Sabbaticals: Why you need one, how to plan one

Dr. Michael G. Bischof

President of SOULeader Resources

  • Church & pastoral health

As a pastor or ministry leader, how do you know when you need a sabbatical? Here are a few stories that illustrate when you might need one:

  • I love meeting with people. But the day I knew something was wrong was when a friend’s lips were moving and I knew he was speaking English, but all I could hear was Charlie Brown’s teacher talking — “wah, wah, wah ... wah.” What was that about?
  • A pastor I knew had recently taken up cycling. While sharing with our pastor’s support group, he said, “It just dawned on me this week that whenever I go for a ride, I’m always riding away from the church. What do you all think that says about me?”
  • While consulting with a church staff team during several hours of training, the senior pastor put his head in his hands, began crying and said, “I just can’t do it anymore!” Every person in the room was silent, at a total loss about what to do next. How was this going to impact the church?
  • As you’re preparing to teach or preach and you stare at your blinking cursor until you can’t remember how long you’ve been staring at it and any semblance of creativity is gone — just the excruciating task of trying to come up with something relevant to say. Where did the joy of communication go?
  • When you get that email, text message or voicemail, and you do not want to open it. Not another need! Why can’t they seek help from someone else?
  • Have you ever noticed that what used to be fun and enjoyable isn’t any longer? You might have anhedonia — the inability to experience fun, enjoyment or pleasure. Or maybe you’ve come to a place where you just don’t care anymore or explode with unexplainable rage.

If you can identify with any of these realities in your own life, they are proof that you need a sabbatical. Burnout, loss of imagination, compassion fatigue, apathy, out-of-control emotions and so many other feelings are all indicators that you need to rest. Honestly, you need more than rest. You need to be “off” for a while.

Ministry is a loss-prone endeavor. Every day you face loss, grief, trauma and pain in the lives of others. And even if you haven’t in a while, you know it’s coming. That’s called “anticipatory grief.” And even the anticipation of it is wearing on your body and soul. We also now know that “vicarious trauma” — that trauma you help others carry when they’re in the midst of a crisis — is having the same impact on you as if it were your own.

In my experience, when pastors or leaders actually take a sabbatical, it is more of a “medical leave of absence” than it is truly a sabbatical. That’s not good! When you’ve waited so long that you’re crying out, “I can’t do this anymore!” you’re being reactive rather than proactive. It is much healthier to intentionally plan for a time of rest and renewal than to end up in the therapist’s chair or even the hospital, not knowing if you’ll ever make it back. Which would you rather have?

Have you noticed that Jesus spent more of his time trying to get away from people? He spent time in the wilderness before starting his ministry (Matthew 4). He spent time in solitude before an incredibly busy day doing ministry (Luke 6). He got up early to make time for prayer (Mark 1). He often got in a boat just to get away from the crowds. And yet he lived in a time of camel travel and walking.

Sabbaticals are an example of a rhythm of rest. We have many rhythms in our lives today, but rest usually isn’t one of them. As you consider your own need to plan a sabbatical, here are a few suggestions you might find helpful:

Practice a weekly sabbath

Most of us probably grew up in church environments where observing a sabbath carried about the same weight as stoning your children when they disobey. I’m not sure why the longest of the Ten Commandments is so easily thrown out, but I believe it’s detrimental. It’s even harder to get away from the reality that God modeled rest in the creation narrative. Maybe the best reason for practicing a weekly “sabbath” is that it begins to embed in our souls a hunger for healthy rhythms of rest.

Deepen your understanding of rest

Over the past two decades of working with pastors, I have often heard them apologize for taking a vacation. Or worse yet, I’ve even heard them justify why they didn’t take a vacation because of all the ministry that needed to be accomplished by them (often meant as a humble brag). Please don’t apologize for the gift that rest and renewal truly are. Think of it this way: Your church needs you to model rest so that you can free others from their addiction to performance.

Rest is counterintuitive

Did you know if you work less, you tend to get way more done? Sounds funny but give it a try. I know it feels good to be on that “ministry high” of doing God’s work and serving God’s people. But have you ever realized that you just might be abusing your adrenal glands? We’ve been given adrenaline for “fight or flight,” not as extra fuel to live on daily. Granted, you might have to unlearn a bunch of things yourself to be a good model. When was the last time you just wandered? What’s something that makes you feel lazy or like you’re playing hooky?

Wisely engage resistances

Maybe the two biggest statements I hear about sabbaticals are: “I don’t have time for that!” and “My board will never approve it!” My response to the first: You don’t have time not to. My response to the second: Of course, they won’t approve it if you never ask.

Ask better questions

Rather than just asking, “How long” or “How often?” you must create and model a culture of renewal and restoration within your church. How good are you at taking a day off? How many hours do you work each week? Do you have healthy boundaries that keep your work life from invading your home life? How’s your physical health doing?

Converge’s Compass pastor assessment will help you evaluate your ministry and enable you to face challenges, move forward and increase fruitfulness. Learn more >

Dr. Michael G. Bischof, President of SOULeader Resources

Dr. Michael G. Bischof (M.Div., D.Min.) is founder and president of SOULeader Resources, an inter-denominational ministry established in 2000 to empower transformational wholeness in leaders, churches, denominations and organizations. Michael uses his experience through coaching, consulting, training and writing.

Additional articles by Dr. Michael G. Bischof