The idea of a sabbatical shows up pretty early in the Scriptures.
“When you enter the land I will give you, let it have a special time of rest, to honor the Lord. You may plant seed in your field for six years, and you may trim your vineyards for six years and bring in their fruits. But during the seventh year, you must let the land rest. This will be a special time to honor the Lord. You must not plant seed in your field or trim your vineyards. You must not cut the crops that grow by themselves after harvest, or gather the grapes from your vines that are not trimmed. The land will have a year of rest.”—Lev. 25:2–5
Soil can be overworked and depleted of the minerals that keep it producing healthy, life-giving produce. God commanded the Israelites to care for their land by giving the earth its own Sabbath. Every seventh year, the land would be allowed to rest.
Centuries ago, churches and academic institutions began to recognize the wisdom of giving professors and ministers time for renewal. This wasn’t considered a vacation for the benefit for the Sabbath taker, it was an investment into the long-term health of the organization.
A 1907 report from the Trustees of Columbia University said it this way:
The practice now prevalent in Colleges and Universities of this country of granting periodic leaves of absence to their professors was established, not in the interests of the professors themselves but for the good of university education. University teaching must be progressive; it requires on the part of the teaching body, as it were, a periodic refurbishing of its equipment.
It is not merely national, it is international; contact with other institutions, with specialists of other countries, with methods of acquiring and imparting knowledge in vogue elsewhere, which cannot be obtained during simmer vacation, as is this period of rest practically everywhere, is for the real University teacher an intellectual and practical necessity.”
This perfectly sums up the value of church and parachurch organizations offering sabbaticals—and it’s more than just a time for ministers to refresh their own batteries. It’s an opportunity for them to explore other ministries and invest in their own intellectual and spiritual development.
When pastors are stuck on a ministry treadmill, they don’t have time to work on learning new skills and discovering new avenues and opportunities for ministry development. Most importantly, they don’t have concentrated time to pour themselves into creative, long-term goal setting.
That’s why many universities and churches offer six weeks to six months of paid time off every 7–10 years. This way pastors can explore new ideas, practices, and disciplines as an investment into their church.
Sabbatical go mainstream
Many companies, recognizing the value of sabbaticals to their organizations, are also offering specialized time off. For instance, Patagonia offers up to two-months paid time off for all employees through their Environmental Internship Program with the stipulation that they invest that time into an environmental group of their choosing.
Other companies offering sabbaticals include:
It’s interesting (and somewhat distressing) that secular corporations seem to be embracing the idea of sabbaticals while fewer and fewer evangelical churches (particularly independent ones) are offering them.
How to negotiate a sabbatical
Ideally you would negotiate a sabbatical as part of your pastoral package before you start with a church, but sometimes it’s just not practical. That said, it can be difficult to negotiate it after the fact—but it’s not impossible.
Here are some things to keep in mind when negotiating a sabbatical:
1. Make sure you’re nailing your church’s goals
If you’re not really meeting your church’s goals, it’s going to be hard to make a strong argument for them to invest in more time for you to spend away from your church. Make sure confidence in your performance is high.
2. Have a plan
A sabbatical is a significant time investment. It’s not another vacation. For it to have any real value, it needs to be at least a month. To be able to pitch that well, you really need to have a plan to demonstrate how you’d spend that time.
The minute you pitch the idea of a sabbatical, most of the people on your board are going to imagine you on a beach with a paperback and a Mai Tai. Chase that mental image away by offering an articulate plan for a sabbatical.
3. Demonstrate a benefits to your church
This is the most important element. The lion’s share of people in your church don’t have a context for sabbaticals and aren’t immediately going to understand them. In fact, they’ll probably see it as another perk for a job that they already (wrongly) perceive as a cakewalk.
So don’t lead with a discussion about how you’ll return all relaxed and refreshed. Instead, focus on explaining:
- What you plan to learn on your time off
- What skills you will bring back
- What ministries you want to visit/shadow
- How you will share your new information with your team and church
- How this time will make you a better pastor
Things you can do on your sabbatical
1. Visit other churches
Map out some churches you’d like to visit. Plan ahead of time so you can spend some time touring their facilities and talking with pastoral staff about what they’re doing and ways you can implement their ideas in your own church.
2. Visit other ministries and charities
Find ministries and charities you can imagine your church partnering with, and spend some time with them. Give yourself enough time to work with them and see how they take care of others.
3. Go on a short-term mission
Serve with some churches outside the country. Nothing can be more invigorating than seeing how God is at work outside of your cultural context. Consider ways to bring their passion and enthusiasm home.
4. Go on a spiritual retreat
Plan on a trip to longer spiritual retreat where you can interact with a spiritual director and spend time in prayer and meditation.
5. Do some serious and deep theological study
Invest some time in deeper reading than Christian-living, pastoral-ministry, and leadership books. Consider some of the big questions of the day and invest some real focused time in seeing these topics from a variety of learned perspectives.
6. Take some classes
Find some courses that can help you improve your job. Maybe you can learn more about public speaking, writing, or online platform building. Try auditing some classes at a seminary or college.
7. Work alongside non-church groups
Are there some groups in your community that you know very little about—maybe even ones you find yourself at odds with? Why not spend some time getting to know them in person and understanding their positions, passions, and needs?
8. Volunteer at crises centers
There are a lot of places where you can experience people having their very worst days. Sound appealing? I didn’t think so. But think about it this way: volunteering as a first-responder, crises center, or shadowing a hospital chaplain, or doing police ride-alongs can offer a whole new and important perspective.
These kinds of experiences will definitely stretch you, but they can also help you see ministry through a new lens, and infuse it with a greater sense of urgency and importance.
9. Help with a prison ministry
A prison ministry could be a real powerful part of any church. If your church doesn’t have one, spending some time working with one that’s already established can give insights into starting one, and give you a better understanding of the spiritual needs of prisoners.
10. Go to counseling
I’m completely serious here. No matter how well adjusted you think you are, you can benefit from some time with a counselor just talking through some of your stresses and relationships. If you’re married, why not invest in some couples counseling?
A sabbatical is a long-term investment
If your church is interested in a strategy that will prevent burnout, spur creativity, and foster innovative ministry, instituting a sabbatical is the way to go.