As pastor of a 150-member church that averages about 80 for Sunday worship, I am typical of many clergy: we work long hours for many years without relief. Like people in many other professions, we have difficulty drawing appropriate boundaries between our work and our personal lives. Often, the personal life gets swallowed up gradually into the work life until the two are no longer distinguishable. Our families suffer, we suffer, and our churches suffer.

Maybe it is that last item which has not been examined often enough. Our churches suffer because they lose their formerly rested, energetic pastor to one who is overwhelmed by responsibilities that begin to feel more like chores than like fulfilling a vocation.

Congregational consultant Roy Oswald, in his book Clergy Self-Care discusses the problems with the work lives of many clergy. Determined to answer God’s call in a particular church, seeing the never-ending needs and unlimited possibilities of that church, hoping to bring out the best in its members, they find themselves unable to do all they wish to do. Instead of setting realistic expectations, they often believe that by their own effort they can make things happen—if they just work a little harder, do a little more, make a few extra phone calls, attend another meeting.

Perhaps the idea of call to a church vocation makes the job of a pastor more difficult to put aside at the end of the day than some other jobs. If this is truly my calling, shouldn’t I be willing to take it home with me and live it 24/7? How can I not make those visits on the way home? How can I refuse any request? Does the sense of vocation include in it the idea that the pastor’s life be subsumed under the overarching needs of the church? Of course not, but that is what often occurs.

So many pastors are afraid to say they are weary, overwhelmed, or frustrated by their work. They might sound like whiners. They fear the implications of their own questions: are they questioning their very call to that particular church, or even to the ministry at all? It looks better for everyone if they can just suck it up and keep on going.

Obviously, as Oswald points out so well, “sucking it up” leads to all sorts of problems, from illness to burnout to leaving the church or the ministry. Then the fears of facing the problem head-on turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one, least of all the church, is well served by a pastor who is sick or burned out or gone.

In my case, long before my sabbatical time finally arrived, I did become sick. I had several stress-related illnesses and went to a therapist on the suggestion of my physician to learn stress reduction techniques. Those techniques helped a great deal, but they did not completely solve the problem. The problem was overwork, and for me it took a sabbatical to get out from under what had become the normal way of doing things so I could adopt a healthier work style.

In the meantime, I was able to gain enough control over my situation and my reaction to it to function quite well. Sabbath was what I needed—a way of stepping back and looking at my work in a new and fresh way. I wanted to stay in that church, but I had to change some things about my work. I needed spiritual and creative renewal.

I am definitely not alone. Statistics show stress is a problem many clergy face, and perhaps is simply a part of the ministerial landscape. My denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), conducted a survey in 1996 and found not unsurprising results in the area of clergy stress:

  • 12% of pastors, 15% of specialized clergy experience stress at work almost every day
  • 18% of pastors, 17% of specialized clergy experience work stress several days a week
  • 40% of pastors, 38% of specialized clergy experience work stress once or twice a week1

In short, large majorities of Presbyterian clergy—whether in the parish or not—experience job-related stress at least weekly, and around one in seven do so on a daily or near-daily basis.

According to Pastor Glenn Ludwig, author of In It for the Long Haul, a book that celebrates and supports long-term pastorates, “There are times when our calls must be reissued, if you will; times when we will need to reassess our call to serve in a particular setting to discover what God has in mind for us and for those who called us.” Many pastors and congregations would like to stay together for more than the typical few years and need to find a way to do so that is healthy and strong. A sabbatical can provide the time and space to reassess the call to a renewed life in the same place.

Brent Bill, associate director of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, quotes a recent study by the Alban Institute, “The Leadership Situation Facing American Congregations,” which says that American clergy and congregations are “caught in a sea change of turmoil and ferment, crisis and opportunity.” Bill says:

The turmoil and crisis shows itself in things such as a shortage of clergy across the American religious landscape, a lowering of the quality of pastoral leadership, the lack of retention of women in clergy ministry, and [the fact] that 40 percent of clergy report that they are facing burnout or severe burnout. These all demonstrate the need for taking a serious look at pastoral sabbaticals. Our work with congregations shows that well-planned sabbaticals strengthen both pastors and congregations [by] giving pastors an opportunity for renewal through intentional study, rest and reflection as they step away, for a brief period, from the daily demands of congregational life. Pastors return from their sabbaticals with a renewed sense of pastoral purpose and reenergization for the work they feel called to do. That in turn renews and reenergizes the congregation. It’s a win-win situation for both parties.

There are times when a pastor should definitely not take a sabbatical. For instance, had I not learned to control my reaction to the stresses in my work, it would have been a mistake to use a sabbatical for that purpose. What I needed early on was counseling, not sabbatical. Only after I had become healthier did I think a sabbatical could be valuable in helping me continue my long-term pastorate, relearning and building on those healthy patterns of ministry.

Pastors also should not consider a sabbatical if there are serious family or personal problems or if there is a significant church conflict. These situations require immediate and strong intervention, but a sabbatical is not the right remedy.

Judicatory executive Carol McDonald adds that a pastor shouldn’t engage in clergy leave if the congregation is in the midst of making a serious decision—for example, about a building project, a capital campaign, or about making a public witness statement.

Finally, a sabbatical is not for the purpose of deciding if it is time for you to change churches, or to let the church get used to not having you around because you have already decided to change churches. It is unfair to the congregation to ask them to give you a renewal leave when that’s what you plan to do: leave. It is also unfair to subsequent pastors because the church will be less likely to put itself in that situation again. A sabbatical is for renewal in the place where God has put you.

An interesting observation arose from my interviews with pastors who have taken sabbaticals. Among those whose churches had a sabbatical policy, and who took the sabbatical policy on schedule, there appeared to be a more balanced view about the clergy leave time. Sabbatical was a normal expectation between pastor and congregation, and pastors were able to anticipate the program with pleasure
and excitement instead of desperate need.

There are others who also fall in the categories of minister who should consider sabbaticals; judicatory officials, chaplains, church school administrators, and others can all benefit from the renewal sabbatical affords. Though they may be less likely to have sabbatical opportunities, by all means they should consider negotiating with their institutions for leave opportunities.

In his last book, Sabbatical Journey, the late spiritual leader Henri Nouwen wrote about his own sabbatical year. Nouwen was suffering from great fatigue throughout this last year of his life, likely a sign that he needed medical attention, since he died only a few weeks after returning to his pastoral work at the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto. The book was a great lesson to me in how important it is for us to listen to our bodies. When we are fatigued, we need rest; when we are stressed, we need relief; when we are sick, we need to get well. Pastors, like everyone else, should pay attention to the signals our bodies send us. We need to realize how important it is to head off burnout before it gets a hold on us. By taking care of ourselves, we are also taking care of the churches who have called us. When congregations see their pastor as a person with spiritual and physical needs of rest and renewal, they may recognize the need for Sabbath in their own lives and work. This is what sabbatical is all about: health, wholeness, and renewal.

1. Presbyterian Church (USA), “The Presbyterian Panel Report: Background Report for the 1997-1999 Presbyterian Panel” (Louisville: Research Services, Presbyterian Church (USA), 2000).


Featured Resources

AL214_SMClergy Renewal: The Alban Guide to Sabbatical Planning by A. Richard Bullock and Richard J. Bruesehoff

Planned time away from the parish for study, rest, and spiritual renewal can be beneficial—and often necessary—for any pastor, as well as for the congregation. In this thoroughly revised and expanded edition of Alban’s popular Sabbatical Planning for Clergy and Congregations, Bullock and Bruesehoff provide the definitive guide to putting together refreshing pastoral sabbaticals that can help keep ministry vital and growing for the long term.

AL263_SM Journeying toward Renewal: A Spiritual Companion for Pastoral Sabbaticals by Melissa Bane Sevier

Melissa Bane Sevier has used her own sabbatical leave time to create a spiritually nourishing resource that helps to shepherd pastors through the unknowns of renewal leave. Drawing on her own journal entries and her own and others’ experiences of sabbatical, Sevier provides not only engaging reflections on the experience of being on sabbatical but also numerous thought-provoking exercises, activities, ideas, and other resources to help readers get the most out of their renewal leave.