SAM, A PASTOR
Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine. Let’s call him “Sam.”
Sam, a pastor with 30 years of service said to me one day, “John, I’m so tired.”
I understood him completely in that moment, and I knew he needed deep rest. My response to Sam?
“Listen to your heartbeat.”
See, though our bodies are a bit of a mystery to those of us not in the medical profession, something most of us do know is that when the heart beats too fast for too long – without a rest – it’s call tachycardia, and left untreated it can lead to heart failure, stroke and sudden cardiac arrest – death.
Sam needed to hear and respect the pause, the rest that comes after the hard work of the contraction. Sam needed to recognize the absolute need for rest from his work. Sam needed a sabbatical.
SABBATICAL – from the Hebrew word “sabbath,” wherein the person rests from work one day per week. Dictionary.com defines “sabbatical” as any extended period of leave from one’s customary work, especially to rest, to acquire new skills or training, etc.
The heartbeat/rest pattern I had Sam listen for is the same one God put into each one of us, echoing somewhat the rhythm of creation.
Genesis 1 tells us God performed six days of work and declared one day of rest. This was not because He was tired and needed a little pause in the action. Instead, He uses it to demonstrate to us a pattern to follow, a rhythm of work and rest.
We see the directions for collecting manna following the same pattern: collect on days one to six, with day six being a day of collecting a double portion. The seventh day was for resting. (Exodus 16:26)
Exhibiting this pattern again, every seventh year was declared a rest for the earth (Exodus 23:10-11) and every seventh cycle of seven years was followed by a year of jubilee. This time of rest for the earth was also a time of rest from slavery for those who were of the brotherhood.
Psalm 95:11 speaks of those who will not enter God’s rest using the same word used in Psalm 23 referring to “still” waters. This is a place of peace, stillness, trust, quiet – rest.
We even see “rest” in some of the characters of the Bible.
- Noah – this word sounds like the Hebrew word for rest. He is described as “the one who shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.” Genesis 5:29
Rest is a recurring theme in the scriptures because rest is something we all need. Everyone in the world understands this. Having a “day off” is an integral part of nearly every culture. It comes in a lot of forms, not necessarily a full day off, but always as some sort of break from activity – think of the afternoon siestas we see in many countries. Physiologically, our bodies need rest, and so do our minds.
WHEN DOES A PASTOR GET HIS REST?
Before becoming a pastor, I worked in the retail car industry…
Once I became a pastor, many believed I now worked only one day a week! We all know that’s not true, yet we live out our callings surrounded by good and godly folks that don’t fully understand that calling.
Within the Christian environment that calls for a sabbath every week, on Sunday specifically. We all have folks in our congregations who believe NO ONE should work on Sunday. What does that say about the pastor?
We never truly rest. Our dilemma is hard to explain. Our jobs are an incredible honor – we are constantly invited into the lives of our people at their moments of greatest joy and at their lowest points, and we love them. Yet there are things we cannot tell our flocks.
We’re always studying.
We’re always writing.
We’re always praying.
We’re always concerned about our folks.
We have no true day off. We have no tangible vacation. Our job is unique, different from secular jobs. Our day usually starts early and frequently ends late. On top of all that, we bear an incredible responsibility for the health and nourishment of our flocks.
In Ezekiel 34, we’re told there will be an accounting for how we do our jobs, whether we make ourselves fat at the expense of the sheep. Hebrews 13:17 echoes this responsibility.
Paul carried the burden too and expressed it in 2 Corinthians 11:28:
And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.
The bottom line is we can’t be the leaders we need to be if we’re burned out and spent. We all need a sabbatical – not a vacation, not one or two weeks off where we’re required to return and fill the pulpit, teach and preach deep and profound truths. We love vacations, but they’re not totally regenerative. We have to immediately jump back into the daily flow of things after a break that is frequently interrupted with church matters and all too often cut short for some emergency. Most folks think we can do this easily because we have spent a whole week (or two) resting, playing with our families, making memories and now we can go another year…
THUMP THUMP, THUMP THUMP
Remember the rhythm of our hearts? Vacations can sometimes help us catch our breath. But they are not opportunities to quit down completely and immerse ourselves in our relationship with our Father in heaven. We need a sabbatical. The idea for a sabbatical is found in the rhythm of our hearts, the rhythm of creation…work…rest.
So, what is a sabbatical?
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Within eight months of being hired on as a pastoral intern, I found myself stepping into the big shoes of my pastor. Did I mention he was burned-out? He was a gifted counseling pastor who had been meeting people all during his week – over forty different people.
When he had to step away due to the heavy emotional and physical toll, I tried to fill in and immediately almost burned myself out as well. I severely pared back the list of counselees, deciding to mark my tenure with being a preacher who counseled instead of a counselor who preached. This decision was one suggested by one of our wise elders.
I’m so grateful for our elder board. This transition was a time of great difficulty, yet they had emerged having gained a greater wisdom, one that proved to be an incredible blessing to me regarding this topic. See, they knew the price of burnout and weren’t going to let it happen again, and in my eighth year they told me to take a sabbatical.
I GOOGLED IT
I didn’t know what a sabbatical was. I had to google it.
I was thinking it would be a great time of study for me. I called the district office for their advice. Then Steve Musser told me that there was a dedicated type of sabbatical that was reserved for study and training. Those are valuable but can be even more exhausting than a typical pastor’s schedule. He made it clear that a pastor needs periods of inactivity if they are to experience longevity in their positions. He described what a true sabbatical is…and what it is not…
WHAT A SABBATICAL IS NOT:
NOT a time to work another job
NOT a time to write a paper or book
NOT a time to take a seminary course
NOT a time to work on the church bylaws
NOT a time to stay in touch with church business
NOT a time to keep up with church events
WHAT A SABBATICAL IS:
A time to unplug
A time to pray
A time to read Scripture
A time to renew relationship with your spouse
A time to renew relationship with your kids
A time to renew relationship with God
What a sabbatical is…is a time of renewal. It’s a time of refreshment, a time of deep, prolonged rest.
HOW TO TAKE A SABBATICAL
Be forewarned. Sabbaticals take planning! You should start about a year before, forming a prayer team first. Suggest they pray for God to show the wheres, whens, hows and whos involved. Join with them occasionally and communicate with them often. Make sure you educate your congregation, but don’t be surprised that not all will understand or agree with your stepping away.
We designed a logo using Power Point. If you make one, use the logo in your communications, and make mention of the sabbatical during announcements, town hall/congregational meetings and whatever other way you communicate with your church body, just to keep it in the forefront.
2. NO EXPECTATIONS.
Key to the sabbatical is that there will be NO expectations on the pastor. It’s not a time to take a class. He should determine his activities and what he’ll bring back to the congregation in terms of what he learned (doing nothing). You’ll be surprised what the Lord will say, how He’ll speak, when you slow down.
3. ARRANGE A CHANGE OF VENUE.
Let me strongly suggest a complete change of venue. Trying to take a sabbatical at home may be financially expedient, but it doesn’t allow you to totally disengage. If it’s not feasible to stay at a retreat center or to travel, perhaps someone in your congregation has a cabin or cottage or knows someone who owns one. There are other alternatives. You can trade homes with someone. Get creative but change the scenery around you!
4. MAKE IT FULLY FUNDED.
Ideally, the sabbatical should be funded. A proposal should be formulated. The pastor will need as much financial help as can be provided. If there is not enough money in the budget, don’t shy away from asking for help. You can ask your congregation to pray and let them know you can use their help if anyone has loyalty points or would like to help with finances. You have people in your congregation that have the gift of prayer and giving. Let them use their gift to bless you!
5. PREPARE YOUR STAFF.
The staff should also be preparing. Perhaps part-time help or an interim pastor might be needed. The speaking schedule should be prearranged, with the pastor having input. Keep your events and teaching schedules maintained because the body life does not stop when the pastor steps away.
6. LEAVE WELL.
Remember to reassign responsibilities and do make a contingency plan. A sendoff should be arranged and then go quietly. Trust your God to watch over and protect what is His. Enjoy your family. Enjoy your God.
GO QUIETLY – COME HOME LOUDLY
Make sure to preplan with your staff a homecoming celebration. It sounds self-serving but it blesses the congregation to participate in having the church return to “normal,” however know that “normal” will have a new and improved look. Plan a soft landing, meaning:
- Don’t jump right back in.
- Don’t try to get caught up right away.
- Ease back into your schedule.
- Do a “welcome back sermon” – What I did on my sabbatical.
- Plan a short series based on rest.
- Share openly, frequently – start with staff, then with leadership team.
THE “REST” OF SAM’S STORY
Remember my tired friend Sam? He heard me. He went to his board, speaking to them, explaining to them all I’d shared.
Sam chose to rest his own way. He retired.
Don’t let this happen to you and your church. It might be difficult to approach your board. Do your best to educate them with patience. Ask others to speak on your behalf, those with experience. I’m available to help. Give me a call or drop me a note. Sometimes a third party can present things in a manner that might be awkward for you personally. Share this article. And pray.
- Seven reasons every church should give their pastor a sabbatical from Embracing Grace.
- Five reasons your pastor should take a sabbatical from Thom Rainer.
- How to unplug while on vacation by Michael Hyatt
- Getting from one’s element to one’s essence from Churchexecutive.com.
- List of Pastor’s retreats and getaways.
Question or comments?
Warrenton Bible Fellowship
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