This post is about your pastor's need for an occasional extended leave. Some call these sabbaticals, and some call them renewal programs. What they are not is vacation. Clergy sabbaticals or renewal programs are a commonplace practice for many denominations or local churches. However, for many people who have pastors, it seems unrealistic at best or ridiculous at worst that a pastor would even desire such a thing. It takes nerve, I know, for me to write this post and then post it. In fact, if you are reading here, but aren't reading these words, then I didn't post it! [An attempt at humor.]
One reason I am able to write this, is that the leadership of the church where I pastor has granted me permission to work with them on a sabbatical scholarship proposal. By doing so, I assume they already agree with much of what is below. However, if any of them are reading here, I believe this article could help to inform them in regards to the reasons and benefits of sabbatical or renewal.
I am reading a book entitled Clergy Renewal, (Bullock/Bruesehoff--published by The Alban Institute). There is an enlightening outline in the forward. It answers the following question: Why should a congregational lay leader want their pastor to experience a regular renewal leave? The recommendation in this book is for a three months sabbatical leave once every four years. Here is a brief synopsis of the reasons given:
1) "The very nature of being a pastor involves continual spiritual growth. Spiritual growth does not happen by accident; it takes hard, intentional work. Basically it is a lifelong process involved in big chunks of time set aside for reading, prayer, solitude and reflection....Trying to do this while working between forty-five and fifty-five hours each week is nearly impossible." [I'm sorry, but I find it laughable to suggest those are sufficient hours to accomplish what must be done to keep a job in ministry...at least from my perspective. I've been told quite clearly, and found it to be true, that anything less than sixty-five--and often ten to fifteen more--hours per week will put you on the unemployment line. And these hours can't include time spent in reading, prayer, solitude or reflection. I think one reason people fail to see the rigors of a pastor's life, is they cannot understand the rigors of constant reading, prayer, solitude and reflection in their own lives. And these cannot be times spent studying for next week's lesson, training session or sermon. They must be times of being in the Presence--for the sake of that Presence alone.]
2) This item deals with the need for clergy to get away to see how other congregations are adapting to changing times.
3) "Without such renewal leave, there is a stronger chance that clergy will, over time, demonstrate the key characteristics of burnout--namely, exhaustion, cynicism, disillusionment, and self-deprecation. It has been documented that people in the helping professions tend to burn-out the fastest, in part because the constant intimate involvement with the emotional freight of other people's lives can be draining. Burned-out clergy are much more likely to leave parish ministry, or seek another call, in order to get out of a place that is wringing them dry. Should that happen, the congregation will, in turn, likely experience a twelve to eighteen month search process of another pastor. If the search committee makes the wrong choice, the congregation will end up with a pastor who is unable to bring new life to the congregation. In fact, it may cost them several years of decline--not to mention a severance package! ...Every pastoral turnover costs a congregation years of progress. Sabbatical leave helps avoid such situations." [Wow, it saddened me to see this discussion end with only the ramifications for the congregation. I can tell you from personal experience that being exhausted, cynical, disillusioned, and self-deprecating--years on end--is not a good way to live. And, when pastors leave for another local church (when they could continue on where they are if they had a leave) they are not fixing a problem, they are just masking the symptoms. Plus, their family is yanked out of yet another home town in order to feel the temporary relief of assignment change. I understand this is a list for why lay leaders would care, but most lay leaders desire to care for their pastor (and his or her family) while also caring for their congregation.]
4) "Another lethal effect of burnout is that it makes a pastor dull, hollow, and uninteresting. ...Clergy vitality is the greatest asset in building up a congregation....The paradox of congregational ministry for clergy is that they are constantly invited to overextend--there is always someone they should have called or to whom they should have given attention--but doing so can torpedo the vitality that drives their ministry. Renewal can be a powerful antidote to this kind of debilitating burnout." [Again, I'd add from the pastor's perspective that being "dull, hollow and uninteresting" is not enjoyable.]
5) "The Pastoral role generally involves long, hard hours without weekends off, or even the occasional long weekend. Pastors are rarely afforded the luxury of having two consecutive days off...every weekend involves a major output of energy on Sunday. Friday and Saturday are often consumed by sermon preparation, wedding rehearsals and weddings, and so forth. Congregations too often assume that clergy can remain vital and healthy and maintain a sound family life with only one day off per week..." [And I add here, that I was taught early on in my ministry, that a day off is a myth. That I shouldn't aspire to one. Although I have tried to make it a reality, a day off is basically impossible for a tired mind that keeps thinking of one more thing...now let's get back to the authors] "This is a crazy norm. We don't know where it comes from, but it permeates every denomination on this continent. When you add up the time off clergy miss that most lay people take for granted, it becomes clear that a three month renewal leave every four years is a reasonable proposal that helps make up for that loss."
6) This final item deals with how congregations can become overly dependent upon clergy, and sabbaticals can provide opportunity for congregations to step-up.
I hope you will consider these things. Perhaps you will want to share this post with some friends who might help you lead the way for your pastor to be given a sabbatical or renewal leave.
Please feel free to comment on this, or email me. I know this is sensitive. But in a country where pastors are leaving the ministry by more than a thousand per month, and churches are closing their doors for the last time every day...we might not want to assume anything.