Five Reasons Your Pastor Should Take a Sabbatical

February 1, 2014

The word “sabbatical” has different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. It has one meaning in the academic community, another meaning in its biblical usage, and still another in many secular settings.

For the purpose of this article, I define sabbatical in simple terms. It simply means time off for rest and/or study. The time can be a few days, a few weeks or, on rare occasions, a few months. The pastor is given paid leave for rest, rejuvenation and, perhaps, deeper study. I would love to see churches of all sizes provide this requirement of their pastor, even if it’s only for a few days.

I have the opportunity to work with lay leaders and pastors. I have a pretty good view of both perspectives. And I am convinced that more lay leaders need to insist their pastors take regular breaks even beyond vacations. Allow me to provide five reasons for my rationale.

  1. A pastor has emotional highs and lows unlike most other vocations. In the course of a day, a pastor can deal with death, deep spiritual issues, great encouragement, petty criticisms, tragedies, illnesses, and celebrations of birth. The emotional roller coaster is draining. Your pastor needs a break—many times a break with no distractions.
  2. A pastor is on 24-hour call. Most pastors don’t have an “off” switch. They go to sleep with the knowledge they could be awakened by a phone call at anytime of the day. Vacations are rarely uninterrupted. It can be an exhausting vocation, and a sabbatical can be a welcome time to slow down.
  3. Pastors need time of uninterrupted study. It doesn’t usually happen in the study at church or home. There is always the crisis or need of the moment. Church members expect sermons that reflect much prayer and study. The pastor’s schedule often works against that ideal. The sabbatical can offer much needed, and uninterrupted, study time.
  4. Pastors who have sabbaticals have longer tenure at churches. Though my information is anecdotal, I do see the trend. And while I cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship, I feel confident that pastors who have sabbaticals are much more likely to stay at a church because they are less likely to experience burnout.
  5. Pastors who have sabbaticals view the time off as an affirmation from their churches. I have heard from many pastors who share with me a sentence similar to this one: “I know my church loves me because they give me a sabbatical.” Pastors need affirmation. Sabbaticals can accomplish that goal.

I estimate that only about five percent of churches offer sabbaticals. In almost every case where I am familiar, the relationship between pastor and congregation is very healthy. I do think at least one of the reasons is the sabbatical.

What is your view of sabbaticals for pastors? What would you add to my five reasons?

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156 Comments

  • Ron Anderson says on

    I am 61 and 32 years of full-time ministry between two churches, 20 years in my current church. I have never had a sabbatical and have never heard any of the Deacons even mention it. I had a couple college professor’s say that when your church offers you a sabbatical it’s so you can update your resume and get started packing!

  • I served as the Senior Pastor of a church for nearly 30 years. I never felt that I needed a sabbatical, I never suffered from “pastoral burnout”. I enjoyed the work of the ministry and understood that there would be times where I got the late night or middle of the night phone call, but those times were few and far between. I lived in a military area and saw the struggles of the military families and thought, “How dare I complain about my responsibilities when these families have a much more difficult assignment”. When I finally retired and began another ministry, along with buying a small business, I felt the weight of the pastoral responsibilities lifted from my shoulders. Yes, there is a great responsibility in serving as a pastor, but we do it by God’s enabling grace.

    When I hear pastors talk about needing a sabbatical, about dealing with pastoral burnout, I think, and forgive me if this is unkind, but I think that so many pastors are snowflakes. It seems like the “poor me” attitude, and it is when I want to say “suck it up, buttercup”.

    Now, I filled in for my replacement for a few months when his wife had some unexpected medical issues and he was given a leave of absence by the board. That is different. It was for a period of 3 months and I gladly stepped in. That is different than a sabbatical.

    For some, a sabbatical may be right. But we who serve as pastors should not ever take the “poor me” approach and think that our work is any more challenging that the member of the congregation who has to work 2 jobs to make ends meet.

  • I used to think “being filled with the Spirit” alleviated the need for such things. After a couple decades of ministry, I’ve come to think otherwise and I’m jealous of those who have been blessed with sabbaticals.

  • I am most curious about the biblical theology that may OR may not support a pastor sabbatical as popular thought may have it. For the most part, I can find some OT references and little NT references (Church age). Likewise, if the pastor is burning out, where are the elders and deacons to help the pastor cope and manage? I suspect that if the elders are doing what they ought to be doing (1 Tim 4, etc.) the pastor may not need a sabbatical.

    Thoughts? Theology?

  • D.L. Levy says on

    I have pastored for over 18 years and I taken a sabbatical every year. I believe this to be the reason I have served the same church my entire pastoral career.

  • Ben McClary says on

    Before I planted my church and I was in sales, I worked less hours, dealt with far fewer issues, made more money, and had more time off. All of the “businessmen” who have belly-ached in this comment section about how much they have to work and don’t get a sabbatical have no idea what vocational ministry is like. I have spent years on both sides. Ministry is far more demanding and far less materially rewarding.

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