Almost 90 days ago, I returned from my sabbatical. I’ve blogged and talked about it. I came back with several commitments that I’m trying to follow. I also returned with a driving conviction that has grown exponentially over the past 90 days because of different conversations I’ve had with pastors and articles I’ve read. Here it is:
Churches need to get rid of their pastors.
I don’t mean fire them, bury them in concrete, or leave them in the woods to be eaten by wolves. Nor am I saying that churches don’t need shepherds to lead and teach. What I am saying is that church leaders need to take the initiative in sending their pastors away for a sabbatical every 5-7 years. Don’t wait on the pastor to ask. Most of the ones I’ve talked to are scared to talk to you about it. Some are worried you’ll think they’re weak or lazy. Others think the church will utterly collapse if they’re gone for an extended period of time. Yet one of the best things you can do for your church is to send your pastor away for a season.
So, let me offer a pastor-sabbatical primer for churches.
First, why should you give him/her significant time away?
- He (or she) is tired. He won’t tell you. Pastors are super-human, right? Able to manage, lead, teach, counsel, fix, preach without ever breaking a sweat. The truth is that the longterm grind of meetings (that often accomplish nothing), unrealistic expectations (from the congregation, the denomination, and themselves), and a calendar full of events, weddings, and funerals in addition to the pressure of preaching 48+ times/year is hard on the soul. A day or two off here and there won’t fix that kind of tired.
- She’s not taking care of herself. Yes, your pastor “takes Friday off,” but when Suzie stalker calls or emails, the pressure to answer is intense. Funerals don’t work around days off (or vacations). That weekend that she was going to spend with the family? The denomination set up a meeting that doesn’t show up on your calendar. Among my friends who are pastors, 50-70 hour work weeks are the norm. Every week. For years.
- Your pastor has a hard time differentiating. I learned this one the hard way. Yes, he is your pastor but that’s not really who he is. He’s a man with talents, opinions, dreams, faults, and creative urges. The work of pastoring sometimes sucks us in and we forget that we are more than what we do or what we preach. We need space to remember all of who we are.
- Your pastor will be a better pastor when he gets back. On September 5, I looked at my wife and said, “I’ve accomplished more in the past 60 days than I did in the last year before my sabbatical.” And it was absolutely true. Here’s what will happen: Your pastor will return with more energy, vision, and passion for ministry. He or she will have the energy to face down problems and step into opportunities.
If you are interested, here’s how you can make this happen.
- Approach your leadership about it. Make sure the Staff-Parish Committee, Personnel Board, Deacons or whatever structure your church uses has this on their radar. Talk about the importance of having a healthy pastor. I believe the health of a church’s leadership will determine the health of a church. If your pastor is tired, burned out, or broken, it will impact the health of the church and its ability to function effectively.
- Work with the pastor. It’s OK for the church to have some expectations for the sabbatical. Your pastor needs to spend time resting and renewing–and he gets to define how that’s done. But talk about some other simple pieces–maybe some suggested reading. Or some church visits while away. Maybe the church sends the pastor to a conference. Have open conversations about how God needs to work in your pastor’s life during the time away.
- Educate the members. You’re going to have church members who say, “He’s only been here three years,” or “Pastor so-and-so never needed a sabbatical” or (and this is my favorite) “Doesn’t he take a vacation every year?” Talk honestly with the membership about the need for a pastor with passion, vision, and energy. You can click here to see the note I posted on Facebook about my sabbatical to help the congregation begin to conceptualize why this was important.
- Help the pastor with the details. Many church members think that church just magically happens every week. The truth is that there’s a lot of grunt work that has to happen between Sundays. Help your pastor make sure that preachers are invited (we had 6 different pastors over my 6 weeks), visitation is covered (retired pastors in the area? a schedule of leaders?), and all the weekly administrative stuff is ready (bulletins, meetings, etc.).
I can honestly say that my sabbatical saved my ministry. Without that significant time away I would not have made it another 3 or 4 years. I might not have made it another year. Even though I knew I needed it, I had no concept of how tired and worn I really was. When you’re soul-tired the frustrations are larger than life, the bad stuff is more fearsome, the nagging complaints are . . .naggier(?). You get the idea.
So, do your church and your pastor a favor. Get rid of him (for a little while). The Kingdom will prosper because of it.
If you’ve got questions, suggestions, let’s hear them. Email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or post it in the comment section below! Or, email/share this with some of your church leadership and let me hear back from them.