The memories of the summer of 1992 brighten my day every time they scroll across the screen of my brain. I had been a pastor for 33 years before I took my only sabbatical. My first three churches were student churches and were each three years in duration. I had never heard that sabbaticals were for anyone but professors. I was young and full of energy and would not have seen the need for one in a short-term pastorate.
By the time I had served six years in my first full-time pastorate, I was beginning to grow weary. I had written my dissertation while serving a church full-time. We had started our family and added the pressures of fatherhood to my life. We had built a new building and were trying to add staff. I began to drop hints to my friends in the church about the need for a break. They took my cue and began to talk with others. A group decided to take up money and send my wife and me to the Holy Land. The church was gracious and the trip was wonderful. I wanted to take in everything in Israel and would go sight-seeing after our group retired for the day. As delightful as the experience was, I came back dead tired from my expenditure of energy. I came home and planted the seeds in the minds of my friends about the value of the trip and how much good it had done for me. Thirty-eight years later the current pastor took the first real sabbatical in the history of that church.
My second church was the kind of pastorate every minister needs to experience. We were in the growing section of a growing city. The church began to grow. We started adding staff, building programs came along and the spirit of the church was wonderful. But it took a lot of energy to keep the momentum moving forward. We had a minister of education who had done an effective work for about 15 years. I began to lobby the personnel committee to institute a sabbatical policy so he could have a sabbatical. He was beloved by the congregation and they gladly initiated a policy for all of the ministers. After seven years it was my turn. But we had just experienced a crisis with a staff member—divorce and resignation, and I needed to stay home. The next year was a fund-raising campaign and the next a building campaign and I was too indispensable. I could not take three months off to be away from the church.
My last church had a sabbatical policy in place when I arrived. My predecessor had taken two of them. All the staff was taking sabbaticals when their time came. The summer of 1992 rolled around and it was my turn. I think the staff might have murdered me if I had forgone the sabbatical. It would have been setting a terrible precedence. So I planned the event. I was a church history major. I loved the reformation studies. Our daughter was a senior in college and our son a junior in high school. This would be the last real “family time” we would have together. I attended a conference led by the Alban Institute. I did a two weeks pulpit exchange in England. I studied the Downgrade Controversy at Regents College in Oxford for a month and then we toured all the reformation sites in Europe for a month. The family was with me for two weeks in England and one month on the Reformation Trail. When our two children get together they still talk about the summer of 1992. It was one of the high points in my life.
Not every church is willing to give its ministers a sabbatical. But they never will if they do not know the benefits of a sabbatical for their ministers and thus for their church. So how do you create such an interest? Have ministers speak in your church for special occasions who have taken sabbaticals. Let them drop hints about the value of their experiences, to them and to their church. Encourage the chair of your personnel committee or deacon chair to invite another layman from a church which provides sabbaticals to speak to the personnel committee or deacon body. Plant the idea in the minds of your friends in the congregation and let them talk with their friends about it. Order from CBF the booklet Well Being and Excellence in Ministry and share it with the right people in your congregation. Even if you are not able to secure a sabbatical policy for you and your present staff, you might be planting seeds for a future generation of ministers in your congregation. Your efforts will be well worth it to the Kingdom of God.
A recent publication by the CBF Initiative for Ministerial Excellence, Well-Being and Excellence in Ministry—A Practical Resource for Ministers and Caring Congregations encourages ministers and congregational leaders to consider what good conversations they might share as they create their life together. Download the resource and get more information at http://thefellowship.info/ime