Is a Pastor's Sabbatical Really Good for the Church?

A few Sundays ago, someone came up to me before the service started and said, “Hey, Markus, I’m really glad you’re going to be taking a sabbatical.  I think it’s gonna be really good for you.  I think you said something about it being good for the church, too.  But I don’t think it’ll be good for us because we’re gonna miss having you here!!”

I totally understand what this person was saying.  Yes, it’s easy to see that the sabbatical will be beneficial to me as I take some time to focus on my relationship with God, as I take a couple of classes to improve my church leadership skills, and as I take a break from the relentless routine of ministry in order to be refreshed and reenergized.

But why in the world would this be a benefit to the church, too?  Let me try to explain it by giving a couple of examples.

Example #1

When I first came to Northminster, a lot of the duties of our church were performed by single individuals.

We had a fantastic volunteer who taught Sunday School every Sunday.  Not some Sundays—every Sunday.  When I started at Northminster, this person had been teaching Sunday School for about seven years straight without a break.  After I’d been here for about a year, this person came to me and said she needed to step down from that role.

And who could blame her?  After eight years without a break, she needed some rest!

And while it was tough on the church to see this person step down, it forced us to redesign our children’s ministry.  Rather than relying on a single person to do Sunday School every week, we designed a team-based children’s ministry in which many people teach Sunday School, but don’t face the pressure of having to do it every Sunday.

This has turned out to be a much better and more effective way of doing children’s ministry.  No one gets burned out, more people have the opportunity to serve, and our children get to develop relationships with more grown-ups in our church.

Example #2

Ushering at Northminster used to be handled by a single person every Sunday.  Each Sunday morning this person arrived early, set up the tables and chairs on the patio, turned on the lights (and the furnace, if necessary), and pulled together a few volunteers to receive the offering during the service.

He had been doing this for a long time, until one day he came to me and said, “Markus, I think I need to take a break.”

Again, who could blame him?

And again, this put us in the position of having to redesign our ushering ministry.  Rather than relying on a single person, we designed a system—much like the children’s ministry—that relies on a lot of people.

Now our ushering ministry features a different head usher each week and teams of ushers who know well in advance on which Sundays they will be serving.  No more burnout.  No more fear that if someone steps down, the whole ministry will collapse.

It’s an Opportunity for Improvement

Here’s my point.  A person’s absence can be a powerful opportunity to improve!  Many other churches have experienced this reality:  when their pastor took a sabbatical, their church improved in the way they did ministry because they didn’t rely on that single person.

Believe it or not, many for-profit businesses are also discovering the benefits of offering their employees sabbaticals.  An article entitled, “What Can My Company Gain from a Sabbatical Program?” points out some of these benefits.  The benefits to companies include:

1.   More effective employees.  Here’s what the article states:

“Employees who take vacation come back with better focus and mental clarity. Sabbaticals provide that same benefit—exponentially. As such, sabbatical programs demonstrate a firm’s commitment to work-life balance and give senior managers the opportunity to demonstrate healthy habits. Sabbaticals provide the kind of experience education that broadens employee perspectives and fosters innovation. But it isn’t just new experiences that make a difference, sabbaticals give employees time to step back and clear their heads—something beneficial to any problem-solving situation.”

2.  Using a team approach in the way they do business.  The article says this:

“When they step away temporarily, senior staff members give developing employees a chance to learn and prove themselves in more challenging assignments. Often, companies with sabbatical programs move to a team approach for their client service. This allows companies to maintain consistent coverage no matter who is away or for what reason. A team approach also limits the impact of client turnover, establishing that clients belong to the company, not individuals.”

Here’s a good summary statement from the article:

“Happier employees work harder. Leaders who have a chance to reconnect with their dreams usually return to work with redoubled energy and commitment. They’ll also likely return with new skills, such as better communication or a heightened awareness of the big picture. The absence of those on sabbatical give managers a chance to see how well others perform while filling in for their on-leave colleagues.”

Short-term Discomfort, Long-term Health

I think the reason many churches and businesses are beginning to offer sabbaticals to their employees is because church leaders and business owners are seeing how beneficial sabbaticals are both to the employees and to the organizations.  Yes, offering sabbaticals might feel uncomfortable in the short term, but in the long term, more and more are discovering that offering sabbaticals makes for healthier organizations.

I’m so grateful that our church has taken this step of offering me a sabbatical.  It might feel risky and uncomfortable, especially as a church that has never done this before.  But you, the members of Northminster, have taken a step toward greater health and more effectiveness, not only for me as your pastor, but for all of us as the body of Christ.

Pastor Markus

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