I am writing this article/post for three reasons. First, because it may open the eyes of someone on how to pray for and encourage their own pastor. Two, to answer questions and comments I’ve already received in only talking to a few people about my plans for a sabbatical next year. Three, to provide insight into the day-to-day life and sacrifice of ministry that many pastors never share with someone else, again to help people understand this unique work and perhaps encourage a fellow pastor out there that you’re not alone.
To begin, the concept of a sabbatical is straight from the scripture. Every seven years the Israelites were to stop working and spend an entire year of trusting the Lord and enjoying His provision and Creation. To be with Him and each other rather than do. The Israelites did not obey and when they went into captivity the time-period was equal to their neglect of sabbatical years. Additionally, Levites were only supposed to minister for about 2 1/2 decades of their life. Once they reach 50 years old, they were to transition into a mentorship capacity and cease doing the work of ministry.
So what is a sabbatical? Last year due to storms that rolled in I had to cancel my outdoor work of staining decks for three days. I took those three days impromptu to take my first sabbatical. Which was more akin to an academic sabbatical as it was filled with writing. And for about 2 1/2 days of it I unplugged from the world and had time to just study and work on a book project. It was great but I learned a principle from it that I have been warned of multiple times as I’ve sought to learn more about what a sabbatical is meant to be, or perhaps I should say, can be as I’ve sought to learn more about this.
A ministerial sabbatical is not meant to just be a time of more work or of just vacation, it is meant to be a time of spiritual refreshing. That said, I am planning and I am working on designing this. And that’s another reason for this post: to ask for prayer support during the planning process and implementation of this… I am planning to take a sabbatical January through March 2023. During that time, I will most likely unplug from the phone, texts, social media, and all ministry and work responsibilities. It will not be a time of vacation, however. A part of it may include time working on some book projects that have been delayed the last few years due to the responsibilities of local church ministry. Another part will possibly include taking some hikes and trips that I’ve had to push off the last several years because of ministry and work. Covid was no vacation for pastors! Another component of it will be selecting only a few books, and perhaps even only the Bible as the only thing I read during that time. Because a sabbatical is not just a time to catch up on my reading list or education. It is meant to be a time of spiritual refreshing, it is meant to be a time of prayer and even planning through being still and prayerfully spending time with the Lord. The Bible says that Jesus had a custom, that means He had a habit and did this often: getting into solitude with the Father. A mini spiritual retreat if you will. Part of how I’ve come to the realization of needing to go this route is because I am a workaholic. I get things done. And I’ve done so for so long, I won’t go into to details, but it affects me physically. My bandwidth is much lower. A day off doesn’t fix it.
There are some other ideas as well, but the reason for taking the sabbatical are because it is necessary to refocus and refuel for myself spiritually. To use an illustration that several that have written on this topic have cited— you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you can help others put theirs on. Good way to describe ministry.
So how did I get here? One, some self-inflicted overworking. Two, spiritual warfare is a very real reality for those who step into ministry. There is a spiritual burden that unlike physical exhaustion from manual work, rather ministry emotionally, mentally, and spiritual drains you. Is this why 70% of pastors deal with discouragement or reoccurring depression? There’s no simple answer but it probably plays a factor.
Now to address another question. I am not taking a sabbatical because I am giving up on ministry. Further, I am not wimping out or chickening out from the sacrifice that is required in ministry. However, the work is plentiful, but the laborers are few. I have received repeated comments to give up on ministry and stop wasting my life in my calling because it isn’t “big” or a “full-time church.” From both Christians and unbelievers, I’ve received flack for being a “working pastor.” Pastors reading, or Christians, a bivocational ministry, even avocational ministry is not second rate. You obey the Lord and let Him deal with the naysayers. At least at times attack will come because of your choice to serve as the Lord has called. Even Jesus’ brothers in John 7 encouraged Him to seek bigger things rather than faithfulness. I know that I need to reinvent new rhythms and gain some clarity on what to focus on for longevity in the future. Burnout is real. Sabbaticals are not a fix all, but they can be like a major reconstructive surgery. And sabbath and sabbatical was supposed to be a way of life for the Israelites after they took the Promised Land.
Here is just a glimpse of what ministry has looked like in my own story. I don’t share this to exalt myself, but to paint a picture because it is very likely your pastor is doing similar things. And you may need to be the one to encourage the church to give him a time of sabbatical to refuel. And if your church is not offering him four weeks of paid vacation every year, start that immediately, that’s my two cents. My first ministry post, I was not allowed any vacation and it was iffy if I could even take any by year 2, and that was as a bivocational. Even the first full year that a pastor is serving offer him vacation and require him to take it. The cost of filling the pulpit for a few more weeks is nothing compared to what it will cost if your pastor wears out in ministry, and you have to do a pastor search for a couple of years to replace him.
How I developed unhealthy rhythms:
I was appointed to ministry leadership by men in my church when I was about 14. The Lord then called me when I was about 15 to preaching and write, respectfully. Unsolicited, doors opened up. So from about 8th or 9th grade on I was serving in key volunteer leadership roles for close to 20 hours every week. At a large church. During college, my weeks were regularly above 90 hours a week with ministry, work, and education. And 7 books were self-published that year too. The Lord led from there to largely serving avocationally in ministry for close to seven years. Which meant all the responsibilities and time, just not “my job.” My pastor told our church when I was growing up as a teenager, that if you’re called to ministry, you should go to college not for a Bible degree but something else, because you very well may need to work in the marketplace to provide for your family. I took his advice. Within the first week or two in seminary if my memory serves me correct, our Masters-level professors told us that many of us would have to find another way to provide and make a living other than ministry in order to fulfill our calling where God would send us. Coupled with that, statistics over the last decades continue to reveal across America, shrinking church sizes, and increasing number of bivocational pastors that work two or more jobs to provide for their family and serve a church. And religious decline is at an all-time high in our secular and godless society. We live more on a mission field than in a Christian nation. So this calling Ain’t gonna be easy. When young guys come to me and ask about advice when they’re feeling called to ministry. One of the first things I usually start with is how great the cost may be, and they must be willing to obey God in this calling even if they have to work another way to make a living. I’ll talk about all the joys and blessings as well but you gotta count the cost upfront.
So this sabbatical thing is not because I’ve only gone a few years in ministry and I’m ready to take a break. I’ve served for nearly 13 years, the majority of that in local church and parachurch ministry. Vacations were routinely pushed away or only a brief hiatus working frantically up to and right after getting back. Throughout Covid and the pandemic the needs of the church came before nearly everything else. This experience is not unique to me, it’s most likely been true for your pastor as well.
Lastly, let me just try to make a list of current responsibilities to give you a glimpse into the daily life of one bivocational pastor with its joys and challenges: owner operator and self-employed (During the busy season nearly 50 hours a week), pastor at a normative-size church, 30 to 40 hours a week, attending a summer school like program to continue learning more to serve churches well 5-10 hours a week, the joy of discipling two guys one on one, the privilege of following up with past guys he’s discipled, meeting with his own mentors when time allows, consulting and/or encouraging pastors one on one in church revitalization and as a prayer partner, normal responsibilities of maintaining one’s own house.
In addition to all that, pastors have families too, even if they’re single, they likely have some form of family. And spiritual attack is a very real thing that their families experience because of their ministry. Entering ministry is like getting a target on your back, and your family gets it to because of your choice. Spiritual warfare is real. Again, these things are not shared to somehow foster pity for ministers, but to give you a glimpse into this work. And why it is so important to be the person in your church that helps hold your pastors’ arms up. If you commit to do something, follow through (I’m not talking about in the case of emergencies but I’m going to assume you know what I mean here). Very few pastors that I know, are lazy or only working on Sunday for an hour. Most are constantly bearing burdens and picking up the pieces of what happens when people begin ministry or a commitment to the Lord and then drop out. Most likely there is someone hurting that he is ministering to right now. A pastor taking a spiritual retreat is not him giving up, not a vacation, it is him refueling. Every year teachers take the summer off as a “sabbatical” from their calling of teaching.
One last note:
Whereas ministry is mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting, and very seldom do you see the tangible results of your labors—You can’t see what’s being built or happening often—; Physical work is different. Your body becomes weary physically however you are able to see the results of your labor. That is why it’s good for many pastors to have a hobby that involves their hands and their bodies moving. Or if they’re bivocational, that’s why some may want to consider physical work. I know for myself it’s rewarding to be able to help people taking care of yard and outdoor projects and I can see the results of my labor every day. While my body becomes physically tired, and that requires physical rest; ironically physical work can sometimes allow “mindless” activity which helps to unplug and in one sense rest my mind, heart, and spirit. But more important than all of these is time of solitude with the Lord. Be Still…and know He is God.