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Pastoral Sabbaticals: The Right Questions

Avoid the wrong questions about sabbaticals
by Faith+Lead | April 15, 2021

By Dr. Robert Saler

For the past nine years, I have had the privilege of serving as the director of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs (which have been in existence since 1999 and administered by Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, where I have taught since 2012). Our programs give grants to congregations to support clergy stepping away from their congregational responsibilities to engage in activities that will re-energize their ministries—commonly known as “sabbaticals.” In that time, my staff and I have learned some things about what I will brazenly term the wrong and right questions to ask when it comes to pastoral sabbaticals, and I’d like to share some of those thoughts now.

The Wrong Questions

See if you can spot the commonality in the following questions:

  • I’m a pastor. How can I convince my congregation to let me take a sabbatical?
  • I’m a congregational leader. Why does our pastor get to have a sabbatical when no one else in the congregation does?
  • What good is it for the congregation if our pastor goes off on sabbatical?

All of these questions are common, and they are also all understandable— outside of a few historically privileged contexts, the concept of pastoral sabbaticals is still relatively new. But the main thing that all of these questions have in common is that they approach the question of sabbatical in such a way that ends up creating a separation, and indeed a kind of opposition, between the pastor and the congregation. The sabbatical becomes something that the pastor gets to do and that the congregation lets the pastor do.

This is, I would suggest, is not the most helpful basis on which to start a conversation between pastor and congregation about sabbaticals. Not only is it strategically wrong (i.e. it’s unlikely that a positive sabbatical experience will result from conversations that start that way), but it is also theologically wrong because it sets up an opposition between the pastor’s ministry and the congregation’s ministry that covers over a deeper vision of shared ministry between pastor and congregation. I’ll note in passing that, while sabbaticals are often described under the rubric of self-care or as a way of avoiding burnout, my concern with that language is that it, too, subtly reinforces an oppositional binary between pastoral ministry and the work of the congregation. Pastors do need to care for themselves, but self-care and boundary-setting and other popular images run the real risk of turning ministry into a problem for the pastor to solve rather than a joy for the entire congregational system to share. 

But if those are the wrong questions, what are the right ones?

The Right Questions

If we know some of the questions that aren’t helpful, what are some that can start helpful conversations?

  • How do the things that enliven our pastor’s ministry speak to the joy of the whole community?
  • What fun things can the congregation do while the pastor is pursuing her sabbatical rest?
  • How good will it be for us to see our pastor smile and laugh deeply again?
  • You know, 10% of the people do 80% of the work around here. How can we give our faithful lay leaders a break while the pastor is away?
  • What are we curious about as a community? What can we be learning while the pastor is away so that we have great conversations when the pastor returns?

These are just a few examples of how congregations and their pastors can start conversations about pastoral sabbaticals in ways that treat them as shared adventures between pastors and their congregations. 

When I wrote my recent book, Planning Sabbaticals: A Guide for Congregations and their Pastors, the subtitle was intentional: while there are a lot of good resources out there that talk about how pastors can craft their sabbatical leaves, I was concerned that many of them were addressed to the pastor in order to help her convince her congregation to let her take a sabbatical. My staff and I, instead, wanted to put the congregation as co-laborers in ministry with the pastor and as co-conspirators in renewal front and center in the discussion from the beginning. 

Not only does approaching pastoral sabbaticals as a shared ministry endeavor between the pastor and congregation create the conditions for much more robust and enjoyable sabbaticals for the pastor, but it also sets up the pastor and congregation for long-term success in sustaining the benefits of the renewal experience. Put bluntly, if the pastor’s sabbatical is something that the congregation allows the pastor to do, with tepid enthusiasm at best and suppressed hostility at worst, then any benefits that the pastor experiences on the leave will likely evaporate on the first morning back in the office. However, if the congregation dreams and collaborates with the pastor about how the renewal period can be a shared experience between the pastor and the congregation from the beginning, then the seeds have been planted for a longer-term flowering of those dreams—and the leave period itself will not only be re-energizing but catalytic for ministry.  

Intentionality and Vulnerability

This sort of collaboration is not always easy. For one thing, it requires logistics: how will the congregation fund not only the pastor’s leave but also activities and staff coverage that will allow the renewal period to truly feel joyful to the congregation (and not just like an increased workload while the pastor is away)? Many congregations have pastoral sabbaticals written into the pastor’s contract now (which is great), but this provision needs to come with intentional savings and planning so that the congregation itself can have the resources available for its activities when the time comes. 

The other reason this shared planning is not easy (but is all the more necessary) is because it requires a holy vulnerability on all sides. Talk of genuine renewal is, among other things, talk of what truly brings joy and gives meaning to a pastor’s life as a human being, a servant of the gospel, a family member, and a child of God. Naming these joys and longings can be vulnerable for pastors. Meanwhile, congregations speaking to their own sense of what might bring adventure and creativity while the pastor is away usually entails both a sense of boldness and a feeling of understandable sadness about the pastor being gone (after all, it is a good thing for a congregation to miss its pastor). But again, it’s precisely because these conversations require so much vulnerability and trust that we have seen them yield surprising and gracious fruit over and over again (both for congregations that have received our grants and those that have not). Over and over again, we have received testimony that one of the most impactful parts of pastors’ sabbaticals is often the very first set of conversations among the pastor, her loved ones, and her congregation, when longings are named and—more often than not—surprisingly strong affirmation is given. 

So, to the question I often receive, “how do pastoral sabbaticals benefit congregations?” I usually respond—as I have here—by encouraging a friendly and prayerful amendment: “how do sabbaticals as shared ministry adventures benefit everyone?” The answers are as varied as ministry itself, and no less abundant. 

About the Author
Dr. Robert Saler is Executive Director of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs, Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence, Associate Dean for Assessment and Evaluation, and Research Professor of Religion and Culture at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN. He is the author of Planning Sabbaticals: A Guide for Congregations and Their Pastors (Chalice Press, 2019) .

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