by Roger Kruger

In bestselling British author Terry Pratchett’s book Monstrous Regiment, a magic sword admits to a longing to become a plowshare. “I don’t know what that is,” the sword confesses, “but it sounds like an existence with some point to it.” That could well describe the sentiments of congregations, especially those that are 20 years old or more or located in communities that have experienced significant change. Frequently in such congregations there is an accumulation of activities and customs that have taken on a life of their own. Like the blades of a fan that continue to spin long after the electricity has been turned off, so does the very busy-ness of congregations sometimes create a false sense of momentum long after the meaning and purpose of that activity has been blunted. Some who find themselves in such congregations recognize that something is missing, though they may be at a loss to describe what that is or how to regain it, except to say that now they would like to be engaged in something “with a point to it.”

A remedy for this situation may come in the form of a congregational sabbatical—a solution not typically obvious to the pastor, the congregation, or even consultants like myself who work with congregations as they plan pastoral sabbaticals.

During the process of planning a sabbatical for a church pastor, a member of the congregation will often remark, “So, does this mean we won’t have to go to church while our pastor is on sabbatical?” It’s a comment intended to invoke a laugh, and it usually does, but it also may be evidence of a misunderstanding about sabbaticals. The assumption is that a pastor on a sabbatical is getting away with something. Regardless of the terminology one uses to describe it, to many parishioners a sabbatical seems like a glorious vacation. While it is true that sabbaticals involve rest and a release from the 24/7 demands under which pastors frequently work, sabbaticals are also intended to provide an opportunity for faith-building activities such as prayer and worship and reflection. They are not about “vacating,” which implies getting rid of or relinquishing something. They are about “filling” and renewal.

Seriously, Though . . .
Perhaps it is merely a failure to grasp this concept that leads to the question about taking a break from church attendance, but I have recently begun to wonder whether the question of the congregational sabbatical shouldn’t be taken seriously. If it is important for the pastor to occasionally be freed from duties that have become burdensome so that he or she can take some time for prayer, reflection, and renewal, why wouldn’t the members of a congregation also benefit from such a sabbatical?

Originally, I came to the role of advocating for pastoral sabbaticals from the perspective of the church worker. An abundance of surveys indicate that ministry today is a high-stress occupation. In some denominations, more ministers leave the ministry each year than retire from it. This steady drain has contributed significantly to the clergy shortage that many denominations are facing today. Sabbaticals are a potentially effective tool to confront issues of burnout and stress. Additionally, sabbaticals can serve as a useful tool to foster long-term ministry by heading off the decline in hopes and expectations that frequently occurs after a pastor has remained in one place for a number of years. They also can be used as an initial stage in a strategic planning process where both pastor and congregational leaders engage in a time of spiritual discernment before coming together to plan the direction God is leading them in the coming years. In my experience, sabbaticals do all this and more.

But are we missing the boat by designing a process that helps ministers cope with the high stress of ministry while not at the same time addressing the congregational systems that create such high stress?

Several authors in recent years, including Jan Linn in Reclaiming Evangelism: A Practical Guide for Mainline Churches and Anthony Robinson inTransforming Congregational Culture, cannot be solved solely by equipping pastors to become better leaders. Changes have taken place in American society during the last 20 to 30 years that have had a significant impact upon the function of congregations in communities. As Robinson writes, congregations have experienced “loss of numbers, loss of clout, loss of role, loss of certainty. All this loss and its attendant grief have spawned an era of conflict and uncertainty.”1 For a while it was believed that these problems could be addressed with a dose of good leadership. Congregations were encouraged to write mission statements. Evangelism classes were offered. Worship styles were changed in an effort to attract a different population, and attention was given to signage and the way visitors were welcomed. All of these “solutions,” which in their own way seemed to make sense, were occasionally helpful, but in many cases the problems remained. There was a failure to understand the nature of a congregation’s culture, the system dynamics that assure that nothing much will change no matter how hard you try. What is required is a transformation of congregations themselves.

A Congregation is Like a Marriage
A parallel can be drawn between this congregational situation and the following scenario, which I have frequently seen played out in my work as a pastoral counselor: A couple comes in for marriage counseling. It is clear that both spouses are disillusioned with some aspects of their relationship. They spend very little time talking with each other and when they do the conversation frequently degenerates into angry words, which create more unresolved hurt. I recommend a series of communication activities for them to do jointly and encourage them to set aside a weekly time to do something fun together. This is not brain surgery. Undoubtedly, the couple could have made this diagnosis for themselves. Yet when the couple returns for the next appointment, no improvement appears to have taken place. When they are asked about the communication exercises or the commitment to a weekly “couple time,” they offer excuses. Why does this happen? Because the couple didn’t really agree with the solutions the counselor recommended? No, the solutions made good sense to them and they really did intend to do them. Because they really don’t want to change? No, they have committed to counseling and are paying good money for it. Is it perhaps that they don’t know how to change, that they have created a system that sustains itself, that creates the roles each of them in the system is made to play, and—whether they want to or not—they find themselves continuing to play those roles? A wise therapist at this point will shift from offering solutions to asking questions, questions that will help the couple begin to reflect on their patterns of conduct and on how these patterns serve to protect them from issues they don’t want to face. Until they get to a deeper level of the “culture” of their relationship, change is not likely.

Congregations are not unlike couples. Again, diagnosis is relatively simple: “We are not growing.” “We are not serving our community.” The solutions are relatively straightforward: “We need a mission statement.” “We need to do evangelism.” “We need to be more friendly to visitors.” Yet, despite these efforts, the same problems persist.

A congregational sabbatical offers an alternative to these ineffective approaches. I first encountered the idea of a congregational sabbatical in Jan Linn’s book.2 A congregational sabbatical was, for him, a first step (in a series of 11) in a strategy to reclaim the authentic identity of a faith community. He envisioned a congregational sabbatical as a yearlong period during which all of a congregation’s normal and customary “activities” would cease. A core group of leaders would respond to any emergency that should occur. Meanwhile, members would participate in “Spiritual Life Groups” that would focus on prayer, study, community-building, and “dreaming great dreams.” These groups would include 5 to 10 minutes of silence as well as the opportunity for participants to relate their spiritual autobiographies.

The idea of congregational sabbaticals seems to me to incorporate several important elements useful to the task of transforming congregational culture. These include evaluating the effectiveness of current activities, learning to question and to listen, preventing burnout of lay leaders, and valuing the importance of sacred time.

Evaluating the Effectiveness of Current Activities
If you are like me, you may wonder how a congregation decides what are the “essential” functions that should continue during a congregational sabbatical. I presume there is no set answer. Each congregation needs to find this out for itself. Worship, for example, is an essential function of the church, as is the task of spiritual formation. But should worship continue in its accustomed format during the sabbatical period or should it become something far more basic? Should some/none/all current discipleship endeavors continue or is this the time to try a different approach, as Jan Linn suggests? What management activities really are essential? Though these questions are difficult ones to wrestle with, by having to address them a congregation is made to face basic questions about its purpose and identity. And once a congregation has operated for a period of time without some of its traditional activities, it will be important to discover which of them were actually missed. Were there any negative consequences? Experience followed by reflection provides an opportunity for evaluation.

Learning to Question and to Listen
A congregational sabbatical could be a time when—by inviting members to ask questions rather than providing them with solutions—the congregation is led to reflect upon what God is calling them to do. Pastors with whom I have worked in the process of facilitating an individual sabbatical leave often remark on the significance of what occurs. Frequently there are several days, even weeks, at the beginning of a sabbatical when there are feelings of anxiety and guilt. The sense of “ought” lies heavily. It is difficult to adapt to a day that is unstructured by demands and expectations. But, once freed from the demands of obligations, the mind develops wings and takes delight in wandering, in reflecting, and in dreaming. Breaking the regular cycle of congregational activities will undoubtedly create discomfort for some, but ultimately it creates a situation where members can begin to question the previously unquestioned.

Questioning leads also to listening. Members learn from one another as they share their own experiences and their expectations for the congregation. Members also can be asked to search the Scriptures as the ultimate guidebook for discovering what a congregation is to be and to do. As members read and reflect on biblical passages that describe the nature of the church, they can be invited to reflect upon the question, “Is this an accurate description of who we are and what we do?”

Preventing Burnout
Lay leaders, no less than clergy, experience burnout. Many congregations experience a reoccurring cycle of lay leadership that goes something like this:

  • Individuals become excited and highly motivated to serve.
  • Because they are willing, they are asked to participate in many additional activities.
  • Rather than experiencing reward and appreciation for their service, lay leaders are often surprised by the harshness of the criticism they sometimes receive.
  • They also experience increased stress from their spouses and families because of the amount of time and energy the congregation expects from them.
  • The leader drops out, refusing all further assignments, and is replaced by a new recruit with whom the cycle is repeated.

A congregational sabbatical, which quiets for a time the almost insatiable demand for the volunteers necessary to complete the tasks that maintain the current structure of an organization, offers the possibility of relief and renewal to overworked lay leaders.

Reaffirming the Significance of Sacred Time
One of the most significant ways a church culture ought to be different from a secular culture is in the understanding and experience of time. Though congregations today have almost completely lost sight of it, there is something sacred about the very nature of time. After all, the very first thing God created was not matter but time—the “evening” and “morning” of the first day. One of the commandments leads us to recognize the importance of “Sabbath”—to learn how to make time “holy.” Ancient religions certainly recognized this. Most of what we know about them stems from monuments that in some way were related to the observation of time. Ancient gods still wink at us from the names of the months of the year and the days of the week. The English word “hour” comes from the monastic practice of dividing the day into periods of prayer times.

Yet today we have often capitulated to the secular concept of time, where “time is money,” where one “spends” and “wastes” time. Even “time out” is associated more with punishment than with renewal. If, however, by the use of congregational sabbaticals members could experience the importance of rest as sacred time, a step would be taken toward creating a community that is clearly distinct from the world. In contrast to the busy-ness of the world, filled with its relentless list of things to do, places to go, and people to see, where success is measured by the accumulation of things and the accomplishment of tasks, a congregation could offer a place that validates a way of life different from the culture around it.

Whether a congregation is more aptly described as a sword or a plowshare, it is clearly intended to be something with a point to it. Congregational sabbaticals could serve to sharpen that point.

1. Anthony B. Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003), 18.
2. Jan G. Linn, Reclaiming Evangelism: A Practical Guide for Mainline Churches (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1998).

Congregations, 2004-07-01
Summer 2004, Number 3

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