PASTORAL MINISTRY HANDBOOK | CHAPTER 16

Sabbatical Guidelines

In the last 100 years, sabbaticals have become primarily identified as the time off used by professors in universities who want to study a subject for a concentrated period of time, usually in a location away from home. Prior to that, however, sabbaticals were used as a means for clergy to recuperate and restore their physical and spiritual vigor.

Without time off, clergy are good candidates for burnout. Pastors are on call around the clock and are “among the last generalists,” required to be orators, theologians, counselors, and administrators.

One study has shown that in a typical church, the pastor is required to wear at least 16 different and distinct ministry hats. Wearing all those hats is often what he’s called—and paid—to do. But it’s unrealistic to think a person responsible for such a huge spiritual role can do it without periodically getting away for an extended time of renewal.

There is a need for fulltime ministry professionals to be refreshed and restored physically, emotionally, and spiritually for their ministry effort.

Effective pastoral service requires a greater than normal commitment of time and effort, and families often suffer due to this huge responsibility.

Renewal periods are not vacations, but times for intentional exploration and reflection, for regaining the enthusiasm and creativity for ministry, for discovering what will make the pastor’s heart sing.

The Pastoral Ministry Leadership Team encourages churches to adopt a policy for pastoral sabbaticals (compensated leaves of absence). This policy is intended to encourage sabbaticals for ministry professionals who can benefit from a period of change and renewal, and such leaves are to be used for professional and personal development.

What is a Sabbatical?

A sabbatical is a time to focus in-depth on things that are important to a person’s work and life with the church. Sabbaticals for pastors are highly recommended in order to renew the calling and creativity of our spiritual leaders. Such sabbaticals should include intentional times for reflection, rekindling the spirit, and deepening spiritual life and family relationships.

Why Should We Give our Pastor a Sabbatical?

A congregation should arrange for a pastor’s sabbatical because it is biblical, and because both the pastor and the church need it. The sabbatical year practiced by the Hebrew people was the final year in a cycle of seven years (Leviticus 25:3-4). It was also a time when the Hebrew people had the opportunity to renew their trust in God as the provider of all of their needs, even during the time when they did not labor.

After pastors have served a congregation for five years or more, they have a tendency to take God and one another for granted, often falling into frustrating patterns rather than finding a faithful and creative future. A sabbatical for the pastor can provide time to focus on reading, writing, preaching and prayer, and forces members to exercise their ministries for the good of one another and the gospel.

Are Pastor Sabbaticals Necessary?

Most pastors will never receive a sabbatical. Those who do, however, find it to be a transformative experience. A pastor will probably survive without a Sabbath rest, but a sabbatical will help him thrive in his church.

What’s the Purpose of a Pastor Sabbatical?

In general terms, a sabbatical strengthens and further develops a pastor’s ability to serve the church. This happens when a pastor experiences the results of a well planned Sabbath. These results include the following:

New Perspective

Perhaps most significant, a pastor will gain a new understanding of the world in which his church ministers. This will deepen his own insight and positively affect his preaching and his service.

Spiritual Renewal

One of the easiest places to dry out spiritually is in the pulpit. A pastor is constantly talking and teaching about the spiritual life. But because it is so much a part of his conversation and work, maintaining and developing his own spiritual life seems less important. So it is easy to neglect. A pastor sabbatical can be a time to renew spiritual disciplines that got lost in the busy-ness of life.

Rest

Pastor sabbaticals are not vacations. However, intense stress needs more than a week or two to break away from. It will likely take a pastor a month just to unwind from the stresses of everyday ministry.

Education

Whether or not he actually earns a degree or certificate, a pastor sabbatical is educational. He will learn from his travels, from his research, from new relationships, and from quiet times alone with God.

Renewed Passion and Vision

All of the above results lead to this. A pastor will return from his sabbatical with a clearer sense of mission and the renewed energy to work toward accomplishing it.

Why do We Want our Pastor to Do This?

1. Being an effective pastor involves continual spiritual growth.

2. Parish ministry today is changing rapidly. Pastors need to retreat periodically to retool or refocus their ministry approaches.

3. Pastors work long, hard hours without weekends off, and are rarely afforded the luxury of having two consecutive days off every week.

4. Because of the stress of doing ministry in this changing culture and because of the long hours of work each week, without regular renewal time (a sabbatical) pastors risk facing symptoms of emotional burnout and poor physical health.

How does the Congregation Benefit from the Pastor’s Sabbatical?

1. A pastor will almost assuredly come back with refreshed energy and a clearer focus for ministry in our midst.

2. The congregation’s ministry will get even stronger, and one’s pastor will be healthier and doing better ministry.

3. With the pastor gone for a while, individuals in the church can use their individual gifts in new and different ways.

4. A church will hopefully develop the awareness that they should not become overly dependent on their pastor.

What are the Conditions for a Sabbatical?

A leave is a privilege which may be granted to an individual who has demonstrated above-average performance in his professional responsibilities.

1. The pastor has served the church for a minimum of six years of fulltime service from the initial date of hire. A proposal for a sabbatical may be submitted in the sixth year of fulltime employment for a leave during the following (7th) year.

2. The pastor must be a fulltime ministry professional (e.g., senior pastor, associate pastor, youth pastor, music and worship pastor, etc.).

3. A sabbatical may be a 1-2 month leave. Additional lengths of time are usually beneficial for the recipient. The ideal renewal program is an uninterrupted time of three to four months. Only in rare and compelling situations should a renewal program be split into two or more pieces.

4. Pastors are encouraged to present a written plan for their sabbatical to the church’s governing board. Usually this is done three to six months in advance of the sabbatical. This written plan can include such details as their personal objective, a description of the major elements of the experience, proposed beginning and ending dates, listing of job responsibilities so proper coverage may be arranged, and any anticipated cost to the congregation.

5. It is expected that there would be no contact between pastor and the church unless there was extreme emergency.

What Do Pastors Do On Sabbatical?

      • Sabbaticals can be designed in a variety of ways. However, here are a few things that pastors frequently include in their time away.
      • Visit Israel. A visit to the Holy Land helps bring biblical events to life. It transforms a pastor’s teaching.
      • Write. He might write some articles for publication or finish a doctoral dissertation.
      • Visit Other Churches. Explore other worship and preaching styles.
      • Visit Missionaries. Part of the pastor sabbatical might include time to meet with missionaries where they work.
      • Ministry Projects. He might help a church rebuild after a fire, serve meals at an inner-city mission, or help with outreach at a major sporting event.
      • Rest. Though a pastor sabbatical is not vacation, he should take time to rest. Without rest, the stress levels of ministry cannot be broken.
      • Education. Many pastors use their time away to further develop their understanding of ministry, counseling, or preaching.
      • Travel. Visiting other countries can be educational, eye-opening, relaxing, and restorative. It will give new perspective.


These are just examples of what other pastors have done on their sabbaticals. A pastor doesn’t have to focus on just one thing while he is gone. A little variety will make the time more productive. For some great advice from pastors who’ve gone on sabbaticals or to find possible getaways, check out these websites:

  • Parsonage.org
  • Lillyendowment.org/religion.html

How Can We Pay for a Pastor Sabbatical?

You say, “We are convinced that our pastor needs a Sabbath rest. He knows what he wants to do while he’s gone. The congregation is supportive. But how are we going to pay for it all?”

A church will need money for guest speakers while the pastor is gone. A pastor needs extra money for travel, supplies, seminars, retreat centers, and other expenses. A pastor sabbatical isn’t cheap. So how can a church afford it? Here are a few ideas.

1. Make it a Budget Item. The best way to pay for a pastor sabbatical is to plan for it well in advance. Put it into the annual budget and save the money over several years.

2. Lilly Endowment. As part of their National Clergy Renewal Program, the Lilly Foundation distributes grants to churches to help them with pastor sabbaticals. Extensive planning and paperwork are required (lillyendowment.org/religion.html)

3. Special Offerings. Allow people in the congregation to give sacrificially to a pastor’s time away. Do this only after the congregation has been thoroughly educated about the need and purpose of the pastor’s sabbatical.

4. Continue Paying the Pastor’s Salary. Pastors receive full salary, pension, and health benefits; car allowance is not usually paid during the sabbatical time. Pastors are responsible for the educational cost of the sabbatical, though their continuing education dollars may be used. A pastor’s bills won’t stop just because he isn’t preaching every Sunday. Keep paying his full salary so that he can afford to be gone.

5. Sliding Scale. Churches may consider a sliding scale for sabbaticals longer than one month (i.e. first month = 100%, second month = 95%, third month = 90%, etc.). [It is assumed that the church will not receive outside funding (e.g. a grant or restricted donation) for the leave. If the church were to receive such funds, then these percentages could be revised in proportion to the amount of the funding. In no case shall the total salary exceed the amount of the normal full salary of the individual for the period of the leave.]

Summary

A sabbatical can provide:

1. A wonderful time for congregational lay leaders to step forward and take responsibility for the ministry and programs of the congregation while the pastor is gone.

2. A service opportunity for people to use their gifts of being worship assistants, preachers, doing hospital and home visits, or performing administration and oversight.

3. An opportunity not only for the pastor, but for the whole congregation!

Planning for a sabbatical might seem financially overwhelming. But if a church plans ahead, sets money aside a little at a time, and looks for alternative sources of assistance, giving the pastor a sabbatical becomes something a church can’t afford not to do.

Adopted February 24, 2009

The entire Pastoral Ministry Handbook can be downloaded as a PDF file.