Sabbatical for Pastors (Part 3): Policy

(Click on the link to Part 1 and/or Part 2 if you have not read them.)

One of the reasons churches don’t give Sabbaticals to their pastors is because they fear that it would be wrongly or unwisely used. The best way to make sure that everyone is on the same page is to draw up a comprehensive Sabbatical Policy; to provide clear guidelines and expectations from both the pastor (eg. how he is to utilise the sabbatical leave) and the church (eg. what support it would give the pastor).

Below are important items that a church leadership should deliberate when drawing up a Sabbatical Policy.

  1. Who is entitled to a Sabbatical?

Are all church staff entitled to sabbatical leave or is it only for  pastoral staff? Are part-time and ministry staff eligible or is it only for those who are full-time and hold senior pastoral positions?

2. When can a pastor apply for a Sabbatical?

After three, six or ten years of service? For a very long tenured pastor, can he* apply for a second and subsequent lot of sabbatical leave?

(* All reference to the male gender shall also apply to the female.)

3. What is the duration of the Sabbatical?

Is the duration of the sabbatical leave the same for all or does it commensurate with the seniority and role of the pastor?

4. What is the purpose of Sabbatical?

This needs to be stated clearly as it will determine what the pastor is expected to be doing during his sabbatical.

5. What should the Sabbatical programme include?

Should it include formal study and training? Visits to other churches and learning from other more senior ministers? Personal reflection and retreats? How much time should he give to the different parts of his programme including time with his family and physical rest?

6. What is expected from the pastor following his Sabbatical?

Is he expected to write a report of his Sabbatical? Is he obligated to serve the church for a certain period of time upon his return? What happens if he resigns during or following his Sabbatical?

7. When and how is the pastor to make his Sabbatical application?

When should the pastor submit his application for sabbatical leave? When should he submit his proposed programme? To whom is he to submit his application and proposed programme? Is his Sabbatical subject to mutual agreement and approval by the church leadership?

8. What support will the church give to the pastor when he goes for his Sabbatical?

Will the pastor be given his full pay? Will his expenses for study, training and retreats be borne by the church? Will the church provide additional finances for a family holiday? (to Disneyland?)

Obviously I have my thoughts on the above questions that, in my estimate, would form good and fair parameters of a Sabbatical Policy, but I shall, at this time, leave it unsaid except for a couple of things.

One, I would not lump sabbatical with study leave. They are not the same thing. Their respective purposes are different. A study leave is for the pastor to pursue further formal study or training, and this is usually done in a theological school. A pastor’s Sabbatical is to afford him time for personal renewal in body, soul and spirit, and not forgetting, the all-important family time. I agree that the programme should include some study time, but it is not to be a pursuit of a higher academic qualification. And, as some of my readers have pointed out to me; a Sabbatical is not a holiday. I certainly agree. It’s a time to recharge the batteries.

The only other thing I want to mention is that the pastor must make himself accountable to the leadership about how he has used his Sabbatical. This is one way of allaying concerns over misuse. It is a simple matter for the pastor to write a short report on how he has spent his time during his sabbatical leave. What he did, how each component of his Sabbatical programme has helped him, and what he might be bringing back to the church that will be a blessing to them. (Please note that the pastor would have had already submitted a proposed programme which would have then been agreed upon by the church leadership before he went on his Sabbatical.)

Bottom line: I really believe Sabbaticals are good for both the pastor and the church.

Sabbatical for Pastors (Part 2): 7 Reasons

In Part 1 of my blog post on Sabbatical for Pastors I shared my findings on how widely (or rather, uncommonly) this is practised among churches in Malaysia. In this follow-up post I’ll give you my reasons for rooting for Sabbatical for Pastors.

The main contention against Sabbaticals is that, well, the rest of the people in the church don’t get one where they work (unless they are professors in an university). So, why should pastors get one?

What most don’t realise is that a pastor’s work is one of the most emotionally, mentally and spiritually taxing jobs in the world. For that, they need a Sabbatical to revitalise them, that a short vacation cannot do. They need an extended time away from an environment that drains them; and to spend that time in a different environment that can provide them with renewal in their body, soul and spirit. (By the way, I think that others like social workers and psychiatrists should also get sabbatical leave.)

Many cannot appreciate that the pastoral ministry is that demanding. They contend that someone who is responsible for hundreds of employees and accountable to shareholders and Boards for the bottom line has an equally (if not, more) stressful job. It is not my intention to get into a debate over this. However, I am yet to hear anyone who had moved from his or her “secular” job to become a full-time pastor say that the latter is less stressful than the former. In fact, the reverse is more accurate. Some have even secretly entertained the thought, “Why did I give up my job to work in the church?” (I know I did! And probably more times than I want to admit.)

Someone wrote to me after reading my previous post: “Israel didn’t give the land sabbatical rest for 490 years as God had commanded. This resulted in 70 years of exile; one year for every seven years.” Now, that’s a thought for us to think on.

Here are my reasons churches need to give their pastors sabbatical leave:

  1. The pastor’s job often takes a toll on him* emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The Sabbatical is to give time to the pastor for personal renewal in all departments of his life. (*This also applies to female pastors, and the following statements should be read accordingly.)
  2. The pastor’s job not only takes a toll on him but also on his whole family in the same three areas mentioned above. It is not unusual for the wife and the children to be affected even more than the pastor. The Sabbatical in part is to give time for the pastor to have more quality time with his family.
  3. A properly utilised Sabbatical will empower the pastor for future ministry. A well-rested person (in body, mind and emotions) is obviously better able to handle the challenges of the pastoral ministry than one who is running on empty (or even, half-empty).
  4. A spiritually renewed pastor afforded through a Sabbatical will be able to provide better spiritual nurture and leadership to his church when he returns.
  5. The study and training acquired during the Sabbatical will further equip the pastor to serve his church.
  6. The pastor and his family will feel loved and affirmed when the church understands their pastor’s and family’s needs. Giving their pastor a Sabbatical shows in a tangible way that they do.
  7. It provides an opportunity for the leaders of the church to rise up to fill the gap during the pastor’s absence. In a larger church where there are multiple pastoral staff, it provides an opportunity for the second-man to step up. A step, perhaps, towards succession planning.

My four months Sabbatical in 2000 when I serving at Georgetown Baptist Church was possibly the best I’ve ever had. I started my Sabbatical browned-out from ministry and running-on-empty (or rather, running-on-reserves). I returned refreshed, changed and better equipped for ministry. Even my preaching style changed! The Sabbatical led to the best and most fruitful seven years of ministry ever at GBC!

Read the next blog post on what to include in a Sabbatical Policy. The need for this is to prevent misunderstanding and to give clarity on what a pastor’s sabbatical leave entails.

Sabbatical for Pastors (Part 1)

Wow! Was I surprised by what I found out about sabbatical leave for pastors among Malaysian churches. I thought it was fairly widely practised; at least among the English-speaking churches. After all, in the two churches that I served both of them had clear policies and arrangements for my Sabbatical! I guess I should thank the Lord that I had been among the privileged few!

The survey I conducted will certainly not qualify as “scientific research”. I simply messaged some of my Christian friends and pastors to do a quick survey with the following questions: 1. Does your church give sabbatical leave to your pastor? 2. If so, a) After how many years of service? b) How long is the sabbatical leave? and c) Is there a policy that guides what the pastor should do during his Sabbatical?

From the responses I received I understand that pastors in the mainline churches are given sabbatical leave; and the policy is set at the denominational level. However, among the evangelical (and charismatic) churches there does not seem to be any. Definitely not at the denominational level. And if a church has such an arrangement for its pastors, it is through its own initiative. The numbers for this, however, are comparatively few. Non-denominational churches practise this even less.

I had thought that the above scenario was because the Church in Malaysia is relatively newer compared to the Church in the West. I was again terribly surprised. Dr. Thom Rainer, President & CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, and a respected church consultant and researcher in the United States estimates that only 5% of the churches in the US have Sabbatical arrangements for their pastors.

Back to the Malaysian Church scene; among the mainline churches a pastor may be granted sabbatical leave after he (or she) has served for between five to ten years (depending on the denomination). In one denomination the pastor is allowed to apply for subsequent Sabbaticals after every seven years of service. Another denomination, however, limits the total number of Sabbaticals a pastor is allowed to take to two. As for the length of the sabbatical, it ranges from three months to a year, depending on the denomination.

With regards to what the pastor is supposed to do during his Sabbatical, I am told that for one denomination the pastor gets to decide what he wants to do (I presume he would have to submit his proposal for agreement or approval by his leadership team or the person he is accountable to). In a couple of other denominations the Sabbaticals are more like study leave; where a pastor is expected to enrol in a Seminary (or equivalent) to further his training; which is usually translated into more than a year of post-graduate studies.

That’s the brushstroke of the practise of Sabbaticals for pastors in Malaysia (among the English-speaking churches). In short, it is not widely-practised and when it is the purpose is usually associated with further theological education.

Go to Part 2 where I tell you why I believe Sabbaticals for pastors are necessary.