Last year, I had one of the most transformative experiences of my life: Six months of doing nothing.
Perhaps it wasn’t quite doing “nothing” – I am, after all, still a parent, along with other roles in my life that carry responsibilities. But after eight years of pastoral ministry, I asked my elder board for the longest Sabbatical available according to our church’s policy. A six-month leave required a year of planning, multiple people to significantly increase their responsibilities and leadership in my absence, and an investment of my church’s finances. Was a season of rest for me worth so much trouble?
Prioritizing the Well-Being of Pastors is Necessary for the Church’s Mission
Anecdotally, I have met many lead pastors who have been in full-time ministry for more than 20-30 years yet have never been granted a Sabbatical. “It’s never been a good time” is often the phrase offered as an explanation. If you are a pastor who has never had a Sabbatical, or if you are part of a church that does not have a Sabbatical policy, now may not be a convenient time to ask for one, but it is definitely the right time to move in that direction.
38% of pastors have considered quitting in the past year, according to a 2021 Barna poll.1 Just as concerning a reality: According to the same poll, only 1 in 3 pastors were considered “healthy” in terms of their own well-being as they considered spiritual, physical, emotional, vocational, and financial factors.
Sabbaticals have a long history in the Christian tradition, with their biblical precedent being drawn from Leviticus 25:1-5. This passage calls for the people of Israel to set aside the seventh year as a year of rest for the land. In the New Testament, Jesus was not a stranger to the reality that there is always more to be done in ministry. He demonstrated the human need for rest even in the face of overwhelming need. He frequently drew away from the crowds for moments of rest, prayer, and solitude.
Yet according to a recent survey conducted by Vanderbloemen,2 72.29% of churches do not offer a Sabbatical program for their pastors. Of those that did offer a Sabbatical program, fewer than 30% of those churches granted a Sabbatical of more than 8 weeks. This means the vast majority of churches that do offer Sabbaticals envision a scant 1-7 week period of rest for their pastors.
Barna’s initial study in 2017 on the state of pastors’ well-being first rang the warning bells about pastoral burnout in the U.S. in this cultural moment.3 We can only imagine how continued political polarization, Trumpism, and the lingering turmoil of the Covid-19 pandemic have intensified the trend toward burnout. We often speak of burnout in ministry as something that can be avoided with the right structures, leadership postures, and church expectations. As necessary as those are, are they enough?
I am grateful to pastor a relatively emotionally healthy congregation that does not heap unrealistic expectations upon me or my family. On top of that, I am not expected to pastor alone. For the majority of my pastoral ministry, I have been privileged to serve on a co-pastoring team where the joys and the burdens of pastoring have been shared. My leadership style is highly relational and collaborative. I don’t think it’s my job to control the people in my church because that’s not my style, nor is it what I see Jesus doing in the Gospels. I see a therapist regularly and meet with a spiritual director each month. I spend time with Jesus daily. Yet even within this healthy context and even with life-giving personal practices, after eight years of pastoring, I found myself slogging through severe burnout.
Pastoral burnout doesn’t just happen because pastors are taking too much on themselves or because churches expect too much from them. Even in healthy churches, the work of pastoring is HARD. Full stop.
If you are a pastor who finds herself in need of a Sabbatical, this does not mean you are a failure. Prolonged seasons of rest and renewal are necessary for pastors to continue leading their churches on mission.
5 Ways Prolonged Seasons of Rest Make Pastors Stronger
Nobody has or ever will be overheard calling me an athlete, but I do know a little something about strength training. Rest is essential for muscle growth. A rhythm of exertion and rest is what leads to stronger muscles. Similarly, rest is necessary for us to grow our capacity to join God’s mission. Prolonged seasons of rest grow the muscles we need to resist idolatry, anxiety, the pressure of other people’s expectations, the drive to be more than who we are, and the temptation to exploit our congregations.4
Rest is essential for muscle growth. A rhythm of exertion and rest is what leads to stronger muscles. Similarly, rest is necessary for us to grow our capacity to join God’s mission. (1/2) Click To Tweet
Prolonged seasons of rest grow the muscles we need to resist idolatry, anxiety, the pressure of other people’s expectations, the drive to be more than who we are, and the temptation to exploit our congregations. (2/2) Click To Tweet
- Strength to Resist Idolatry
In Sabbath as Resistance, Walter Brueggemann highlights how the God of Israel reveals God’s self in direct contrast to the god of Pharaoh. As Moses leads Israel out of Egypt, every command given is intended to remind the Israelites that the God who freed them is not like Pharaoh the slave-driver, but the God who gives rest.
YHWH is a Sabbath-keeping God, which fact ensures that restfulness and not restlessness is at the center of life. YHWH is a Sabbath-giving God and a Sabbath-commanding God. Israel, for that reason, is always again to re-choose between “life and death” (Deuteronomy 30:15–20), between YHWH and “the gods of your ancestors” (Joshua 24:14–15), between YHWH and Baal (1 Kings 18:21), between the way of Torah and the way of sinners (Psalm 1). Sabbath becomes a decisive, concrete, visible way of opting for and aligning with the God of rest (Bruggeman, 10-11).5
During a Sabbatical, a pastor is invited to realign herself with the Sabbath-giving God. She is strengthened to resist the idols of capitalism and consumerism which hold even the Church in their grip!
A Sabbatical is a prolonged opportunity to walk in the way of the God who is freeing the whole church from such idols.
- Strength to Resist Anxiety
“Frantic productivity” was the expectation for the enslaved Israelites under Pharaoh’s command, and it is the name of the game for Americans. Brueggeman points out that when YHWH gives the commandments to Moses atop the Sinai mountain – envisioning a new way of life for the freed people of Israel, what does YHWH spend the most words on? Sabbath.
Anxious productivity often drives the ministry of pastors, who then pass it on to their congregations.
A Sabbatical offers a prolonged season of resisting this anxious way of life so that the work of the Kingdom can be done with joy and gratitude from overflowing hearts.
3. Strength to Resist Other People’s Expectations
Pharaoh always demanded more than the Israelites could produce. ‘More bricks with less sand!’ Even freed from Egypt, the Israelites could have chosen to continue living according to someone else’s expectations. And so the law of Moses encourages the Israelites to remember and rehearse the truth that they have been freed from Pharaoh’s demands and expectations.
Similarly, a Sabbatical is a great declaration and re-enactment of freedom.
Pastors, Jesus frees us from the coercive expectations of our congregation members who demand ‘more bricks with less sand!’
4. Strength to Resist the Drive to be More Than We Are
Furthermore, we are freed even from our own coercive expectations, from our own perfectionism, and from our self-inflicted demand for over-production. God does not expect us to be more than who we are.
In Sabbatical rest, we are granted permission to be human, to be limited, to have our own needs for quiet, rest, laughter, and fun.
5. Strength to Resist Exploiting Our Church and Our Neighbors
When our lives are overwhelmed with the anxiety of frantic production and the pressure to please others, as pastors, we often turn that outward on our congregation. ‘I need to look good, and you guys need to help me look good.’
My own rest is connected to the well-being of my neighbors. In Moses’ law, it is the regular practice of Sabbath rest that stands at the center of Israel’s way of life, which then frees them to be a people who do not have to covet what their neighbors have because they rest in the beauty of having enough already. Because they belong to a God who desires rest for them, and who provides what they need, they can release their fearful grip on their neighbors.
Likewise, when a pastor rests in Sabbatical, he is strengthened to release whatever coercive hold he might be tempted to exert on his church or his neighbors. He does not “need” his church or neighbors to prop him up or make him look good. He belongs already to a God who loves him, cares for him, and wants rest for him.
Think clearly about why you need a sabbatical and what you want to communicate to others about it. The concept of prolonged, scheduled seasons of rest is foreign to most Americans, particularly American Christians. Click To Tweet
How to Prioritize Prolonged Seasons of Rest for Pastoral Ministry
Churches, if you don’t have one already, come up with a policy for Sabbaticals so your pastor doesn’t have to ask for one on her own initiative. Create a fund for your pastor to use on Sabbatical to pursue spaces for guided retreat, prayerful rest, and recreation. Laughter and fun are some of the most restorative activities for us as humans. Talk with your pastor about their need for a Sabbatical, and collaborate on the timing and planning of that season.
A Sabbatical policy is not a luxury, but a necessity in faithful mission.
Pastors, I’ll leave you with a few tips I learned from my own Sabbatical:
- First, enlist allies. I gathered a “Sabbatical squad” around me, which was a group of trusted friends who helped me plan, carry out, and follow up after my Sabbatical. Their job was not to ask what was best or easiest for our church, but what was best and needed for me. I met with them regularly during my Sabbatical over pizza and wine, and I knew they would hold me gently accountable when my instincts to “do more” and “produce something impressive” got the best of me. They also helped me think through what re-entry into ministry would look like as I reflected on what I had experienced during my Sabbatical.
- Second, engage with the numerous resources available online that you can look to for structuring your Sabbatical intentionally. I split my sabbatical up into three phases:
- Family and Travel
- Quiet and Restoration
- Getting ready for re-entry.
There are many more frameworks out there that may serve you better. There are also possibilities for funding your sabbatical. The Lilly Foundation gives away money each year for pastors on sabbatical. Applications are submitted 12-18 months in advance, so planning ahead is a necessity!
- Third, think clearly about why you need a sabbatical and what you want to communicate to others about it. The concept of prolonged, scheduled seasons of rest is foreign to most Americans, particularly American Christians. Many people, including other pastors, asked me what my “big plans” were for Sabbatical. Was I going to walk the Camino? Was I going to tackle a writing project? Was I really going to “do nothing” for 6 months?? As someone who is accustomed to being associated with hard work, it was telling how much shame these questions stirred up for me, and it was tempting for me to invent ways to be impressive even though a Sabbatical is supposed to be about the opposite of that! I trained myself to expect this little surge of shame, to take a deep breath, and then respond truthfully (and to the level of self-disclosure I chose for that particular conversation):
For me, this season is about doing very little, and being able to notice what I do have the energy and joy to do. I have taken some trips, but mostly am finding the time at home most restorative. I am reading a lot of fiction and enjoying long stretches of quiet space while my kids are in school. I have thought of some house projects or cooking experiments I might do, but I am waiting to see if the energy suddenly strikes me for them. Otherwise, I won’t do them at all. I am prioritizing times of silliness and laughter with my friends because laughter is one of the most healing activities for me currently. I am walking a lot in nature because I find it connects me to a sense of peace.
The call to pastoral ministry is a beautiful privilege. And we need more Christ-formed, creative, and gentle people taking up the mantle of pastoring, not less! Yet this call asks a lot of us. If we want to make it plausible for more men and women to endure in this beautiful calling, we need to see that rhythms of Sabbatical rest – both short and prolonged – are necessary for our mission.
The call to pastoral ministry is a beautiful privilege. And we need more Christ-formed, creative, and gentle people taking up the mantle of pastoring, not less! Yet this call asks a lot of us. (1/2) Click To Tweet
If we want to make it plausible for more men and women to endure in this beautiful calling, we need to see that rhythms of Sabbatical rest – both short and prolonged – are necessary for our mission. (2/2) Click To Tweet
Juliet Liu has served as co-pastor of Life on the Vine, a missional church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, since 2014. She is married to Sheldon and they have two children. Juliet is a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.Div.) and the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (Bachelor of Arts). Prior to coming to Life on the Vine in 2010, she ministered in Asian-American local church settings and on diverse university campuses. Juliet serves on the Missio Alliance Board of Directors and is a Leading Voice within the Missio Writing Collective. Between her time pastoring disciples on mission, parenting two boys, she enjoys having friends over to try her latest cooking experiments.
2 2,416 churches surveyed from https://www.vanderbloemen.com/blog/sabbaticals-critcal-to-avoiding-burnout.
4 See Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance for more on this crucial topic.
5 Brueggemann, Walter. Sabbath as Resistance. Westminster: John Knox Press, 2014. Kindle Edition, 10-11.