In the foreword to Clergy Renewal, Roy M. Oswald lists the following six reasons for a church to encourage a pastor to take regular sabbaticals.
1. The very nature of being a pastor involves continual spiritual growth. Spiritual depth does not happen by accident; it takes hard, intentional work. Basically, it is a lifelong process involving big chunks of time set aside for reading, prayer, solitude and reflection … A spiritual director can help a minister reflect on their own spiritual journey … If ministers are to deliver deep and challenging sermons regularly, congregations will need to provide opportunities for their pastors to get away for extended periods of time dedicated to spiritual development.
2. Church ministry is changing rapidly. Congregations will experience neither numerical growth nor growth in spiritual depth and service unless they move with the changing times and develop fresh ways to reach new and younger generations. Meeting this challenge means ministers must periodically retreat from the congregation to retool or refocus their ministry approaches … Visiting other congregations that are successfully reaching out to new people can help a pastor glean new insights to bring back to their own congregations.
3. Without such renewal leave, there is a stronger chance that ministers will, over time, demonstrate the key characteristics of burnout – namely, exhaustion, cynicism, disillusionment, and self-deprecation. Research proves that people in the helping professions tend to burn-out the fastest, in part because the constant intimate involvement with the emotional freight of other people's lives can be draining. Burned-out ministers are much more likely to leave church ministry and seek other employment … costing a congregation years of progress. Sabbatical leave helps avoid such situations.
4. Another lethal effect of burnout is that it makes a pastor dull, hollow, and uninteresting. Such people are not the best vehicle for bringing the good news to people. Ministerial vitality is the greatest asset in building up a congregation. When church members feel their pastor is exciting and spiritually alive, they can't wait to bring their friends to church … The paradox of congregational ministry is that pastors are constantly invited to overextend (there is always someone they should have called or something they should have given attention to) but doing so can torpedo the vitality that drives their ministry. Renewal leave can be a powerful antidote to this kind of debilitating burnout.
5. The pastoral role generally involves long, hard hours without weekends off, or even the occasional long weekend. Pastors are rarely afforded the luxury of having two consecutive days off every week that most people enjoy. Every weekend involves a major output of energy on Sunday. For many pastors, Friday and Saturday are often consumed by sermon preparation, wedding rehearsals and weddings, and so forth … Congregations too often assume that ministers can remain vital and healthy and maintain sound family life with only one day off per week.
6. We also need to examine the ways in which congregations can become overly dependent upon their ministers. Some feel they could never manage without their pastor for three months … but they can and they will grow and mature in the process.
In summary, everyone wins when ministers are granted periodic chunks of renewal leave. It is in everyone's long-term best interests. Pastors remain vital and healthy while congregations receive the benefits of engaged, long-term pastorates, new ministry skills, and exciting opportunities for mission.
Oswald suggests a three month sabbatical for every four years ministry, while other churches and denominations grant sabbaticals every seven years or after an even longer time.
P.S. To read about my upcoming sabbatical, click here.
See also: Coming Back from Sabbatical