The story is told of a pastor who bought himself a nice, but modest houseboat and docked it on a small lake near his town. He named his boat ‘Sabbatical.’ This way when the urge to fish overwhelmed his sense of responsibility, his secretary could answer all calls by saying, “He can’t come to the phone. He’s on Sabbatical.”
And if that seems shady, to many so does the pastor who persuades his congregation to give him thirteen weeks away from his duties and responsibilities. But that is what I have done.
Sabbaticals are a common feature of academia. It is understood that professors are occasionally given time away from their teaching responsibilities to do research, to study, or to polish off their latest books. What is less well known that some of the most successful and innovative companies (as diverse as McDonalds and Apple according to a report published online by the University of Illinois, a report that no longer seems to be posted) have policies of giving members of their teams sabbaticals. These times have no particular goal or purpose beyond allowing their people to rest, to refresh, and to renew. Sabbaticals like this have been shown to be hedges against burnout and long range stimulation to engagement and creativity.
The idea of sabbatical is very much rooted in the biblical idea of sabbath.
Sabbatical for a pastor is a time for him (or her) to disengage from the regular duties of ministry. For a time, preaching, visiting, planning, and putting out fires are laid aside that he might find rest and renewal. He is to let go of the control he once owned and to entrust the care of the church to God and to the leaders whom God has raised up. It is a time for him to rest physically and emotionally and to embrace the revelation that the church does not need him to prosper.
The length of time away varies from church to church. Three months is often recommended, but I’ve heard of durations as short as a few weeks to as long as a year. Depending on their stage in life, some pastors leave their towns and live elsewhere for a time. Some travel. Some garden, paint, read, learn an instrument, or rebuild engines. Some, I’m sure, buy houseboats and fish. All detach from the 24/7 nature of their calling so that when they return to that calling they can do so from a position of renewed vigor.
If the sabbatical is done well they return to churches who have learned something of themselves. Pastors are by no means superfluous to the prosperity of churches. But neither are they essential. And churches who learn that they have gifts sufficient to carry on genuine ministry on their own are churches ready to form a healthier bond with their pastor when he returns. In the end, this benefits all.