Is There a Sabbatical Crisis in Churches Today?


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.

Clear Caveats

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 Hypotheses

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.
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  • Jared Haines says on

    Concerning the sabbatical crisis. Pastors need to ask a couple questions before considering a sabbatical. 1) how many people in the congregation are able to take a sabbatical from their jobs? 2) Will a vacation, missing a Sunday or two meet the need?
    3) Are you taking time off for your own mental and physical health or is it to get away from your congregation for a while?
    4) Do you have someone trained that you can rely on while you are gone? Or is taking time off just trading one set of issues for another? 5)Is a sabbatical just a trial separation? Are you considering a move and just figured taking a leave will help you work things out? If so, you have probably moved on mentally already. Do the church a favor and just leave.
    I grew up with a father who pastored for 60 years. I have been a pastor for 14 years. I learned from my dad that a vacation for a week or two is long enough to get refreshed and back to the church. A sabbatical was never a consideration.

    • All good questions to answer. But I’ll push back a little on the first one. Just because someone else in some secular employment can’t take or isn’t offered a sabbatical should not be a deciding factor on whether a pastor takes a sabbatical. A pastor’s “product” is not always measurable the way it is in many jobs. A pastor’s vocation includes time for discernment, being with God, and listening for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

      Put differently, Pastors are NOT CEOs or business managers. Pastors are people set aside and ordained to model a holy life. Regardless what people think, Church is not business – Church is community and relationships.

      One other item which can be or should be addressed in the preparation for sabbatical is addressing the expectation on both sides of the discussion about returning to the Church and continuing ministry in the present context. Many of my colleagues who just departed and returned from their sabbatical had an agreement that they would return and work for an agreed upon period of time.

  • Let me preface this with I have never been offered or taken a sabbatical, but I would like to. I also believe Pastors more than ever need to take advantage of sabbaticals. Just look at the current burn out rate. Now, in response to the blog. I don’t believe there is an issue with taking a sabbatical its self. It sound to me like the pastor may not have adequately prepare his staff/church for his time away. As with any change, even if it’s a short term, everyone should be prepared. They need to know, how long the time away will last, who is responsible in the pastors absence, etc.

  • So much of this rests on the health of the church before and during the sabbatical and how the sabbatical is presented to the church. After 10 years at my present ministry as lead pastor, we placed a sabbatical policy into our policy manual, but I was not the first to take one. Another staff member did (he’d been here longer) because it was very needed. It was either give him a break or lose him. In fact, that was why we did the policy.

    I was then scheduled to do one in 2020, but chose not to due to the uncertainty around the pandemic. However, my board pushed me to take it in 2021 even though COVID was still a factor, and, after some initial hesitation, I did. It was 8 weeks long, but because the church was healthy and I had other great pastors on the team and a great board, there was none of what Thom’s article describes. People were glad to see me back, but also thankful that my wife and I had time to be refreshed after 12 years here and 38 years of pastoral ministry.

    It also helped that our sabbaticals have a purpose in addition to rest and spiritual refreshment, and that we give a report to the board and to the church upon our return. Thus it is of benefit to the whole body, not just the pastor.

    A sabbatical should be taken before the pastor or the church is in crisis, should be fully supported by the leadership and carefully explained to the congregation. The church needs to be healthy and supportive of their pastors, and, obviously it helps to have other pastors/elders who are fully capable to handle things.

    My experience and that of my church has been completely positive. Praise the Lord!

  • I would argue that hypothesis 4 is a better reason to take a sabbatical than to not take a sabbatical. The rest and reflection on ministry which is supposed to happen in a sabbatical is exactly what is needed as the church and how the church operates changes.

    I think one of the myths of the sabbatical is trying to take the sabbatical in one long block. Depending on denominational practices 3-6 months sabbatical is way too long to be away from ministry. But a couple 2 week blocks with time back between eases the “pain.”

    Like most things, the key to a “successful” sabbatical is communication. When I went I gathered the leaders of the Parish and explained what my goal was coming out the other side. And I also invited them to lay out their goals as a Parish during my time away. It is also helpful to get someone help craft the sabbatical before departing asking questions like – where are you going and why? How are the actions you plan going to strengthen your ministry?

    Many congregations think that a sabbatical is an extended vacation. And that isn’t the intent. A sabbatical is supposed to be time spent focusing on God and where God is leading you in ministry.

  • WOW. I too in my 37+ years of ministry and 28+ as lead pastor have never seen such. It would seem to me that all 4 of your hypotheses are a part of the mix of the mess we have today. With Barna reporting in April 2022 that 43% of pastor’s are thinking of leaving the ministry, up from 29% in January 2021, pastor’s need a Sabbatical more than ever. I’ve taken 2 1/2 Sabbaticals (1/2 being 30 days). First Sabbatical was a 50 day Sabbatical in 2005. The 30 day one in 2012. I took a 12 week Sabbatical (medical leave) at the end of 2020.

    I had ZERO problems from taking the first two, I had good staff that ran the ministry in my absence. However, when I came back January 2021 after my 12 week Sabbatical the next 18 months of ministry at this church was the hardest I’d ever faced in ministry period. One of the staff pastor’s left and started his own church 15 minutes from us and siphoned many young families from us. Angst among the leadership towards me and each other on a level I’ve never experienced at my current pastorate of 26 years. It was as if the prevailing attitude/spirit of our culture/society had made its way into the attitude/spirit of Christians. I preached and addressed the attitude of our culture and the attitude exemplified by the Spirit in Scriptures. Yet the angsts continues.

    Pastor’s need a break, they are at the breaking point, I know I’m one of them. Even though I had a 12 week leave at the end of 2020 and although I’m a seasoned veteran of ministry and lead pastoring, it is SO crazy in the church right now that I need a break. It’s never been this hard to minister in the church, ever in my lifetime in America.

    Perhaps there indeed needs to be specialized ministers that fill in like an interim pastor while the lead pastor takes a much need break to help keep the crazy at bay? Yet I’ve also wondered, (which perhaps is outside the scope of this blog) throughout the years if we’re putting band-aids on the issue(s) rather than addressing the root cause of some things? I’ve been to numerous kumbaya meetings for ministers and we cry and weep about our hurts and pains of ministry, get patched up and sent back into the same battlefield. A year or so later back to another kumbaya meeting to cry and weep again, get patched up and sent back into the same battlefield. The question I’ve asked myself is, why not change the battlefield? Perhaps some of the ways we are “doing church” is causing unnecessary injury to ministers? Again, way outside the scope of this blog.

    Bottom line, pastor’s need a break because they are at a breaking point. Churches need a healing for they are hurting, confused and for the most part out of focus of their God given mission. Without healthy pastor’s you can not hope for healthy churches. God help us find Your solution.

  • Bradley Wright says on

    Whether crazy or wise, I took a previously scheduled sabbatical the summer of 2020. I shortened it by 2 weeks (so 8 weeks total) since there was a trip I could not take because of the pandemic. Our church was meeting on the front lawn, and so lots of things were in flux anyway. Our church thrived during that time, and the return to ministry was actually quite fruitful.
    That doesn’t mean everything was sunshine and roses, and some issues did arise while I was gone. However, our people took ownership of some things, and our staff did a great job.
    On the flip side of that story, another local pastor was about to take a sabbatical earlier this year and just before he left, the church’s dark side came out. He ended up resigning instead of taking a sabbatical and he’s now looking for work. There are definitely things to study in this area in our church culture!

  • I lead a church that has established a culture of sabbatical rest for any staffed pastor every seven years as well as helping other pastors in this area. The key is to take a break before your broken. Any issues I’ve seen from sabbaticals has been waiting too long, taking them in crisis or as a last “Hail Mary” so to speak. I’ve known a couple pastors that were scheduled for sabbatical coming out of covid that wisely delayed another year for the sake of the congregation. The other key to success is making sure your team is prepared and scheduling outside ministry a few times to sow into the church.

  • Gale Dingwell says on

    A relevant question might also include is there a sabbath problem? Most Americans identify with their work in profoundly unhealthy ways. Were this the exodus we’d likely be dining on maggoty manna every meal.
    Pastors are products of this same toxic culture as typically are any elder body.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    We may place too much emphasis on the leadership role of a senior pastor. I am not dismissing the need for people in lead roles in the local church. But I also believe that a local church should be able to fulfill all the purposes of the local church in the absence of the senior pastor–worship, ministry, evenagelism, and so on. Its members should be equipped to carry on without the senior pastor. In some denominations a local church is organized the ministry of the senior pastor. When the senior pastor is not around, the church falls apart. This kind of dependency is unhealthy. Ideally any group of Christians should be able to come together and be the church of Jesus Christ in any locality. I realize that COVID-19 has put a lot of stress on local churches. At the same time I would hazard that a local church’s ability to fulfill all the purposes of the local church in the absence of a senior pastor and to fulfill these purposes well is a measure of a local church’s health.

  • I think long vacations are a better way to go(3 weeks or 4). Timing is important too. Go away in the summer while everyone else is going away. Who is in charge while you are away makes a big difference in how things will be when you get back. Keep in mind, most working professionals do not receive a sabbatical. This is an archaic college professor type thing. In todays upside down environment, sabbatical is probably not a good idea. Incidentally, I have had more colleagues leave a church on their own, or leave ministry after taking a sabbatical. Being away causes tension because they wonder if you are going to come back.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I have heard some other church leaders make comments similar to yours, Greg. Thanks.

    • Although, a vacation is not a sabbatical and I don’t think they can adequately substitute one for the other. A sabbatical should have an intent and focus on a vision of ministry, either in the present setting or in some other setting. Sabbatical is, at least from my perspective, a time of work and discernment – the re-creation of ministry. A vacation is a period of re-creation and recreation, time off work to recharge and reenergize your batteries. Rest and relaxation is the term from the military.

      While one can accomplish a sabbatical on vacation they shouldn’t be considered a substitution, one for the other.

  • Mark Miller says on

    It’s been 5-6 years since I took a one month sabbatical. And while one might be nice, I instead have taken several days to go somewhere completely alone. True solitude. I would feel guilty taking one right now being all that folks have been through and the changes that have come through it. Our church was very supportive when I took the sabbatical, but I’m not certain this is the best time for most pastors. Instead, I would look to take smaller, personal retreats.

  • If you haven’t, take a look at some positive examples where a leader returns from sabbatical to a healthy ministry. I have witnessed this myself recently. This was not a lead Pastor but the founder of a long term thriving ministry. I think one key aspect was well prepared lay leaders standing in the gap. Instead of trying to downplay the fact the leader was away, it was highlighted. This served to reinforce the truth that the ministry belongs to Christ, not to a man while also emphasizing the significance of the entire body.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Yes, I know there are many positive examples, John. My perspective was the number of sabbatical issues that have risen in a short time.

      • Oh I understand. My point is take a look at the positive examples as a comparison. Are there best practices that could be applied across the board? Instead of asking “what went wrong”, consider what went right in other cases and why. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

      • Thom Rainer says on

        No problem. I understood your intent.

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