The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines sabbatical year (sabbatical) as:
1) A year of rest for the land observed every seventh year in ancient Judea
2) A leave often with pay granted usually every seventh year (as to a college professor) for rest, travel, or research -- called also sabbatical leave
Among Southern Baptists, the concept of sabbatical leave is a relatively novel idea. That is unfortunate because the practice of sabbatical could bless both the minister and congregation. A sabbatical is a specific period of time-off granted to the minister for in-depth focus on professional and spiritual renewal and calling. It is a gift the congregation can give to her pastor/staff in recognition of faithful ministry over an extended period of time. It is not a vacation or personal leave. Rather it is a time for creative and intentional meditation, reflection, study and “going deeper with God.” An important result of sabbatical (Spiritual renewal) leave is that the pastor/staff returns to the church field with renewed focus and energy to fulfill God’s calling.
As Baptists, we embrace the Bible as the Word of God and our authoritative guide in all matters of life. Christian belief and behavior are soundly based on our interpretation of God’s Holy Word. The concept of sabbatical is deeply and indisputably rooted in Scripture. The term is derived from the Old Testament idea of “sabbath.” The Hebrew word means “rest.” God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh (Genesis 2:1-3). During the Hebrew children’s exodus from Egypt, God directed them (Exodus 16:26) to gather the manna daily but to rest on the seventh day (Sabbath). In numerous Old Testament passages, God admonished his people to work six days but to devote the seventh day to God as a day of rest (Exodus 20:9-10, 23:12, 31:15, 34:21, 35:2; Leviticus 23:3 and Deuteronomy 5:13). Among the Israelites, God instituted the sabbath year (Leviticus 25:1-5). On every seventh year, the children of Israel were to refrain from farming the land and let the earth rest. Both the Israelites and the land benefited from the sabbath rest.
These passages suggest that there is a rhythm to life. As the preacher said, for everything there is a season (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Jesus’ own life and ministry reflect a deep understanding and appreciation for the rhythms of life. The demands upon Him were so great that his own ministry was punctuated with times of withdrawal for prayer and spiritual solitude (Matthew 14:23; Mark 6:46; Luke 5:16, 6:12).
During the Middle Ages, the sabbatical idea was reemphasized by the doctors of the church, most of whom were related to universities as professors. The general practice provided a year’s sabbatical after seven years in the classroom. The primary purpose of sabbatical was to bring renewal to the individual’s spiritual calling.
If Jesus needed to differentiate from the press and prater of the crowd to find peace and renewal of calling and purpose, how much more do modern ministers need that!
Sabbatical Testimonies of Tennessee Baptist Ministers
From Burnout to Renewal
On June 4, 2006, I drove to the church for evening worship intending to announce my resignation. After 21 years as a pastor, and 27 years in professional ministry, I had hit a wall. I was not only exhausted; I was empty. My faith had not wavered, nor had my commitment to ministry or my church. Like a car that had run out of gas, I just stopped. Fortunately, by the time I pulled into the parking lot, I had reasoned myself out of such a drastic act. When pastors run out of steam, they generally do one of three things: they move to another church; they get sick; or they do something stupid. I came very close to my stupid! Instead of resigning, I walked into the service and announced that I was prepared to teach, but I was unable to teach, and that I would see them next week. The congregation witnessed what I had been fearfully anticipating for several years – a total shutdown.
The people of Calvary Baptist Church responded quickly with a compassion and grace that is not too common. They gave me a three month sabbatical. In that time I was to separate myself from all regular church duties. I would be contacted by the church only in extreme emergency situations. Full salary and benefits were provided during the sabbatical. It became apparent to me that as beneficial as a sabbatical would be for me, or for any pastor, not all churches are able to provide sabbaticals. In order to minister in this way to its pastor, a church must be spiritually, emotionally and relationally healthy. Unhealthy churches are unwilling and feel unable to grant such a leave of absence. I am grateful to God for a healthy church family who loved me in such a profound way.
The benefits were great. I was able to rest. Being free of a schedule and deadlines allowed me to sleep late, take my time and breathe easily. I was able to spend extra time with family. Non-clergy families cannot really understand the nature of being on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. At any moment, family time can be interrupted or vacation cut short by pastoral emergency. Evenings generally scheduled with meetings became times to be at home with loved ones. I was able to recreate. I love to fish, and I spent a lot of time on the water. I was able to read. With so much study required for sermon preparation, reading for personal and professional growth can be short-changed. I was able to worship. That may sound strange, but it was refreshing to be a worshiper rather than a worship leader. I was able to regain the perspective of the person sitting in the pew. Visiting different churches permitted me to learn from other fellowships, denominations and traditions. It also allowed me to lose negativity, since I was able to see that what we do at Calvary compares favorably with what other churches are doing. As a result of my time away, I came back a stronger Christian, a more compassionate minister, a wiser counselor, a more optimistic leader, a more insightful preacher and a more enthusiastic pastor…a pastor more willing and more able to pour out his life for his people.
The congregation also experienced beneficial growth. They were able to receive new perspectives from different preachers. Sometimes we get so comfortable with the familiar that we lose our capacity to think and evaluate. They were willing to engage in meaningful ministry. Church staff had to shoulder some extra responsibility which helped them to grow as pastors. Lay members had to take up the slack in caring for the congregation and the community. In so doing, the congregation also gained a deeper appreciation for how widespread and demanding pastoral ministry actually is. Being more involved during the sabbatical also reminded the congregation that their involvement could and should continue. Sabbatical became a catalyst for expanded ministry participation in the future. If nothing else, the sabbatical gave the church the opportunity to be the church, ministering to one of her own with tender grace and sincere compassion.
It has been six months since the conclusion of my sabbatical. I am well aware of the fact that without it I might not be a pastor today. Without a sabbatical, even if I remained a pastor, I would be filled with sadness, anger and guilt because I could not serve the congregation that I love in the ways I would want to serve them. But thanks be to God. He has provided victory through the body of Christ. And I am grateful.
Frank Crawford, pastor
Calvary Baptist Church, Kingsport
Getting Away in Order to Stay on “THE WAY” (What Sabbath did for me)
- Getting away from the demands of the church helped put things in perspective and helped me remember Who I really serve.
- Getting away helped me appreciate my family more.
- Getting away from the church actually helped me appreciate the church more.
- Getting away revived my soul and renewed my relationship with God.
- Getting away helped me rest heart, mind, body and soul. Spiritual, mental, emotional and physical rest made the Sabbath complete. I came back “completely” renewed.
- Getting away helped me be “fed” spiritually without being drained by feeding others. I love teaching and preaching, counseling, etc., but I came back “full” and more ready to carry out all the tasks of being a pastor.
- Getting away helped me see how important it is to get away.
- Getting away helped me to be amazed at God again and thus be amazed at being a husband, dad and pastor.
- Getting away gave time to think again without it revolving around the church. I remembered that everything does not have to be about what is going on at church.
- I simply came back a better husband, dad and pastor because of feeling empowered by Gods Spirit again.
Clay King, pastor
Mount Hermon Baptist Church, Clarksville
Benefits of a Sabbatical
For the minister:
- “Transforms dreams of vacation to new visions of vocation.”1
- Infuses new life into the minister.
- Sharpens ministry skills.
- Refocuses the minister’s calling and mission.
- Deepens the minister’s appreciation of the congregation.
- Creates in the minister a new resolve to serve the congregation and the Kingdom of God.
For the church:
- Focuses and engages the ministry of the laity.
- Creates a renewed appreciation of the minister.
- Return of minister who is energized and refocused.
- Blessed by a revival of mutual devotion of minister and members.
- Spiritual growth of the minister results in greater effectiveness.
See also: Pastor/ Staff Appreciation
1. Clergy Renewal, A. Richard Bullock and Richard J. Bruesehoff, Alban Institute, p. 7.