Editor’s note: This is the third article in a 3-part series about the recent sabbatical experience of CBFNC Executive Coordinator, Larry Hovis.
What I Recommend
Based on my own experience, as well as the experience of some of the healthiest churches in our fellowship,
I wholeheartedly recommend that every church develop and implement a sabbatical policy for their ministers.
Such a recommendation naturally raises a number of questions:
Why should our church offer our minister(s) a sabbatical?
There are many reasons a church should have a ministerial sabbatical policy but two stand out.
First, sabbatical is a thoroughly biblical concept. From the earliest pages of Scripture, through example and command, God teaches the importance of sabbath, which is the foundation of sabbatical. God rested from work on the seventh day (Gen. 2:3) and commanded the children of Israel to set aside every seventh day as a day of rest (Ex. 20:8-11). In addition, God told Moses that the Israelites must give the land (and its workers) a sabbath rest every seventh year (Lev. 25: 1-7). Finally, God commanded that every 50th year (seven sabbath years) is the year of Jubilee, a time to “proclaim liberty throughout the land” (Lev. 25: 10) when work ceases, debts are forgiven and land is returned to the original owners.
Second, sabbatical is a thoroughly practical concept. Even with attempts at days off and vacation time, ministry is a 365/24/7 enterprise. A minister is rarely “off duty” and that takes a tremendous toll over time – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Extended time away is not a luxury but a necessity for effective pastoral leadership.
The healthiest churches provide sabbaticals for their ministers, which gives them healthy ministries, which makes them much more effective in leading and serving the church to engage in God’s mission in the world. For example, three churches come to mind. First Baptist Wilmington, Oakmont Baptist, Greenville and Zebulon Baptist all have robust sabbatical policies. As a result, these churches enjoyed great success under effective pastors who served from 25 to over 40 years!
What are other churches doing?
If your church does not have a sabbatical policy, you don’t have to start from scratch. CBFNC has sample policies from sister churches you can use as a starting point to develop a policy that fits your church. Multi-staff churches often provide sabbaticals for the senior pastor and associates, though they may vary in length for different positions. Contact CBFNC (email@example.com) if you would like to receive sample policies or if you would like to be connected to leadership from these churches for consultation.
How can we pay for a ministerial sabbatical?
In general, there are two ways to pay for a ministerial sabbatical.
First, there are some programs that provide financial support for the minister, and sometimes the church, to pursue a sabbatical experience. These include:
- The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs – https://lillyendowment.org/for-grantseekers/renewal-programs/pastors/
- The Louisville Institute Pastoral Study Project – https://lillyendowment.org/for-grantseekers/renewal-programs/pastors/
- CBFNC’s Pastor In Residence Program – https://helpingpastorsthrive.org/blog/pastor-in-residence-programs-now-accepting-applications-for-fall-2021-spring-and-fall-2022-and-spring-of-2023
Second, a church can offer a sabbatical experience with good planning and minimal funds. Sabbaticals need not be expensive. The time away is more important than fancy trips. On my recent sabbatical, most of my time was spent at home; resting, exercising, reading, reflecting and writing.
It is helpful, though, for a church to provide some funding for education or travel. A relatively easy way to do that is to set aside funds in the budget each year that are transferred to a restricted account to be used for the sabbatical when the minister is eligible.
How can we cover the pastor’s duties during a sabbatical absence?
One reason many churches are reluctant to offer their ministers a sabbatical is that they don’t know who will preach, provide pastoral care or perform church administration during a pastoral absence. Just as God rested one day out of seven, and creation didn’t revert back to chaos, churches can function effectively for a period of weeks or months while their minister is away.
Typically, the minister’s duties can be covered by a combination of other staff, lay leadership, chaplains in the area, retired ministers in the church or community or ministers from partner organizations such as CBFNC, CBF, seminaries and other ministries. In fact, a pastoral absence can give lay leaders an opportunity to exercise gifts and grow in ministry and leadership capacity. It can also give the congregation an opportunity to deepen relationships with partners.
Why should ministers receive a sabbatical when that is a benefit offered to few other professions?
To be honest, the greatest hindrance to developing and implementing a ministerial sabbatical policy is not theological, practical or financial. It is the attitude of church members. When this topic comes up, usually someone will say, “I don’t get a sabbatical from my job; why should we do this for our pastor?”
It is true that there are other professions that are under tremendous stress today, professions that are on duty 365/24/7 with heavy responsibilities and relatively low pay. They also deserve a sabbatical. Every job or profession deserves a sabbatical. But the church has no power or authority to offer a sabbatical to them. We do have the power and authority to offer a sabbatical to our ministers.
We should not take a “least common denominator” approach, only providing the minimum based on the world’s practices. We should do what’s biblical and right, as a witness and guide to the rest of the culture. Who knows, maybe we can inspire other organizations to offer sabbaticals for their employees?
Martin Luther King, Jr., said that the church is called to be the light of the world, but too often we have been tail lights, following the world, rather than headlights, guiding the world. On the issue of ministerial sabbaticals, let’s be headlights, not tail lights.