How Our Church Planned For Sabbatical

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If you are a church leader and want to consider offering a staff member a sabbatical, this post is for you.

Here’s what I think:

Do it.

Need more? Here is what we did and what we learned:

Fair Warning: Longer than usual post, lots of detail that is hopefully helpful. Written for church leaders considering a sabbatical or considering offering a staff member a sabbatical. 

What Sabbatical Is and Isn’t

It is an intentionally designed time of soul renewal. It isn’t time off or vacation or “a break.” It is a time for the staff member to learn, grow and reflect. This may involve a lot of unstructured time, but it is intentional time not “free time.” For someone at our church to be granted a sabbatical, they have to submit a proposal of what they will do and not do and how the plan will connect them to soul renewal. My submittal identified 3 of the ways I am renewed and showed how our plans connected to my soul renewal. I have more specifics on my actual plan here.

I had two primary goals for sabbatical:

1) I wanted to decouple my primary relationship with God from my pastoring. I’ve written before about the unique challenge of being God’s child and God’s employee. I wanted to experience 14 weeks of being a kid in God’s amazing kingdom.

2) I was overdue to soak in the particular love of God for me. I had gotten too in the habit of telling people that God loves them, but not encountering God’s particular love for me. I found myself sliding into a sort of Deism where I believed in a good God who is powerful, but not particularly involved. I knew this wasn’t actually true and was a symptom of long term pastoring.

I am ecstatic to report, to the point of tears, that both of these happened to me while on sabbatical.

As I write this, I’m feeling a bit self conscious. I am aware that I write for two audiences on this blog: church leaders and church members. I generally don’t shy away from sharing with church members some of the unique challenges of being a church leader. Some of you may have read my little comment above on how pastoring was making me slide into deism and you may have some alarm bells ringing. A quick word for you: pastoring is one of the great joys of my life and I count it a privilege to serve my God in this way. Every vocation, I don’t care what it is, even if it is an unlabeled vocation (being a parent who stays home with kids, or being the primary care giver to a senior family member, for example.) Every vocation has challenges and pitfalls unique to that vocation. One of the great misconceptions that some church members have about serving on a church staff is that church staff must be much closer to God or must have more powerful encounters with God. Maybe sometimes, but in actuality, serving on a church staff can often add challenge to your relationship with God. I appreciate the way Bill Hybels once said it, “The work I was doing for God was killing the work of God in me.” I think many church staff members can relate to that statement.

Ok, so here are some specifics for those looking to plan a sabbatical.

How Long and When?

Lily Foundation recommends a minimum of 12 weeks for a full time pastor and prefers to see people take 14 – 16 weeks. I took 14 weeks and I needed all of it. We are still forming our sabbatical policy, but generally at our church, full time pastoral staff will be eligible for 12-14 weeks of sabbatical after 7 – 10 years of continual service? Why 7-10 years? Because sabbatical is contextual to what is happening in the life of the church and the life of the staff member. I was wrapping up my 11th year when I went on sabbatical, and years 8-10 were not the right time in the life of the church for me to be gone.  You should consider your context as you choose timing.

As to when, we recommend making sure you are gone for a “high holy day” in the life of the church. For us, that is either Easter, Fall Kickoff or Christmas. These days take a lot of planning and energy and being gone for one of them is helpful for the staff member’s renewal as well as for the church. For someone in my particular role of Lead Pastor, everyone can subtly believe that I need to be here for the church to function, even though it isn’t remotely true. The church is, as we know, the body of Christ and every member has a part. I am one part of it and my absence shows that we are a healthy body. It is also very very good for a lead pastor’s identity and ego to see proof that we are not essential to the health of their church. As Andy Stanley says, “we are all interim pastors.”

As for duration, I found the 14 weeks to be essential. I write more here about how I needed an extended time for God to do some needed work in my soul. Honestly, seeing the trajectory of this 14 weeks, I would happily consider 6 months. I know my soul would have continued to gain benefit, although I don’t know that it would have been fair on the rest of my team.

Planning

Who is the sabbatical for? The more “up front” the person, the more planning and communication needs to happen to the congregation. If you’re reading this and saying, “Well, we only consider sabbatical for our lead pastor” I would seriously challenge your thinking. Your children’s pastor is a lead pastor, as is your youth minister. And they are not just lead pastor to children and youth respectively, but also to parents and guardians. They carry a heavy pastoral load and they face the same recurring deadlines that an adult preacher does. In our staff context, every member is expected to shepherd people spiritually and develop their leadership. At Discovery, any staff member full time or part time who has served 7 or more consecutive years at Discovery is eligible for a sabbatical.

Sabbaticals take a lot more planning than you initially realize. We started meeting in earnest 18 months before sabbatical to get a team together, kick around some ideas and sketch a communications plan for the church. One of our elders had prior experience at her last church in helping her pastor plan for sabbatical. Her experience and kindness was invaluable to our planning and she gave us a gift we could never repay with her expertise and great care for us through the process. You may not have someone with experience, but you can still appoint someone who cares particularly for the staff member and ask them to lead the sabbatical planning process. Again, the more public the staff member, the more overt the communication should be. Our sabbatical team was made up of 7 people and we met each month for over a year. We began communicating every 3 months and then monthly as the date approached.

The best decision we made very early on: sabbatical would not be about our family, it would be about every church family. In this day of pastor-centric churches, we didn’t want to elevate me above others, and we knew this could be a much needed opportunity for more than just my family. So in our case, we didn’t talk “sabbatical” we talked ‘all church soul renewal.’ Any sabbatical communication became a subset of ‘all church soul renewal.’ We invited every household to consider how they experience soul renewal and to intentionally discuss it as a household. We created a hashtag for everybody: #soulrenewal and it was amazing to follow so many households who would take a photo and post it with #soulrenewal on social media.

3 weeks before I left for sabbatical, I preached a Soul Renewal sermon series, introducing the hashtag, giving some guidance on how to identify ways your soul is renewed, offering tools etc. On the last week, I made the decision to share some personal areas in my own life where I needed soul renewal. As I do from time to time, I invited the congregation into the unique challenges a pastor faces and why a sabbatical is important for me and for the church. The partial reason for this is the very reasonable objection to a pastoral sabbatical which is, “How does a pastor get this extended leave? I never get an opportunity like that. I work 50 – 60 hours per week and also volunteer for the church.” It is an utterly reasonable objection. The other partial reason for my sharing is I believe a pastor should work to shrink the perceived gap between him or herself and the congregation by sharing actual, present day struggles. Finally, I believe that sharing concrete details helps create a universal commonality. By sharing specific ways I need soul renewal, it hopefully triggers people to figure out their own specific ways. So I shared some of my pastoral journey over my 11 years at Discovery and some of the unique challenges. I happen to serve a very kind and caring church so not surprisingly, the overwhelming response was kind and caring. For the small handful that said, “I wish I could have a sabbatical like that,” I sincerely answered, “I wish you could too. Anyone who has such a rare opportunity should take it.”

My final week was a simple goodbye after church. I affirmed from the stage our fantastic associate pastor who would be serving as interim lead, and our staff and leaders who are world class and then sat in our outdoor lobby saying goodbye. Very informal, and it fit our goals. Other churches may need to do something more formal, but the informal goodbye emphasized our value of de emphasizing me.

Funding:

We applied for a Lily grant – it is a pretty incredible situation. Lily Foundation offers a large sum of money to about 120 pastors each year for a sabbatical. Here are Lily’s qualification requirements. Page 3 shows the eligibility requirements. Here are three cautions you should be aware of before applying:

1) Lily rightly requires a lot of work from a lot of people to fulfill their grant application. At least 6 people from your church will be sacrificing dozens of hours each for several months to do the work required for a Lily grant. Be mindful that you are asking good people who are busy to work hard on behalf of a pastor and that they personally won’t benefit.

2) Lily wishes to fulfill a lifelong dream for a pastor in their grant application. They require a very detailed budget of what the pastor will do on sabbatical which is challenging as it requires a pastor to dream big AND to research specifics on how that dream will be accomplished. Let’s say a pastor has always wanted to go on a safari in Tanzania with family members. Lily rightly requires a budget proposal, so the pastor is spending evenings researching safari accommodation, looking at youtube videos of Cheetahs sitting on top of tour jeeps, watching cute baby elephant, pricing out local restaurants etc, so she or he can submit a specific budget proposal. Wonderful! However….

3) Lily is only able to fund about 1 in 6 proposals. Over 600 churches apply each year for sabbatical, so your grant is most likely to be denied and you will end up with a pastor walking around muttering about an african glamping tent they will never be able to see. If your pastor is running on fumes already, this can be a difficult blow.

As we waited to hear from Lily about a grant, people would ask me what I was going to do on sabbatical. I replied, “Well, if Lily gives us the grant, we’ll start in Kenya for 2 weeks, then slowly make our way from Rome to Venice, seeing sacred sites and enjoying the country side, then off to Greece to chase St Paul through Athens and Corinth and we’ll end up in Ephesus and finally Istanbul and then home.”  Then a pause. “If we don’t get the grant, we’ll probably go to Idaho Springs.” Ok sure, it helps to be a local to get the joke. For my fellow Aussies, Idaho Springs is the Bonnie Doon of Colorado. I’ll let the rest of you contextualize to your own area.

We were denied a Lily grant twice. Those were brutal days of processing, letting go and trusting God with what was next. I can’t over state this – a denial of a hard worked for and well researched dream for a tired pastor can be a burden difficult to bear.

Lily Foundation is incredible and our experience with their people was very positive. That a business formed a foundation to grant pastors a dream sabbatical – amazing! We also found their expertise very helpful – i.e., the requirements of their grant taught us how to plan for a sabbatical and made us consider aspects I wouldn’t have otherwise. Even if you’re not applying, I would recommend downloading they grant guideline to help you think through all aspects in your planning.

All the same, someone should warn you of the side effects of a likely denial before you apply. The denial two times in a row really helped us with our long term planning. We now have a line item in our general budget for staff sabbaticals. That way we can offer our own grant – certainly not as high an amount as Lily, but each staff member will have some budget for their renewal. In our particular case, several weeks after Lily turned us down, the elders asked my wife and I to meet with them. We walked into a packed room surprised to see current and alumni elders and some dear friends. They handed us a home made passport they had made – it had each of the countries we had hoped to visit written in it. They had privately funded our sabbatical – a sentence I still cannot squeeze out without tears. A true underserved gift of grace: something we were unable to do on our own and very, very deeply appreciated. Little did I know how that act of outrageous generosity was a key piece of God speaking deep to my soul during sabbatical.

Well, regardless of dollar amount, every church can prioritize some budget money and set it aside for staff sabbatical care. I’m thrilled that we are now doing this for our hard working team. Our youth minister is the next to be eligible and he has earned it!

Is this post getting a little long for you? No problem, you can skip back to the very top and heed my 2 words of advice and be done! Finally and I think most importantly:

Some helpful logistics:

— Make yourself as inaccessible to the congregation as possible. I changed my cell number and only gave it to my Associate Pastor, our Director of Operations and the Chairman of the Elders. As I previously mentioned, my Director of Operations very kindly handled all my email while I was gone. Amazing.

— Do as much sabbatical planning before sabbatical as you possibly can. It is such a rare gift of time, I didn’t want to waste any of it figuring out what to do. I spent almost a year laying out all my research so that when I started, it just flowed. For example, not only did we put tremendous planning into our trip, but I also did a lot of prep for my stint at home. Two pieces of my sabbatical were fly fishing and guitar playing, so I kept an Evernote file of fishing streams to visit and also had music printed off before sabbatical. Literally, I just got to do it, not figure out what to do once sabbatical hit. I would highly recommend the extra effort ahead of time.

— If you’re not sure where to start, once you have a sense of budget scope, make a list of people, places and activities that renew your soul. Run that list over and over again during the sabbatical. Simple and effective.

— You won’t believe how quickly 14 weeks goes and you may be surprised at the emotions that sabbatical raises. Many pastors warned me that I would battle anger while on sabbatical. I never once felt angry, but I did battle a depression and feeling of dread as the sabbatical was coming to an end. The contrast between the pressure of ministry and freedom of sabbatical was stark and I fought a dread of going back to the pressure. I have many friends who are very good to me and a wife I literally don’t know how I would live without and they were incredible sources of strength amidst the emotions.

— Finally, in my particular context, I came back as lead pastor to a well run and cared for church in my absence. I had gone into sabbatical overworked and overloaded with ministry scope. The leadership under me did very good work while I was gone. I would be a fool to take back all of the reigns I handed over. Some reigns I must take back due to the nature of my role, many I can leave in the capable hands of my team. A dear friend challenged me that sabbatical is like moving from middle school to high school, “you can sort of reinvent yourself when you get back.” I’m very much the same me. Actually, I think I’m more me than when I left, but sabbatical gives me the gift to ask God what he most wants my time on in this next ministry season.

Finally a word about sabbaticals and resignations:

Oh my. People inside and outside the church told me that they expected me to quit after sabbatical. Apparently many, many pastors come back from sabbatical and resign, leaving the church confused and wondering if sabbatical is worth it. But I don’t think sabbatical is the antidote to imminent burnout. Very recently a well known and highly respected pastor stood before his congregation and resigned telling them he was tired, broken and needing to step away from ministry for a while. The elders released a statement saying that they tried to talk him out of it, tried to offer him extended time off, but I suspect that as generous as the elder offer was to him, I don’t think a sabbatical would have helped, he was beyond it. He needs something entirely different than a sabbatical. I genuinely hope he finds what he needs as he is a good man. Many have been there.

Sabbatical is a sacred gift of grace. If you are a pastor considering resigning, I would implore you not to use sabbatical time to consider other options – you’ll ruin it for the rest of us. Sabbatical is a gift of renewal for the next season of ministry and that is the spirit in which I received it, knowing that God’s call to this particular church was waiting for me when I returned.

If you’re a pastor feeling on the edge of burnout you don’t need sabbatical, you need intervention. There are many excellent ministries specifically designed to serve burned and burned out pastors. If you think you’re beyond that, I hope you’ll reach out to someone who cares for you to consider options so you are not alone as you face an overwhelming future. I’ve been there and may well be there again. Its a scary place and no one can sustain being there long.

I was tired before sabbatical and in need of learning some lessons from God. But I wasn’t burned out, I wasn’t and am not bitter and as much as the pressure of ministry is no picnic, I am optimistic and excited about the future.

This may be the longest blog I’ve ever posted – perhaps it reflected how deeply passionate I am about sabbatical and what it did for me. I’d love to help you in any way I can if you want to know more. Especially if you find yourself on the brink of breakdown, please reach out. I’ll do what I can to help and happily connect you to people who can help.

Peace.

2 Replies to “How Our Church Planned For Sabbatical”

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