Of all the questions in the universe, one that came to the top at the Engage 24 Q&A Panel last week was, “how can I get my church to let me take a sabbatical?”
Pastors want to know: can I catch a break?
A few years ago, in a roundtable gathering with large church pastors, the topic turned to sabbaticals.
There were twelve of us in a circle. Eleven either take a month break every summer, or a 2-3 month sabbatical every five years.
All of them agreed, “Without my sabbatical/break, I don’t think I would have lasted where I am for my 20+ years.”
But there are barriers. You aren’t usually handed a sabbatical. You have to ask. And you have to make it work.
Roadblocks and Downsides to a Sabbatical
There’s no denying that taking a sabbatical has its risks. Here are a few worries that I hear from pastors:
- Will people leave the church?
- Will giving go down?
- Who will we get to preach?
- Who will do the things I do that must get done?
There’s a one-word answer to those concerns.
Every problem can be worked out. You just need 6 to 8 months to work out the issues so they don’t become issues.
To get a complete handle on the issues in your church around a sabbatical, do a SWOT analysis. A SWOT analysis helps you think through the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats on a new venture. It will help you think of everything, weigh the cost, and find solutions.
Get this download to see a sample Sabbatical SWOT Analysis, to use the worksheet to do your own SWOT, and to get the questions that will help you draw conclusions and take action.
Here are quick answers to the problems pastors fear about sabbaticals:
- Get good pulpit supply.
- Show the Board and congregation the benefit to them to have a pastor who is encouraged and refreshed.
- Make arrangements for who will cover your responsibilities while you’re gone.
- Find the money to cover the extra expenses.
Now, here are 6 steps you need to take to prepare for a sabbatical.
6 Steps to Get You to a Sabbatical
1. Decide what kind of sabbatical would be best for you.
You get to choose what you want to do. Mostly. Your Board must see the benefit, too.
You’ll need to articulate to your Board and your congregation what your purpose is in taking a sabbatical, so do some thinking and research privately before you start talking about it.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Is there something I want/need to learn to become more effective in the next season of my ministry?
- Do I want to pursue more formal education, maybe leading to another degree?
- Do I want to stay at home or go some place?
- Do I need rest and solitude?
- What does my family need?
I think the perfect sabbatical has some learning, some being in a new location, some deep rest and relaxation, and extra family time. But let’s be clear: a sabbatical is not meant to be a vacation. A sabbatical is for growth and refreshment.
Here are some of the sabbaticals we’ve given at my church:
- After working at New Song for seven years, our worship pastor took eight weeks to finish his master’s degree.
- Our youth and executive pastors, after working here for eight and for five years, took two months to film the movie, To Save a Life.
- I usually take four weeks in June as a writing break.
During these times, I put in 10-12 hour days, but not on preparing sermons and everyday church business. On Sundays, I visit one or two other churches within a ninety minute drive. This helps me see what God is doing elsewhere.
The change of pace helps me focus on writing the church campaigns that we, and many other churches, have used.
- In 1999 I took my only true sabbatical. It was six weeks long. Lori and I spent ten days in Canada and the rest at home. I began work on my doctorate.
Afterward, I came back with enough emotional energy to admit that New Song was stuck and needed to do something about it. We were in a leased facility that was landlocked between two other churches, with no room to grow. I initiated a building search that led us to raise money and purchase our current, permanent facility.
I wouldn’t have had the energy for it, if I hadn’t had time away to get renewed.
In our first eight years, before moving into our permanent facility, we led 1,000 to Christ. In the next eight years, after the move, we led 5,000 to Christ.
Rested leaders lead better.
My Ideal Sabbatical
My ideal sabbatical would be eight weeks.
- I’d spend my first week relaxing, sleeping, journalling and making preparations for the rest of the time away.
- Then I’d spend two weeks somewhere historical: in Europe, or Quebec, Israel, or Iran, investing what God did there, in and through His people.
- I’d spend one to two weeks with my family, having pure fun. Maybe at a lake or cabin in the woods, or maybe just at home, enjoying God’s creation here in leisurely fashion.
- Then I’d jump into a two week D.Min. course. I already have my degree, so I’d find an interesting class and audit it, for intellectual stimulation.
- I’d set a goal of memorizing a certain number of Bible verses during these days.
- Then I’d top off the sabbatical by spending two weeks immersed in the Scriptures I want to teach in the upcoming year.
What would you like to do on your sabbatical?
2. Find out if your church has a policy on sabbaticals.
What parameters does the policy give you? Have you been at the church long enough to qualify? How much time is given?
If your church doesn’t have a policy on sabbaticals, then collect a few examples of churches you know that give sabbaticals to their pastors. Call those churches and ask for a copy of their sabbatical policy.
Usually sabbaticals are offered for 6-8 weeks every 5 years.
If you aren’t eligible for another couple of years, then that gives you plenty of time to prepare for it. If you’re overdue (as I suspect most are), then keep working toward it.
3. Make a plan to cover the costs.
Cost is a primary obstacle in sabbatical-taking.
How can the church afford to replace you while you’re gone? And how can you afford to do anything more than stay at home if you have no extra funds for travel or education during that time?
Some of my friends in affluent churches are able to allocate moneys from the church budget for these expenses. Several have wealthy members who loan them vacation homes.
In my case, I use the Dave Ramsey approach. I allocate money in my personal budget for my travel and education.
Eli Lilly Foundation
Years ago, I looked into the Eli Lilly Foundation’s grant program.
They have a Clergy Renewal Program that can pay for interim pastoral supply and personal sabbatical expenses. You have to have a plan and budget before you apply. And you’ll need to get your paperwork in far enough in advance.
You can investigate it here: http://www.cpx.cts.edu/renewal.
4. Choose the best time to take a sabbatical.
Most sabbaticals take place during the summer months.
September through May are growth season for most churches. Summer is less frenetic.
Here in San Diego, I recommend June and July as times to get away. The military repositions people in early summer, so by August, warriors who’ve moved in are looking a place of worship. I want to be here when they start arriving.
My Orange County pastor friends prefer August as a time away. Their rhythm is different from mine.
Think through the best time for your church to, in effect, “go on auto-pilot.” That’s the time to schedule your sabbatical.
Firm up your plan and then it’s time to start talking about it.
5. Get your Board’s approval and support.
Board members certainly want the best for their pastor, and the best for their church.
If you’ve been there long enough and the church is in good condition, convincing them shouldn’t be a problem.
If you haven’t been there at least five years, or the church isn’t in good condition, then trust me, it’s not the time for you to be requesting a sabbatical.
Draw up a proposed sabbatical policy for your church based on what you learned from the other churches if your church doesn’t have one.
Make a list of benefits you see for taking a sabbatical. Put it all in writing.
Approach your Board six to eight months ahead of the time you have in mind.
Show them your examples from other churches. Give them your list of benefits. Show them your plan for your time away. Explain how you see the church covering for you, and covering the extra expenses.
Then give them a month or two to think, pray, and talk about it.
They may say, “We’re supportive, but give it another year.” If so, you can do this. You’re in it for the long haul, and you now have a year or more to look forward to this special time away.
If they say, “Yes!” assure them that they will get their money’s worth. In fact, one of the non-negotiables in New Song’s sabbatical policy is that you must commit to another two years of ministry at our church in order to qualify for this leave time.
Once your Board approves your sabbatical, there may be a few non-Board stakeholders who have concerns. Your documents will help bring them up to speed quickly.
6. Be thorough in your preparations.
Find a solution for each of the threats and weaknesses.
Your SWOT analysis is your friend, as you work to prepare your church and your staff for your time away.
Like a teacher planning for a substitute, you want each person and ministry to be prepared so that everyone has a good experience while you are gone.
Here are some articles and books that will help you plan your sabbatical.
This 34-page resource unpacks the underestimated value of taking a ministry sabbatical. It also gives you guidance for making the most of a sabbatical when you do take one.
How to Score a Sabbatical
“When I requested a sabbatical, I was rebuffed. Today, here’s what I would do differently.”
Clergy Renewal: The Alban Guide to Sabbatical Planning
Bullock and Bruesehoff provide the definitive guide to putting together refreshing pastoral sabbaticals that can help keep ministry vital and growing for the long term.
A Sabbatical Primer for Pastors
This primer is designed to take a pastor through the sabbatical from conception to conclusion. You’ll learn how to initiate and navigate a spiritual renewal leave.
Sabbaticals for Ministers
This resource from Focus on the Family shows the benefits for both pastors and congregations when the pastor takes a sabbatical.
- Download my worksheet to think through the obstacles, benefits, and preparation you need to do.
- Get one or more of these recommended resources to help you.
- Pencil in on your calendar when you would like to take a sabbatical.
- Make a timeline, working backward from that target date, of what you need to do to prepare.
One Final Word
A sabbatical is a privilege, not a right, and not a necessity.
You and I, as local church pastors, have the exalted honor of laboring in the best career possible. God called us. He will be with us when we are weary, and when we are energized.
Long-term pastors learn to refresh-in-place.
Whether you are able to take an extended time away or not, find strength in the Lord through quiet times daily, sabbaths weekly, and conferences or classes annually.
Blessings on your learning and rest, Pastor!
Start Here to learn more about the resources available for you at PastorMentor.