If you have been at Christ Community for awhile, eventually you will find out that our pastoral staff are given regular sabbaticals (one after first five years on staff, then every seven after that). Not only that, but each sabbatical is 12 weeks long!
This is a pretty unusual practice, even for churches. It can be hard, somewhat stressful on the staff who “fill in” while someone is gone, and the timing is never perfect. Some sabbaticals miss the beginning of the school year when lots of new people are trying out the church. Some miss important ministry or budget planning cycles. Others (gasp!) miss Easter (like mine just did). Don’t worry! I’ll work extra hard at Christmas to make up for it.
There is a cost to this, and I want to thank everyone at Christ Community whose generosity makes it possible. But I also want to say that it is so, so worth it. The planning. The stress. The investment. I’m not saying that because I’m supposed to or because I feel the need to justify it. I’m saying it as someone who is less than a week back from sabbatical and who believes in them more now than ever.
I was trying to articulate this well, and it came out as a list. So here goes: my top four gifts from sabbatical.
- 4. Rest! Theologically, we know that rest is one of the first gifts God ever gave to us, rooted in the very design of the cosmos. On the seventh day, God rested, and He commands us to do the same. Sabbatical is a tangible way to rest. I cannot tell you how much mind-space cleared for me after two weeks of not working. So many unheard whispers from God, unnoticed thought patterns and habits, came roaring to the surface. The gift of rest made room for me to hear the Holy Spirit in ways I was not able to do in the normal rhythm of life. I’m still digesting things I learned while I was gone! I was missing so much, and sabbatical helped me see it.
- 3. Core relationships are renewed. A wise pastor (okay, fine, it was senior pastor Tom Nelson) once told me that the key to longevity in ministry (and really, in life) is not professional development, as helpful as that is. It’s not great networking (though that’s good, too). It’s investing in your core relationships. For me, that’s my wife and children. Outside of my relationship with Jesus, my wife and kids are the most important thing. I can’t imagine trying to be a good pastor while being a bad husband and father. Sabbatical was 12 precious weeks I got to just be that – a husband and father – before my daughter starts kindergarten. What a gift! I promise I won’t start crying. Let’s move on.
- 2. The reminder that ministry is no substitute for intimacy with Jesus. Pastoral work is a lot like other kinds of work, especially that deal with people (like education, counseling, etc.). But the unique challenge I have found is how easy it is for pastors in particular to mistake the work of ministry for intimacy with Jesus. It is so easy to hide from Jesus in the work of ministry. You can go weeks or months talking a lot about Jesus to members of the family of Jesus without really talking to Jesus or listening to Him. It’s incredible. Sabbatical provides the space to confess this (which every pastor should do regularly) and refocus on Him.
- 1. The church is bigger than me. I hate to admit this, but sometimes pastors think the church needs them. Sure, Jesus is the center, but I’m just off center, next to Him. After being gone for 12 weeks, I can say this with certainty: I am deeply loved by the Leawood Campus, and I was truly missed, and I am totally replaceable. God doesn’t need any of us to accomplish His mission. He invites us in, but He doesn’t need us. That’s humbling. And it’s freeing. By the way, this lesson is good for congregations, too. Christ Community is more than our children’s ministries, our student ministries, more than our worship leaders, our preaching, or any other person on staff. Our church is the community of Jesus on mission for His Kingdom. It’s bigger than us. Sabbatical reminds us all that that is good news.
You are a better leader, spouse, parent and friend when you make time for self-care. It is vital to have something outside of church. Something that gives you joy and refuels your soul. Making time to enjoy your hobby or days off isn’t selfish, it’s necessary. Consider these jarring statistics:*
- 1,500 pastors walk away from ministry each month
- 70% of pastors say that they don’t have a real, close friend
- 50% of pastors’ wives say that their husband entering ministry was destructive to their family
- 1 of out every 10 ministers who start in ministry retire in ministry
- 75% of pastors report that they either sometimes or frequently struggle with mental and emotional exhaustion
- One third of pastors report that they engaged in an affair or one-time encounter with a parishioner
* excerpt from Carey Nieuwhof podcast #142 with Lance Witt of Replenish Ministries – May 30, 2017