Five Reasons for A Pastoral Sabbatical

During the months of November and December, I am taking a sabbatical leave from my pastoral duties at Coram Deo – and from my normal rhythms of life and ministry. Below are five reasons for a pastoral sabbatical. These reasons, among others, explain why more and more churches are making sabbaticals a regular practice.

TO REST: This is the number one priority for a pastoral sabbatical – and it should be. It’s what the word “Sabbath” means. Doesn’t everyone need rest? Sure. But pastors tend to need it in a focused and deliberate way, for two reasons. One, pastors are “always on” – the burden of shepherding never lifts. The Apostle Paul spoke of “the daily pressure of concern for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28).  The only way to relieve this pressure is to unplug from the normal rhythms of life and ministry for a season. Two, pastors and others in Christian ministry are, to my knowledge, the only people whose job performance depends on a strong, vibrant spiritual life. The average Christian can practice their vocation “in the flesh” (Gal 5:22) and still do well by their employer. But not a pastor. Rest and renewal is crucial for maintaining a fresh, dynamic, vital communion with the Holy Spirit.

TO RECHARGE: As good Western rationalists, we tend to downplay the reality of spiritual warfare. But Scripture reminds us that “we battle not against not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). A pastor is on the frontlines of this battle. And like any battle-weary soldier, he needs to be pulled off the front lines occasionally so he can clean his gun, take a hot shower, eat a few good meals, and recharge his leadership batteries.

TO REFLECT: Pastors spend much of their time and energy focusing “out there” (externally) rather than “in here” (internally). Deliberate rhythms of solitude, silence, and Sabbath are crucial if a pastor is to be as attentive to the health of his own soul as he is to the souls of others. A sabbatical provides time and space for extended, purposeful introspection and reflection.

TO REFOCUS: The present has a way of trumping the future. The pressing concerns of “right now” tend to dull a leader’s vision, pulling his mind toward what’s immediate. A sabbatical releases a leader from the tyranny of the present and allows him to refocus his leadership energy on the road ahead.

TO RENEW: Continuous spiritual renewal is the key to a vibrant and effective church. And renewal in the church begins with renewal in its leaders. So the ultimate goal of a sabbatical is individual renewal in the pastor’s soul – which often spurs broader renewal in the church at large. Renewed worship. Renewed joy. Renewed purpose. Renewed energy. Renewed love for God and others. Wholesale renewal – spiritually, emotionally, physically, mentally, and socially.

In 2008, the Louisville Institute commissioned a research survey of 250 pastors who had taken a sabbatical. Among the findings:

  • 87% of pastors reported that the sabbatical significantly renewed their commitment to ministry
  • 94% of church members claimed that their pastor seemed refreshed and re-energized after the sabbatical
  • 75% percent of congregations reported that a pastoral sabbatical tangibly benefited the life of the church (and not just the life of the pastor)
  • 80% of pastors who took a sabbatical considered the gift of time the single most important feature of their sabbatical

For more on ministry sabbaticals, check out these helpful resources from the The Lilly Endowment, 9 Marks, the Reformed Church in America, and the Association of Regular Baptists.

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