7 Sabbatical Insights for Pastors

The church I served as executive pastor for eight years (Christ Fellowship) graciously gives their pastors a sabbatical. Mine was scheduled for six weeks in the summer of 2010, but I was not quite sure I was going to make it until then.

In January of 2010, some signs of exhaustion were clear. I was struggling to sleep at night, always thinking about some issue or opportunity as I tossed in bed. I felt impatient and numb. I would completely crash on the couch on Sunday afternoons, barely move until Monday morning, and wake up still very tired. I was transparent with Kaye, my wife, and told her I thought I could make it until June–the start of the sabbatical. But in April, I hit a wall. I was in a simple meeting with our business administrator looking at a budget report, not something that usually stumped me. But I could not make sense of it. I was gone, toast. There was nothing left.

I called Kaye, and she quickly called a family in the church who let me stay at their house in the Florida Keys for a few days. Kaye came down at nights to have dinner. I slept, read, ate, and slept again each day for two days. God used those few days to get me through to the sabbatical and to show me how much I needed the time that the church was going to graciously give me in just a few weeks.

The sabbatical was incredible. Kaye and I planned it with great intentionality. And the Lord used it deeply in my life. I read entire books of the Bible in one sitting and felt overwhelmed with the grace of God. I played for hours with our girls, took Kaye on tons of dates, never once answered my phone, and exercised almost every day. When I came back to my ministry role, I was refreshed spiritually, physically, and mentally.

Here are seven lessons learned from my sabbatical:

1) Leave your cell phone behind. I bought a cheap disposable cell phone with pre-paid minutes on it. Only two people had the number, my assistant and my pastor. They both knew only to call in extreme emergencies. We defined what those would be beforehand, and only a few rare things made the list. The phone did not ring one time. It took me almost two weeks to stop occasionally reaching into my pocket to pull out my iPhone, which was not there.

2) Leave town. If I had not left town, I would have inexorably been drawn into needs I sensed in the area.

3) Open the trip with activities. We spent two weeks on a remote beach, but these were not the first two weeks of the trip. If I had opened up the sabbatical with stillness, my mind would have been preoccupied with the ministry back home. Instead, Kaye and I toured New York City non-stop before going to Kansas City to teach a class at a seminary. And while some would say the teaching was not rest, it was different from my normal routine, and my kids were able to stay on campus with me. We played each afternoon and evening and had a blast.

4) Know the cost is worth it. Some churches cover the cost of a sabbatical; others cover the cost of a sabbatical if the purpose is study or ministry preparation; and others leave the cost to the pastor without any expectation for study or preparation. If the cost is on you, realize that you get this opportunity rarely in your life. Realize what you spend is an investment in your ministry, your faith, and your family.

5) Ask others to help. My parents were invaluable during the sabbatical. They watched the kids for us for multiple weeks so that we could do several things alone.

6) Mentally resign. The only way I could completely disconnect was to resign, in a sense, from my role at the church. I never told anyone I was resigning. I did not submit a letter of resignation or make plans for another role. But I completely released the ministry to the Lord, something I should do continually, I know. I thanked Him for the season He had given me at the church and in my mind walked away. And it was so healthy. He reminded me through the process that He is the One who builds His church. I am not the one who is ultimately responsible. He is. He has invited me to serve His bride because He wants me, not because He needs me for anything. The mental resignation made the trip so liberating and refreshing.

7) Ease out and ease back in. Instead of having a hard stop to my responsibilities, I put my vacation email responder on about four days before my sabbatical would begin. During that time, I still checked my email and responded to ones that were critical. It was a way to give staff and others one final opportunity to have a conversation before I was going to be away for many weeks. In the same way, I re-engaged about 3 days before my sabbatical was going to be over. I wrote down key lessons from the time away and some goals for the next season of ministry. I replied to all of my emails and then saved them as a draft so as not to alert people to send me new emails. On the eve of my first day back, I sent all the emails. I was ready to hit the ground running the next day.

Two years later, Kaye and the kids still remember and talk about the sabbatical. And I remember some of the sweet times of fellowship I enjoyed with them and with the Lord. Reading Romans on the beach as the sun went down was very centering for me. Pastors, if the Lord gives you an opportunity for a sabbatical, take full advantage of the opportunity. It will be a blessing to you, your family, and the church.

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Eric Geiger

Eric Geiger serves as the Vice President of the Church Resource Division at LifeWay Christian Resources. Eric received his doctorate in leadership and church ministry from Southern Seminary. He is also a teaching pastor and a frequent speaker and consultant on church mission and strategy. Eric authored or co-authored several books including the best selling church leadership book, Simple Church. Eric is married to Kaye, and they have two daughters: Eden and Evie. During his free time, Eric enjoys dating his wife, playing with his daughters, and shooting basketball.

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In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright
"While I understand the intent behind this phrase" Expound please. What do you understand to be the intent behind that phrase?
— Ken
Thank you for this article! I'm the pastor of a small church. My gifting is in teaching and we are known for aiding Christians in becoming Biblically literate. Visitor's often comment on God's presence being very real in our services. But we just don't seem to be growing. I have some soul-searching, etc. to do and this article provides some solid ground from which to proceed. Thank you again.
— Jonathan Schultheis

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