Life on Life Associate
It may seem counterintuitive in our busy lives, but we believe it is essential for pastors to take occasional sabbaticals.
The world is a noisy place, and churches of all sizes are filled with demands. People want their pastor’s time, energy, teaching, attention, direction, and so much more.
In some careers, it may seem easier to take a break when things are going well. For instance, a sales employee who has already hit quarterly or annual targets may feel a lot more likely to take a break and coast until the next quarter or year begins.
This is not always the case for pastors. Growth within a church usually requires more work from pastoral staff. Greater growth means more souls who need shepherding, and more resources and programs required to accommodate higher numbers. The needs do not simply go away; the needs multiply.
And yet, for a pastor to truly be effective, we are convinced that taking time to get away is essential for several reasons. Let’s dive into them in this article:
What is a Sabbatical?
Quite simply, a sabbatical is a period of paid leave where pastors can study, rest, and pray.
The length of time for sabbaticals may vary widely – some pastors only take a week, while others may take an entire year!
For the sake of this article, we recommend head pastors should take a 2-4 week sabbatical every year. This provides enough time to truly disconnect, rest, study, and take advantage of the different benefits of a sabbatical.
1) Jesus Modeled Sabbaticals
Perhaps the best reason we have for pastors and church leaders taking sabbaticals is that Jesus also took sabbaticals during his three years of ministry.
Crowds constantly chased Jesus (and when I say crowds, I mean thousands of people). They wanted to hear him speak, they desired to see a miracle, and they probably hoped for one of those mysterious free meals that came from a handful of fish and loaves.
If I were in Jesus’s sandals, I would have wanted to capitalize on early success and keep the momentum of my growing ministry going. Sometimes striking while the iron is hot is important, even if it comes with the high price tag of potential personal burn out.
Jesus, however, took a different approach. In Mark 1:35-38, while people were actively searching for him, Jesus decided to simply retreat:
And in the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and prayed there for a time. Simon and his companions eagerly searched for Him; and they found Him and said to Him, “Everyone is looking for You.” He said to them, “Let’s go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may also preach there; for this is why I came.”
This is only one example. Jesus frequently withdrew to desolate or secluded places, for there he was able to get away from the busy noise of his day-to-day ministry. During his time away, he was able to spend quality time with the Father, rest from his work, redirect his ministry as needed, and refocus on his mission.
2) Sabbaticals Give Pastors Quality Time with God
When the disciples found Jesus in his secluded place, they found him praying.
Pastors are frequently required to pray. They pray during church services, they are first tribute to pray blessings before meals or before events, and there is always a steady flow of church members who want personal prayer from their pastor as well.
These are all good things – we should pray for all these things! But prayer can also become habitual and start to feel transactional if not careful.
This can also happen within a marriage, to provide another example. Spouses spend time together everyday, but between work, the kids, schedules, and everything else going on in life, sometimes marriage can feel more like having a roommate instead of a spouse.
What is one way to rekindle that old flame? Going on a trip together enables the couple to get out of routine, spend quality time together, and breathe life back into the day-to-day relationship.
In the same way, taking a sabbatical gives pastors the chance to truly enjoy quality time with God. It is time spent with God for the sake of enjoying Him, and that quality time away can breathe life into a pastor’s ministry and prayer life when returning from sabbatical.
3) Sabbaticals Provide Pastors with a Rest from Work
Work is a good thing. God commands us to work. Full-time ministry is a good thing. God calls us to pursue the lost and live in community with other believers. But work, especially work in full-time ministry, can be very tiring.
On the 7th day of Creation, God rested. He also calls us to rest, and he designed our bodies to require it. We need sleep every day, and we’re not quite right when we don’t receive enough.
But rest is more than sleep! We also need to spend time away from work each day and each week. We need time to rest our minds and our bodies, and to be refueled by God’s presence. There are countless studies that demonstrate the benefits of taking 1 day off per week.
Rest time can improve creativity, revive mental energy, reduce inflammation in the body, lower stress, and even add to the total number of days in your life!
And while that weekly cycle of 6 days for work and 1 day for rest is important, sometimes the body needs extended rest. Going on sabbatical provides pastors with the opportunity to rest for multiple days, reviving their minds and their bodies so they can return to work full of energy and ready to go.
4) Sabbaticals Help Pastors Cast Vision and Redirect their Ministry as Required
I do not think it was a coincidence that, after Jesus retreated to his secluded place, he decided it was time to go “somewhere else.”
Sometimes we get so focused on rowing the boat that we never stop to check the direction in which our boat is headed. Sabbaticals help pastors stop their daily work so they can take a step back to observe the bigger picture, listen to God for any new direction, and change course if required.
In his book, The Intentional Church, Randy Pope says the following:
Quite a while ago, I read that the president of an Ivy League school said something like this: “Unless 20 percent of my time is spent with my feet on my desk, I can only manage this organization—but I cannot lead it.” He was saying that he had to spend time away from the day-to-day responsibilities that robbed him of the time to think about the future.
In the early years of our church, the elders told me they wanted me to spend four weeks a year away from my regular responsibilities to spend time talking and listening to God, thinking ahead, planning for the future, and sharing this direction with our leadership. I have kept this practice now for nearly twenty-five years and have never regretted the time spent away.
If a pastor wants to lead his church, then he must take time away to rest and plan for its future. Perhaps he may find, upon returning from a sabbatical, that no changes are required in his ministry. But for many pastors, making course corrections every so often are vital to building a healthy church.
5) Sabbaticals Help Pastors Refocus on What is Important
It can be pretty challenging to remember priorities when there are a ton of voices clamoring for a pastor’s attention. As a pastor often hears,, “We need you here!” and “We need you there!” in the same breath.
Even worse, far too many godly and influential pastors fall into the trap of believing they are the most important part of the church’s ministry. Success can breed a sense of pride that pulls focus away from the ministry and solely on our own abilities.
Pausing and withdrawing is helpful for pastors to remind them that a ministry’s success isn’t solely due to one person’s own power or ability. Stepping away from the ministry for a brief time is an outward sign of inward trust that God is the One who is truly behind the success of a ministry. Sabbaticals remind pastors that God is the foundation of the ministry, both when the pastor is present in the church, and still when he is not.
Sabbaticals furthermore provide other leaders in the church an opportunity to step up and serve. This may require prior training and equipping, but developing new leaders is a good thing! In larger churches, the staff may simply share the load of the pastor’s responsibilities while he is away. In smaller churches, elders or lay leaders can step in.
Ultimately, we need the time away with God to remind ourselves that He is the most important thing. As Jesus said to Martha in Luke 10:41-42, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; but only one thing is necessary; for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
In this article, we’ve highlighted 5 different reasons pastors should go on sabbatical.
Jesus himself modeled the importance of getting away from the noise to pray and ponder. Many of the best leaders in government, business, and other areas of life have demonstrated the benefits of taking a long break as well.
Going on sabbatical gives pastors the chance to spend quality time with God, enjoy a time of rest, redirect their ministry as required, and refocus on the most important thing-God HImself.
So the question is, do you have a sabbatical planned? If not, what’s holding you back?