My sabbatical journey
I just returned to my post as senior pastor at Parliament (MB) Community Church, Regina, after a seven-month sabbatical – my first in 20 years of ministry. As I contemplated taking a sabbatical, I wondered: How should I prepare? What will I experience? What is a sabbatical?
In his book, The Rest of God, Mark Buchanan writes that in our Sabbath we are to “cease from that which is necessary. Embrace that which gives life.” I consider my sabbatical successful because I received what I needed. I ceased from what was necessary and embraced that which gave me life – time to rest with God.
Each sabbatical is unique
A successful sabbatical is truly in the eyes of the beholder. What I needed from a sabbatical was different from what another person might require.
In order to move into the next phase of my life and ministry, I needed to engage in self-examination – to evaluate my life on a spiritual and personal level. In their book, The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz write that “it is impossible to chart a course of change until you are able to look honestly at who you are today.” I had to assess my work habits, learning style, and leadership techniques. I needed to better understand what brought me joy and what bent me out of shape.
As I planned, people warned me to avoid a cardinal temptation: over-planning and filling the sabbatical with too much activity. Apparently, my personality made me a prime candidate to return from my sabbatical exhausted. I can recall several conversations with church leadership when I inquired how they’d feel if I came back early. As the sabbatical unfolded, I discovered that this “task-driven” part of my personality required greater transformation than I imagined.
Regardless of the leader’s specific need, there’s an overarching principle to abide by: You must fashion your sabbatical to achieve rest for your body, refreshment for your mind, renewal of your relationship with God, family, and friends, and finally, a rekindling of your passion for ministry. It’s important to start with these outcomes in mind and then work backwards.
Six tips for planning a successful sabbatical
Start planning your sabbatical a year in advance, especially if you are considering an overseas trip or period of study at school. You’ll also need this time to wisely work out and implement a ministry transition blueprint to avoid discomfort among your leadership and congregants.
If you plan to receive a reduced salary during your sabbatical, you’ll need to create a budget to compensate for the income shortfall. A year will also provide some time to save up for special sabbatical expenses.
It can be helpful to draft a memo of understanding (MOU) with your church leadership as part of sabbatical planning. In my case, we created an MOU to clarify Parliament’s sabbatical parameters and expectations, providing peace of mind for me and the church.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to communicate your sabbatical plans – in detail and often. Together with our leadership team, I distributed a document that responded to congregants’ questions about my sabbatical. It outlined a definition of a sabbatical, its biblical roots (see sidebar), reasons for a sabbatical, benefits for the church, how the church would function without me as senior pastor, and my specific plans.
At a church meeting, all aspects of my leave were made available for discussion. A month before departure, my sabbatical start date was highlighted in the bulletin. Finally, our provincial conference director of church ministries, Ralph Gliege, superintended a transition Sunday, formalizing the change of pastoral leadership.
A pastor must also maintain good communication with his or her family. I gathered my wife and three sons together, and discussed how my sabbatical plans would impact our home life. What would family church attendance look like? Would Dad attend a different church? Would he be home all day? Our dialogue helped us land on the same page.
In my view, a healthy and successful sabbatical needs to include a sabbatical mentor from the congregation. My mentor served as wise counsellor and prayer partner during all phases of my sabbatical. He was charged with liaising between me and church leadership. With my mentor, I shared how the sabbatical was unfolding and whether or not I would return.
Churches who grant sabbaticals do take a risk that, during their pastor’s absence, he or she may decide to move on. Parliament entrusted the whole matter to God, believing the potential dangers of things like burnout were far greater than the possibility of me not returning. And, if I were to leave for another ministry, the kingdom would still be well served.
Flexibility and adaptability are key. My sabbatical plans were dramatically altered several times. First, my wife and I planned a trip to Turkey and Israel. But illness prevented us from going. Then, we planned a trip to B.C., in part, to engage in lots of walking, hiking, and other recreational activities. However, the day after we arrived, I ruptured my Achilles tendon playing basketball with some high school friends. My prognosis: 12 weeks in an air cast with crutches, followed by three months of physiotherapy.
Not only were our recreational plans out the window, so too were many other plans that required mobility. The bottom line was I had to adapt – in a big way! I had several talks with God, asking him if this was his way of “encouraging” me to rest. The ancient counsel, “plan for the worst and hope for the best,” is applicable to any sabbatical.
I committed myself to a detailed daily recording of my sabbatical experiences. I jotted down Scripture, thoughts for reflection, notes from books, prayer items, details of the day, revelations, etc. I shared my journal entries with my mentor and family. Doing so helped them gain a better understanding of who I was and the nature of my journey.
From the outset, I believed some of my entries would be valuable to communicate with my church family. Having written them down, I can now articulate them accurately.
At the end of my sabbatical, I shared my journey with church leadership. In broader strokes, I did the same with the congregation. This was both healthy and edifying. A sabbatical debriefing helped me see the big picture of my rest period: joys, challenges, triumphs, failures, and lessons learned.
In part, our church leadership needed this review to discern the value of future sabbaticals. On another level, the congregation actually missed me and was eager to hear what God had been doing in my life and what he was calling me to share. During the sabbatical, some prayed for me daily; recounting my journey was an encouragement to them.
I’m now preaching a sermon series called Seven Months, Seven Discipleship Lessons. I’m thankful for all the lessons I learned – and for the rest I discovered with God.
—Philip A. Gunther is senior pastor of Parliament Community Church, Regina. He was on sabbatical from June 2011–January 2012. His sermon series can be found at www.parliamentchurch.com.
Clothed in flesh
An object of wrath
A child of the King
A saint called apart to shepherd
Brother, coworker, elder, counsellor, teacher, preacher, leader
Serving Christ’s church through all life’s seasons
An Aaron, a Jonah, a Peter
A priest after God’s heart
A Paul to Timothy
A folding tent
—Philip A. Gunther
|This poem is from a collection entitled Heartwork: An Endless Hallelujah, which Gunther self-published during his sabbatical.|
The work provides a unique description of a pastor from birth to death.
The lines build from a one-word construction, to a seven-word crescendo, back to a final one-word line.
|What is a sabbatical?|
|The word sabbatical has its roots in the biblical concept of Sabbath. In its simplest Old Testament form, to enter into Sabbath meant that, after a period of six days, a person was to rest or cease from everyday work and spend one day reconnecting with God (Exodus 20:8–11). God himself set this pattern during creation (Genesis 2:1–3).|
A sabbatical isn’t a vacation, but an opportunity to pause for a prolonged period of time, step out of routine, and engage in activities that rejuvenate the heart, mind, and soul.The practice of sabbaticals gained traction during the Middle Ages in schools of higher education, where instructors were given a leave of absence in order to renew their passion for their subject of teaching. Today, the granting of sabbaticals is commonplace in both secular and Christian colleges and universities.
Although Mennonite Brethren are just now seeing an increased number of sabbaticals for pastoral staff, it’s been a routine part of other denominations for some time.