Labor Day is a good day to think about sabbaticals, that elusive extended period of time away from the church and pulpit. We pastors usually get extended time off by being fired, quitting, or retiring.
I never had a sabbatical, not after serving as pastor for more than a decade in two different Southern Baptist churches. By way of abject confession I’m sharing why my resume would not include any brief or extended period away from my church for renewal and rest:
I never asked.
Had I asked, the two wonderful congregations where I served longer pastorates would likely have worked with me to arrange some period away. I am none the worse for not having done that but believe now that it is a good thing for a pastor (and ministerial staff as well) to be able to take an extended time away from their church for a sabbatical.
There is, I admit, a subset of SBC pastors who have slipped into the unhealthy and unproductive attitude that they are overworked, underpaid, that the work is uniquely difficult. These are the brethren who depress gatherings of ministers with their personal and church woes. Unfortunately, some churches have experience with lazy and unaccountable ministers who have not served well but these are a minority. Most of the tens of thousands of SBC pastors and staff ministers serve well and faithfully.
But it is tough for the average pastor. The SBC as a whole is flat or declining meaning that most churches are not growing and that many are having difficulty properly supporting a fulltime pastor. Folks in the pews have far more exposure to the megachurches with their celebrity pastors who aren’t like you and me and the average SBC church pastor. The amount of respect given to the minister has been eroded by our scandalous, greedy, immoral, and racketeering fellow clergy. There is that consumer mentality among many prospective church members which leads to an attitude from the pews more focused on what the church and staff can do for them and their family than how they can serve Christ through the church.
All this adds up to the pastor having to sustain a higher level of stress. (And they want to take away our beloved Housing Allowance on top of all this!)
So, churches, give the guy a sabbatical who has labored for the Lord and the church five or ten years faithfully. Pay him during that period. Tell him not to worry about anything, the church will take care of the routine ministry needs while he is away. Tell him to go somewhere where he can enjoy himself (and family, of course), where he can develop fresh, new ideas. Where the daily pressures have been suspended.
Our moderate and liberal colleagues who identify with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship have a plan and program in place for sabbaticals. If we SBCers have anything, I haven’t seen it. Is the SBC doing what we do best here – talking a subject to death but not actually doing anything about it?
Thom Ranier, LifeWay CEO, had a fairly recent article on sabbaticals. He estimates that 5% of SBC churches offer sabbaticals.
If sabbaticals are only a big church thing in the SBC, then I’m wasting time here. The vast majority of SBC churches are small congregations, single staff. Baptist Press has a nice article (rather dated but still relevant) on one of these. Noteworthy in the piece is that when the pastor returned after his five-week sabbatical he preached a month of ten minute sermons. The congregation liked them. (I know of a couple of pastors for whom I would fund a sabbatical if they would preach 10-minute sermons rather than preaching their 10 minutes worth of sermonic material and expanding it into 45 minutes).
If megachurches are the model for us these days and megapastors are the few, the mighty who are emulated by the average pastors, then here’s a place where something good could come from the mega-satellite-franchised church up the road from you. Almost certainly their pastors takes one or more months away every year.
We invest hundreds of millions of dollars in training and helping Southern Baptist ministers. I would consider setting aside some funding for a sabbatical initiative that would encourage and assist churches in giving their pastor a sabbatical a good investment.
If your association, state convention, or any of our entities have a sabbatical plan for SBC ministers, feel free to comment on it and post a link.
Photo: Surf fishing at Padre Island, my idea of part of a sabbatical plan. Wiki Commons.