What Pastors Should Know Before Their Sabbatical

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Most don’t take it soon enough, so here’s how to know when you need one.

Editor’s note: This article is by Martin Sanders, Director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Alliance Theological Seminary, Nyack, NY. and founder of Global Leadership, Inc.  Warren Bird oversees the research division of Leadership Network, has co-authored 24 books, and is a frequent contributor to Outreach magazine.

The good news is that 35% of Protestant congregations say they provide their pastors with opportunity for a sabbatical leave. They affirm the value of a carefully planned period of time in which a pastor is granted space apart from normal ministerial responsibilities in order to spend an extended period of time in study, learning, and reflection.

The bad news is that not all pastors ask for or take a sabbatical, even when they qualify – most commonly, it’s available at the end of five or seven years of service. In Scripture, the Sabbath (from which the word sabbatical comes) was not a suggestion. Moses included it in his top 10, and Jesus challenged the ways it had become a chore instead of a blessing. Pastors need a rhythm of rest.

The worse news is that those pastors who do take a sabbatical too often come back reporting that they weren’t prepared and didn’t get the value out of it.

Over the years, I (Martin) have heard too many pastors say, upon returning from their sabbatical, “I didn’t take it soon enough” or “I was not prepared for the emotional roller coaster that I experienced.” I was getting phone calls from friends and former students in ministry asking, as they try to take a sabbatical, “Why am I so angry?” The most surprising piece was phone calls from spouses, “Will you call my husband or wife? We thought it would be a great time of relaxation and laughter, but we’re not enjoying each other. In fact, my spouse is no fun right now.”

In response, I started writing people I knew after their sabbatical and asking for their reflections on what happened. Here are some representative comments from 84 different reports:

- “I tried to accomplish too much; I stayed too much into the mode of doing.”

- “I didn’t spend enough time structuring it in advance.”

- “I regret that I didn’t spend more time just reading my Bible.”

- “I wish it had gone longer. I thought the available 3-4 months felt extravagant so I took less, but now wish I had done the full 3 or 4.”

- “I needed a good friend to process thoughts of the sabbatical, both during and after it.”

- “I wish I would have rested more and thought less, not working on projects or planning the future.”

- “I’m sorry I didn’t give more of myself to my family. It hurt to hear them say things like, ‘When you were home, you came home physically but your mind was somewhere else’ and ‘You didn’t look at me as we talked; your body was there, but not all of you.’”

- “I wasn’t prepared for the feelings that surfaced, such as frustration and anger.”

We believe it’s possible to sidestep or overcome each of those concerns. Here’s what to do:

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  • Tim Boynton

    Article cut off at “Here’s what to do”

    • Kremlon

      There are three pages, click to the next page. 

  • Ryan

    Good artical. I’d say use the sabatical to cut yourself off from anything having to do with the job. This is a great time to go outside, look up, take deep breaths, talk to Jesus, enjoy God’s creation…(hot, cold, cloudy, sunny, wind, rain, snow, spring flowers, summer green trees, fall colors), thanking God for all these and taking care of you and your family and especially for the rest.

    The good thing about a sabatical compared to being laid off is the mental comfort you have of a job to go back to.

  • Edmund Chan (Singapore)

    Great article! I am a grateful beneficiary of sabbaticals. My church leadership had ungrudgingly granted me three sabbaticals (four years in total) in London, USA and Perth, Australia… All expenses paid (airfare, accommodations, tuition fees, food and transportation)… For my entire family of four! And I am NOT the exception.. Except for the duration, depending on role and responsibilities, ALL the 14 pastors of my church are granted sabbaticals for the entire FAMILY! And not only is the church NOT in debt, we have annual surpluses which we give to missions! How? Through teaching discipleship, servanthood and stewardship. I say all that to simply say: HERE’S WHAT’S POSSIBLE…and each pastor’s sabbatical is tailor-made for his desired learning exposure and growth. And we do grow thru’ it!


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