How Did Session Arrive at the Decision to Approve a Sabbatical?

As most of you know by now, I’ll be taking a sabbatical from April 20-July 19.  Northminster has been around since the 1950’s, but this will be the first sabbatical ever taken by a pastor of this church.

Which begs the question, why did Northminster’s Session (board of elders) implement a sabbatical policy in 2014 and why did they unanimously approve a sabbatical for me in 2015?

Here’s the story of how that all came about.

Struggling with Burnout

Back in the summer of 2013, I was working hard at writing my Doctor of Ministry dissertation.  I took three weeks in the beginning of the summer and three weeks near the end of the summer.  I didn’t take any extra time off, but I did use all of my study leave and vacation time to write.

By the end of the summer, I felt like I had been gone from the church a lot and I decided that I would really pour myself into preaching in the fall of 2013.  I said to myself, “I’m going to give everything I’ve got to the church this fall.”  And so, from September 8 through February 16 I preached 22 out of those 23 weeks.

That was a mistake (it was just too much), but also led to an eye-opening revelation.  I had one week of vacation scheduled for February 17-23, and by the time I reached that February I felt like I was dragging myself on hands and knees to the finish line.  I was completely emotionally, mentally, and spiritually spent.

The result was that I spent a lot of time reflecting during my week off.  I realized that my depleted energy was due not only to the previous few months, but also a result of nearly seven years of the relentless schedule of ministry in a struggling church as a solo pastor.

A Sabbatical Policy

So, at the next Session meeting, I asked the elders to consider implementing a sabbatical policy.  I shared with them that I wanted to be the best pastor I possibly could be for as long as possible, but that I wouldn’t be able to do that without some time to refresh my spirit.

Believe it or not, most of the elders were immediately supportive of the idea.  They definitely had some questions and tossed around various ideas of what that would look like.  But they were committed to helping me be the best pastor I could be.  And they wanted to extend grace toward me in the same way they had experienced grace from me as their pastor.

So, in June of 2014, the Session implemented a sabbatical policy for our church.  That policy, required that I submit a sabbatical proposal to the Personnel Committee six months prior to the proposed sabbatical dates.  The Personnel Committee would then make a recommendation to the Session, and the Session would ultimately grant or deny the proposal.

I submitted my proposal in October, 2014, and the Personnel Committee brought their recommendation to the Session meeting on December 2, 2014.

Approval by the Session

Approving the sabbatical wasn’t a slam-dunk.  We had some serious discussion about how a sabbatical would affect the implementation of any plans that came out of New Beginnings.  But in the end, the elders decided that they could work around the sabbatical (this was before we had decided to hire a consultant to work with us).  When the vote was taken, the Session unanimously voted to approve the sabbatical.

The Elders have become my Pastor

Here’s what I have come to appreciate about our elders over the course of this process. The elders have, in a sense, become my “pastor”.

One of the hardest things about being a pastor is that you don’t have a pastor of your own.  When you’re a pastor, lots of people come to you when they are in need.  Sometimes they’re struggling with finding a job.  Sometimes they come to you when their marriage is in trouble.  Sometimes they come when they’re struggling with an illness.  Sometimes people come to share experiences that are so difficult that I have a hard time putting them into words.

But where does the pastor go when he or she needs support from the church?  In our tradition, it’s the Session.

And, so, I am so grateful for the support I have felt from our elders.  They have listened to me.  They have stood with me.  They have felt my struggles with me.  This experience has led me to a place where I truly trust our elders.  I feel like they have become my pastor—they are a group of people to whom I can come when I’m struggling, when I’m tired, when I need a word of encouragement.  And I know that they will pray for me and support me.

And while our elders aren’t perfect (nobody is, right?), I’m thankful for their caring spirit.  Not every church has a Session as great as ours.  I feel truly blessed by our elders.

Pastor Markus

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