kinds of jobs and get similarly stressed – I’d want to advocate for them to have opportunity for extended leave, too.

    (In terms of teachers and sabbaticals, I believe that in some other countries those who have taught for a number of years do get a sabbatical. It’s certainly being talked about in the UK, too.)

    iv. It might also be helpful to think of that out-of-workplace, non-contact time as being comparable to a minister worshipping elsewhere during his sabbatical. I get the reasons why that looks and feels odd but that can be a good thing – when I returned after my sabbatical I could genuinely say to church that I had really, really missed being with them. I hope that was helpful for them to hear. (Re non-contact time – it’s why many teachers choose not to live in the same catchment area as their school; they don’t want to see pupils in their own down-time.)

    v. We could also point to other situations where sabbaticals are needed to replenish mental and emotional resources, for example in the caring professions. It’s well known and accepted that work that involves people, especially people who have significant needs (of whatever description), makes huge demands on the person giving help, offering support and counsel. Whether sabbaticals are offered or taken by those in such positions/jobs, the incidence of absence due to illness suggests they probably need them or something approaching them.

    vi. Is it binge-resting? Is it because we are prone to a Messiah-complex? There’s probably some truth in that, sufficiently so to ameliorate some of the need for sabbaticals, but I don’t think it accounts for the bulk of it. I think it comes down to accumulated wear and tear, like a footballer’s knee problem – despite training properly and resting well it just got worn down over time and through the inevitable injuries; no-one’s fault but it eventually needed surgery. Perhaps that’s what some sabbaticals are?

    vii. The practical difficulty for smaller churches to offer their minister a sabbatical is very real. It’s costly and disruptive and difficult to get sustained cover. Maybe recently-retired guys could offer to cover a sabbatical for smaller churches? Perhaps that could be organised through the appropriate church network?

    And it might be that at the end of the day, however difficult it has been to make the arrangements for a sabbatical, the church itself might feel it was worthwhile, that they have also learned things through the experience, as well as (hopefully) benefiting from having a refreshed pastor serving them.

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