Sabbaticals a win-win for congregations, pastors
by Myra Holmes
Rest is God’s idea. In the very earliest verses of the Bible, God “rested from all his work” (Gen. 2:2). But in a work-oriented culture, rest is easier said than done. And for pastors, whose “work” isn’t exactly nine-to-five, rest can be especially hard to find.
Pastors juggle not one role but many: preacher, scholar, counselor, teacher, administrator, hospital chaplain, funeral director, wedding coordinator, friend and confidant. The hours are long and erratic. People, even those in churches, don’t always behave in loving ways. The demands and responsibilities can wear down even the best. Pastoral tenures are notoriously short and too many leave the ministry due to burnout.
Responding to both the demands of the job and to the biblical model of regular rest, many congregations are establishing sabbatical policies that provide an extended time of rest and renewal for their pastors. More than a vacation, sabbaticals are intended to give full-time ministers a chance to refill and recharge so that they may return to ministry with renewed energy. It’s rest with a purpose.
The CL talked via e-mail with seven Mennonite Brethren pastors who recently took extended leaves of two to three months: Steve Ensz, Garden Valley Church, Garden City, Kan.; Garvie Schmidt, Enid (Okla.) MB Church; Gaylord Goertzen, Ebenfeld MB Church, Hillsboro, Kan.; Steve Toews, Hesston (Kan.) MB Church; Kelly Thomas, Neighborhood Church, Visalia, Calif.; Dennis Fast, Reedley (Calif.) MB Church; and Stephen Humber, Parkview MB Church, Hillsboro.
Their experiences indicate that sabbaticals are a valuable tool and their input gives congregations some hints as to how to make this an effective time for their pastors.
Setting sabbatical goals
Just how these seven pastors chose to use their time varied, but all had sabbatical goals. Humber says setting goals is crucial for making a sabbatical more than a vacation: “A plan will lend structure and prevent the amazing opportunity from being wasted.”
Humber’s plan intentionally included ample time to “not do,” because that’s what he knew he needed. Schmidt, Fast and Toews laid out itineraries of travel, retreats, church visits and personal study. Ensz spent part of this sabbatical visiting former youth group members who are currently involved in ministry. Thomas’ sabbatical included a three-week missions trip. Goertzen spent a semester as campus pastor in residence at MB Biblical Seminary, the denominational seminary in Fresno, Calif.
In spite of the variety, the sabbaticals included common components. Thomas calls them “personal spiritual restoration, practical ministry education and a time of giving your life away”—a combination he found to be a “great balance.”
In terms of practical ministry education, five of the seven pastors—Ensz, Schmidt, Toews, Thomas and Goertzen—visited other churches with the goal of learning from them. Thomas chose churches “that are on the cutting edge of ministry” to maximize his learning.
Thomas intentionally focused on churches where he could observe multisite campuses, leadership development, community outreach and emergent, postmodern or missional ministry. He says one thing he learned is that “church is not defined by a building or location. It’s not an hour on Sunday morning, but a lifestyle lived everyday and in every place a believer walks.”
Pursuing practical education
Reading Scripture and other books was another means of practical education. Some pastors had reading lists ahead of time; others used the extra time to dig into their mental list of books they’d been meaning to get to.
Several of the seven pastors surveyed used their sabbatical to continue their ministry education in a more formal way. Goertzen had the advantage of being the MBBS campus pastor, so he had the opportunity to audit a number of MBBS classes. He says it was one way he was able to “take in” instead of “giving out.” Other pastors didn’t have the advantage of being based at a seminary but took advantage of educational opportunities through short-term classes, seminars or workshops.
Personal spiritual restoration took many forms for the pastors with which the CL talked. Some incorporated structured retreats at retreat centers into their sabbatical. Many of the pastors recharged with family time, travel or just a change of pace. They hiked, rebuilt a car, rode motorcycles, camped, rested on the coast, visited old friends or mentors and saw new sights.
And sometimes they did nothing. Schmidt’s sabbatical included time to “simply ‘be.’” Similarly, Fast took time just to “be at home and dwaddle and putz around the house and yard.” Ensz says, “A sabbatical should have some resemblance of a rest from ministry.” Ensz adds that for him, “doing something mechanical was therapeutic.”
Thomas’ sabbatical included a time of service as he and his family invested three weeks working alongside MBMS International’s Team 2000 in Thailand. There, the Thomas family helped with children’s and women’s ministry, visited church plants and the Abundant Life Home orphanage for HIV-positive children, helped with leadership development, taught English and more. A blog helped communicate the experience to friends and church members.
Goertzen likewise found that service in a new setting was valuable. “Although I didn’t really rest—I was busy preaching and learning—I came back refreshed, renewed and encouraged,” he says.
Several pastors mentioned the role of their spouse in the sabbatical as important. Fast pinpointed time with his wife, Connie, as a key goal for his sabbatical. Humber, who still has children at home, says he wishes he had been able to include his wife in more of his sabbatical experiences. “It wasn’t practical for us to get together for a long period away, but she could have really used it,” he says. Goertzen mentions that simply sitting next to his wife, Peggy, during a church service was a rare treat.
Filling the hole
Of course, it’s not easy to fill the hole left when a pastor is gone for a week, much less for an extended time, so a successful sabbatical takes planning on the part of the congregation. Some congregations arranged for guest speakers to fill the pulpit, while others made arrangements for a substitute or interim pastor. Administrative duties, funerals, weddings and the like were generally handed off to other staff or church leaders.
The pastors surveyed comment that the fresh perspective of new preaching for a season can benefit the congregation, as can the opportunity to take on new responsibilities in the pastor’s absence.
Five of these congregations contributed to the pastoral sabbaticals beyond regular compensation, which is something several pastors mentioned as necessary to make the sabbatical possible. Pastors recommend that congregations agree upon and arrange for the sabbatical finances well in advance.
These pastors say their congregations made this a valuable time first by letting them go. Toews says the Hesston congregation gave him freedom by telling him, “Go, have a great time, see you later!” Humber says Parkview formally blessed his sabbatical and released him from ministry during his last Sunday there, which he found helpful.
Congregations then showed support during the sabbatical time in several ways. Fast says, “The main thing they did was bless me with words of affirmation, acknowledging that this was an important time for them and for me.” Thomas mentions tangible expressions of support like finances and prayer. Schmidt adds that the Enid congregation “respected our time away.”
After the sabbatical, reentry into full-time ministry presented a challenge for some, while others, like Thomas, “just jumped right back in.” A congregation can help make that transition smooth. Goertzen and Schmidt mention that a time to share with the congregation and/or the church leadership was helpful. Humber says it was helpful that he didn’t have to come back to a “pile of stuff that I needed to work through.”
For at least a couple of pastors, easing back into regular preaching duties was helpful. “This helped me maintain my sense of leave and kept me from engaging in the ministry too soon,” says Fast.
These pastors argue that a sabbatical is a win-win for both the pastor and the congregation. Ensz encourages congregations to educate themselves about the value of providing their pastor(s) with a sabbatical. “Most people have no clue about the need for, the benefits of and the structure for a sabbatical—and I still don’t have all the answers to those either.”
For these pastors, the time of purposeful rest was an effective way to recharge and refuel. They mention renewed excitement in reading Scripture, prayer and preaching, as well as fresh energy and dreams. And when the pastor comes back recharged, with what Toews calls “a deeper well to draw from,” the congregation benefits from that increased effectiveness—a true win-win.
The Lilly Endowment, established in 1937 to encourage, among other things, the nurture of ministers, offers sabbatical grants to pastors and congregations.