I do not have answers. At best, I have hypotheses.
In forty years of ministry, though, I have never seen anything like it.
We see more pastors who return from sabbaticals to a church in a mess. Members have left. Lay leaders are questioning pastors and staff. The members are unsettled and critical.
Why? Frankly, I don’t know.
I want to be clear. I am not anti-sabbatical. While I have cautioned pastors about preparing for sabbaticals, I never thought there was not a place for them.
I also want to be clear that my information and data at this time are limited. I could be wrong. I could be projecting the situation of several pastors in a “sabbatical crisis” to the rest of the church world. But I also have never seen more requests for help from pastors returning from sabbaticals. I know. We are working with several of them.
The good thing about hypotheses is that you don’t have to be right. But you at least need to make an educated guess. My challenge is that I am not sure how I will test these hypotheses as we move forward.
1. Hypothesis #1: It’s the COVID effect. This hypothesis is at the forefront because of the number of similar situations we have seen in such a short period. We may never fully know the devastating impact of COVID and the accompanying quarantine, but it has not been good for most churches. Members are unsettled. Their uneasiness could be exacerbated if a pastor goes on a sabbatical so close to the relatively recent quarantine.
2. Hypothesis #2: The worship center is empty. It’s another way of saying there aren’t as many people as there have been. If the pastor becomes another one of the no-shows, at least during the sabbatical, the angst about the decline increases.
3. Hypothesis #3: Culture is crazy. Culture is polarized. Culture is less Christian. Values are no longer biblical. Politics are ugly. These are some of the cultural realities believers in churches face today, perhaps more so than at any point in our lifetimes. These church members look to the pastor for assurance and hope . . . unless the pastor is on sabbatical.
4. Hypothesis #4: Church doesn’t work like it did in the past. Not only has the culture changed, but the way churches do ministry must also change. One church member recently asked me in a conversation about a possible church consultation, “COVID is over. Why can’t we do things the way we’ve always done them?” If the pastor is not present to deal with this angst, the pastor can become a convenient target of discontent.
Of course, these four hypotheses are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Indeed, I suspect they are more related than not.
The Path Forward?
Did you notice I put a question mark at the end of the subheading? Indeed, I really would like to be able to answer the questions, “Is there a sabbatical crisis in the church? If so, why?”
We have more church and pastor clients related to sabbaticals than we’ve ever had at Church Answers. Indeed, we now have one consultant focusing exclusively on “sabbatical recovery” for both the pastor and the congregation.
We will continue to examine this phenomenon. If you have any thoughts, I would love to hear them.
Posted on September 12, 2022
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
More from Thom
I took a sabbatical in the summer of 21, it was planned and approved in the fall of 2019, during the fun times. I questioned whether or not to take a sabbatical as we were just trying to get our feet under us as a church. I’m glad I took it, My family and I needed it. When I returned there was a mix bag of good and bad that happened while I was away. Most of the conclusions I came to in regards to some of the disarray was more about me and my lack of setting volunteers and staff up for success in my own delegation style. There was a bit of a leadership void, but again I think that was more a reflection of a lack of clear communication on my part. The mess I walked back into was a bit overwhelming but has shown us some of our limits as a church and areas of growth. It’s given us a roadmap forward.
I would be curious to examine if the pastor’s expectations of the experience of a sabbatical is a contributing factor. As the COVID pandemic has also seen an increase in the occurrence of burnout, pastors may expect that the sabbatical is the “extended vacation” that will rejuvenate their spiritual experience. So when they come back and find the church as polarized and conflicted, if not more, the pastor have an exacerbated feeling of discouragement and burnout. I’d love to talk about this.
Thanks for this post. I’ll confess when I saw the headline, I assumed the approach would be to make an argument that the crisis is that pastors are overdue for sabbaticals, so I was surprised to see that the issue is the unraveling of things while a pastor is gone.
I wonder if part of the issue is that so many churches function in a very “celebrity pastor” format. Even if the pastor is not a celebrity in the larger evangelical world – he often functions as a celebrity in the church. He’s expected to be a Omni-competent CEO, preacher, social media expert, gregarious “radical hospitality” host, and hospice chaplain. And this is a 2-way street – lots of pastors have cultivated this role and expectations just as much as their congregation has foisted it on them. Many have negated that the work of church ministry should be spread out amongst the body and have emphasized their headship… and when you he head is gone, there is chaos.
I also wonder if at this moment, when the body of believers is made up of people who are also exhausted, and deeply in need of sabbatical, a pastor taking a sabbatical feels indulgent and leaves the members wondering if the pastor is “one of them.” That’s a hypothesis and I’m sure would vary widely based on the relationship of a pastor to their church.
I’d love to see pastors preaching on the need for sabbatical to the business owners.. what if Christian business owners led the way in providing sabbatical to their employees? The need for rest is not unique to pastors and college professors.
Finally, I’d agree, the larger cultural issues of the politicalization of church over the last 7 years, the Covid chaos, and all the things put most churches in a precariously fragile state that is made more fragile when the primarily visionary is not present.
A sabbatical does not mean the person is not the pastor for a period of time. It is not advisable to completely unplug during a sabbatical and return to “discover” chaos. It is possible to enjoy a sabbatical and still stay connected in a very limited way which allows a pastor to guide and shepherd through very limited updates and contact and input.
There are just so many fantastic insights and experiences noted by so many faithful pastors!
I came across a very enlightening podcast of the lead pastor of Flatirons church recently. It’s really worth a listen.
My favourite part was the pastor noting how much his key governance leaders cared for him and wanted him restored to a healthier place of leadership and influence–and not just for the church!
I commented before reading any of the other responses. I would like to add this. i am getting the impression that many of the pastors out there feel they are entitled to a sabbatical. entitlement is straight from Satan and something the world promotes. where in scriptures did Jesus take a sabbatical? I know He only preached for three years and didn’t earn one. What about the prophets in the Old Testament or the apostles and the others who assisted them? Serving is a way of life. if done right, being obedient, relying on the Holy Spirit, trusting other leaders in the church, there should be no burn out. burn happens when pastors rely on their own strength and abilities. IN I Kings 19 when Elijah was feeling sorry for himself and wanted a break, a sabbatical, God told him to get up and get back to work. We can’t do God’s work with our own strength, we need to fully rely on God. The only breaks Jesus took were a few hours praying. then right back at it. I think we need less self-serving pastors and more pastors fully committed to serving God. after all, don’t we want the people in our churches to be fully committed to God. like Jesus, let’s lead by example.
If you are a member of a church, I need to pray for your pastor.
I shared your reflections with a local ministers discussion group on Tuesday morning. A pastor whose church has long been requiring staff ministers to take a six month sabbatical after seven years of service offered this observation: “Chances are if a pastor returns from sabbatical leave to find a mess, the mess was already there before he left. The sabbatical just revealed it.”
Thanks Dr Rainer for raising the issue of Sabbatical leave. I am supportive that our pastors deserved to be refreshed and rejuvenated to serve the church well. A happy pastor breeds a happy church. But Sabbatical leave may not be the only solution.
I wonder what was the origin of Sabbatical leave for pastors (and other fulltimeministry staff)? I recall in the 60s and 70s, pastors and missionaries serving away from home country were granted furlough to return home for a year after serving six years in the church or the mission field. The reasons are to allow them to reconnect with family members and their home church. They are understandable and acceptable.
It seems that pastors are taking sabbatical leave based on the same model, although they are not uprooted from their home country. The one year leave from six years of labour is probably taken from God’s injunction for the Isaelites to farm the land for 6 years and then allow for a year of rest for the soil to regain its health (Lev 25:3,4). However, this advice applies to agricultural practice and not human labour.
The grounds for taking a long sabbatical leave have changed over the years. Most Pastors are not serving in a foreign land. A healthy church is shephered not by the pastor alone but by a team. Christian service is not about giving all the time without receiving. Personal development is a daily responsibility and not to be delayed to a distant future. For smaller churches with just one pastor, the prolonged absence of the pastor may be personally beneficial but corporately damaging to the church. For a pastor to earn his rest after six years of labour may be too late for his soul refreshment. The rest may not be adequate to inject the booster for renewed strength and passion.
Churhes need to grant pastors time away from pastoral duties for presonal reflection and refocus. But it is harmful to grant such leave after several years. One solution is to offer a period of time (weeks or a month depending on the church’s condition) per year in addition to his annual paid leave, for his own perusal. This avoids long period of absence away from he church (out of sight , out of mind) and draws out the essence of giving pastors personal time and space to be watered as he prepares himself to water others.
Great thoughts, Thom. Your willingness to suggest a broader issue at this point is gutsy, but in my case reassuring. I’m not alone in the mess I’ve returned to after my 2 month sabbatical this summer!
The congregation is extremely happy to have me back (cake, balloons, well-wishes, etc.), but the leadership is unsettled. It seems that some decisions were made during my absence primarily because I was absent, like shifting from the livestream to on-demand only. The Elders were neither consulted nor notified, which adds a whole other layer of strangeness to the matter. A fellow staff person said it felt like things started going backwards while I was gone, reverting to a more comfortable setting for longtime church members (the pre-service music was changed to music with a slower tempo, for instance). Little things, but noticeable things.
I feel like I’m starting over after 4 years, but that the clarity of my “new” call here is much more muddled than my original call to lead the church toward revitalization. I am finding out new information weekly, it seems, and it’s not all positive. Thankfully Jesus is Lord of this congregation and my sabbatical helped me settle more firmly on that fact.
Thanks for the insights, Mark. My prayers as you begin your “new” call.
Thank you, these are very insightful. For me, the path forward is retirement from the ministry. I left a thriving church several years ago (I had been there 20 years) to become bi-vocational because I could no longer take the infighting, bickering, and complaining. By virtue of new people coming to the church it was growing. A group of Sr adults who were unhappy that the church was changing went out of their way to make my life difficult. I was often publicly maligned in business meetings and on one occasion my sermon was interrupted by a church member who was angry that someone had been left off the prayer list. The deacons always sat by silently and let these things go on unchallenged. They would frequently deal with trouble makers by giving them a new position in the church. After becoming bi-vocational I took on a small struggling church and saw it grow from around 20 people to an average Sunday attendance of 50 to 60. Excitement was high and God was working…until the building and grounds committee decided we needed to remove some trees on the church property. The church split over the trees issue. After a couple of angry and intense meetings the tree issue was abandoned, but the damage was done and we lost numerous people and any momentum we had. All over some trees. Then covid-19 hit. The church is now back down to 15 or 20 people each Sunday. I am burnt out and exhausted. I turn 62 next year. If possible, I will retire and become a church member somewhere who supply preaches where needed. Thank you for letting me get this off my chest. Please pray for me. I appreciate your ministry brother Thom. I am remaining anonymous for these comments.
I’ve been in pastoral ministry for the past 25 years. I started taking one-month sabbatical leave in September 2014. Therefore, the blog post caught my attention, and I read it with heightened interest. I couldn’t wait to read what I hoped might be confirmation of my current approach to sabbatical leave.
The scriptural basis for my sabbatical leave hinges on Jesus’ sagacious directions to the disciples when He told them, “Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31, NASB). In my first sabbatical journal reflection, I stated the following: “By taking a sabbatical leave, I can get away from the pressure, problems, pain, and praise of ministry as well as the people to whom I minister.”
In 2019, my approach to sabbatical leave changed significantly. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when September arrived, I didn’t take a sabbatical leave because our church was closed, and we struggled for months to transition to an effective Livestream service. Thankfully, we made the transition. However, during that time, there was no way that I could be away from the church for a whole month. When the time came for my 2020 sabbatical leave, I didn’t go away for a month. Instead, I found moments for rest, recovery, and reflection. As I approached my present 2022 sabbatical leave, again, I sensed a need to be present as much as possible because of the recent changes to our church ministry caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, I expressed my uneasiness with taking a whole month’s sabbatical leave to our leaders, and we agreed to the adjusted terms of my sabbatical leave.
“Hypothesis #1: It’s the Covid effect”—is true in my pastoral ministry context (As a third-year Ph.D. student, I desire empirical data to support my assertions. Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence will suffice for this post). Our church is going through a revitalization process to recover from the adverse effects of Covid-19. We are working through a process that we developed called “Reconnecting, Connecting, and Staying Connected To Your Local Church.” I don’t envision being away from the church for a month-long sabbatical leave during the revitalization process. Why?
At this point, I must lean into “Hypothesis #4: Church doesn’t work like it did in the past.” We had conditioned our church that pastoral sabbatical leave is not a vacation. Contrastingly, it is an opportunity for the pastor to address soul-care and self-care to promote pastoral ministry sustainability. Before the pandemic, I could take a month-long sabbatical leave. We had ministry personnel that could cover my time away for sabbatical leave. However, I do not have the resources for a one-month sabbatical leave with one associate minister who has a family, is in graduate school, and has a full-time job. Additionally, some of our previous church leaders have not returned to the church, and some new leaders need the training to prepare them for pastoral sabbatical leave.
Additionally, our church is gaining positive momentum in recovering from the pandemic. Thus, the leaders celebrated this decision when I shared my desire to jettison my past sabbatical leave practices. The leaders stated, “Pastor, we perceived if you were away for a month, it would stop the present momentum of our church moving in the direction of recovery and exponential growth following the height of the pandemic.” Many ministries and teams need to reengage on the back side of the pandemic. This effort requires my skill and knowledge of strategic planning and change management to keep the momentum moving forward and prevent stagnation or regression.
“Hypothesis #3: Culture is crazy”—is true in my context. I have witnessed a significant cultural change since I started pastoring in 1996. I would like to believe that Covid 19 pandemic initiated another cultural change. The pandemic opened the door for many of our members to become content with being away from the church, pastoral leadership, and other members who can help promote accountability to biblical standards in a “less Christian” culture. Once our church reopened, many people who promised they would return to church have never returned (many of them will never return). Thus, if there was any time that I need to be present among the sheep and potential sheep is now to ensure people become and remain faithful during times when pressure and temptation to turn away from God and biblical standards can become overwhelming.
“Hypothesis #2: The worship center is empty”—this is also true in my context. As our church continues to work through the process of going from media staff, ensemble members, and musicians to a full congregation on Sunday mornings and ministries gathering throughout the week, the last person who needs to be viewed as away from the church when people are coming back to church is this pastor. Many people coming to church have not interacted with a pastor for at least two years (these people were used to interacting with a pastor weekly). Thus, I am committed to being present during a time when people desire pastoral leadership for spiritual guidance, encouragement, biblical teaching and preaching, and pastoral counseling.
Even though I will not take a month-long sabbatical, I will continue to find moments to selah and rest, recover, and reflect as I focus on self-care and soul-care. Hopefully, I can take a few trips with my wife, enjoy my grandkids, and get in a few rounds of golf. Each pastor and church is different. Thus, I offer the following general salient points.
First, seek God’s guidance in taking a sabbatical, and be open to God’s wisdom speaking into your life.
Second, seek input from other leaders, and be open to God’s wisdom speaking through those who are genuine spiritual leaders.
Third, do your best to create a culture of soul-care and self-care, and hopefully, the membership and community will value moments of rest, recovery, and reflection for pastors.
Fourth, keep your schedule flexible during this season. You may find extra time for soul-care and self-care; at other times, ministry needs may limit opportunities for sabbatical pauses.
Fifth, do your best to train other leaders to do what you don’t need to do, so you can focus on the things that only you need to do. This goal can free up more rest, recovery, and reflection time.
Thanks for the great input, Trevor.
Thanks, Trevor. It’s interesting that you present this perspective towards sabbatical, being away yet around.
Intentionally finding moments for reflection, soul-care, and self-care, as you state, is a key takeaway. Great!
Pastor Trevor Crenshaw, I really appreciate your input and insight.
thanks Tom, these are great hypothesis.
Before COVID I would have said it was a combination of 1) years of of bad habits, destructive behavior and/or lack of soul care can usually not be undone in a 2-3 month period. It may be just enough to truly identify the issues but habits take a long time to set in place. 2) Most people do not go on a sabbatical with an intentional game plan. Researching and crafting one requires work as well and demands energy they already don’t have. And then 3) as you mentioned earlier they don’t have a plan for while they are gone which leaves bigger issues waiting for them when they get back. This can undo what little progress was made during the sabbatical. Add our post-COVID paradigm and you have a potential useless sabbatical. For me a sabbath low bar has been (1) hour a day (1) day a week and (1) week a year plus a basic healthy lifestyle. It’s a plan that is full of imperfections and inconsistencies but God has met me in so many ways through these sabbaths. I am praying about a sabbatical after 30 years of ministry but want it to be about what’s next, not what have I done to myself. Until I can avoid these trappings I may just wait. That’s on me.
Thanks so much, Joe.
Maybe sabbaticals should be shorter. I have pastored larger churches and currently pastor a small church of about 150 members.
This church does not even talk about or budget a sabbatical for the pastor. I really believe a sabbatical would be beneficial for both myself and the church, but only about 3 weeks. A paid sabbatical with funds for the sabbatical for 3 weeks would be a refreshing and renewing opportunity.
I just heard of a pastor in my area who took a 9 week sabbatical this year and returned to issues in the church and now no longer feels refreshed.
The longer sabbatical looks to be counterproductive.