Monday, August 13, 2012

Pastor, how about a month off?

"You bet," sayeth most all of us at one time or another.

Ah sabbaticals. I'm on one now but had to retire to get it. The usual route to a sabbatical for most of us is to (a) resign, (b) get fired, or (c) retire.

Back in 1999 Baptist Press did a piece on a small town, average sized church pastor who took a sabbatical. It was a story most of us could identify with:

“I was not overworked; the church was not asking too much of me. That was not the problem,” he said. “The problem was that I needed a freshness of purpose in my life and in the church’s life.”
The solution agreed upon was five weeks off, unheard of among SBC churches unless the church is a mega or large church.

I like the concept but am not certain that many churches would grasp it.

I can hear the conversation now,

"Brethren, I'm mentally and emotionally exhausted" the pastor might explain to the deacons, "could we work out a sabbatical, a month or so when I could be away?"

"But pastor," one of the deacons might respond, "you only work one day  a week anyway. How could you be exhausted?"

Megachurch pastors can be exhaused. Large church pastors can be thought to deserve a sabbatical every few years. But average sized churches? Probably not.

Bring up the idea of ministry burnout to your church and you're probably toast in their minds from that point on.

Be open and vulnerable and disclose that you are mildly depressed to the church and you are likely viewed as damaged goods to them, worthy of whispers in the hallways.

 Bryant Wright is on sabbatical right now. I don't begrudge him that.

Johnny Hunt gets every August off and two years ago notably extended that through mid-September.

I'm guessing that average sized and smaller churches do not love their pastor any less than a megachurch loves theirs but I'd speculate that smaller churches would look askance at a request for a sabbatical.

Here is one smaller church pastor's story:
On June 4, 2006, I drove to the church for evening worship intending to announce my resignation.  After 21 years as a pastor, and 27 years in professional ministry, I had hit a wall.  I was not only exhausted; I was empty.  My faith had not wavered, nor had my commitment to ministry or my church.  Like a car that had run out of gas, I just stopped.  Fortunately, by the time I pulled into the parking lot, I had reasoned myself out of such a drastic act.  When pastors run out of steam, they generally do one of three things:  they move to another church; they get sick; or they do something stupid.  I came very close to my stupid!  Instead of resigning, I walked into the service and announced that I was prepared to teach, but I was unable to teach, and that I would see them next week.  The congregation witnessed what I had been fearfully anticipating for several years – a total shutdown
His church gave him five weeks off.

Many pastors could identify with the problem, depression, burnout, shutdown, but few could identify with the solution, a sabbatical.

One of the ways that associational missionaries, state convention workers, denominational press, and SBC leaders could help the tens of thousands of workaday, average church, average pastors is to regularly promote the concept of an occasional sabbatical even in smaller churches.

Money is tight all around at every SBC level but I bet that there would be a lot less profitable ways for state conventions to budget money than to put a sum aside for grants to churches who wanted or needed to give their pastor a month or so sabbatical. This would give the idea a modest push among smaller churches.

I can envision a state convention program whereby churches were told, "We will fill your pulpit at no cost to you if you give your pastor a sabbatical month off." State conventions and associations would benefit by having an extended opportunity to share some of their work in a church over an extended period. Such an incentive would be persuasive to many churches who fret over finances and supply honoraria if the pastor is out.

In the past I have been pessimistic about the idea of sabbaticals being realistic in average and smaller sized SBC churches but I think it is doable and is certainly worth encouraging.

Some pastors might need to start thinking and praying about it, although you could just act like a fighter pilot and stubbornly believe that others may crash and burn but not you, you've got the right stuff.

I wouldn't risk it.


Anonymous said...

More difficult for one-minister-only staff, but a difficulty that must be overcome, and apart from congregational expectations, not really an issue.

NO difficulty what-so-ever for multi-minister staff (apart from congregational expectations AND senior minister expectations and openness). And yes, if one carries the title minister, then one must be able to fulfill all ministerial functions.

And senior ministers ... you are not the only staff minister deserving of such, although it is generally given that the time-to-sabbatical is necessarily less.

Anonymous said...

In the small towns and small churches I've attended, we've always tried to give the pastor the same amount of time off the majority of the members get, be it two weeks or six.

William said...

The standard is for the pastor to have vacation reasonably consistent with those in his congregation. A pastor who has 10, 20, 30 years in the pastoral ministry should be given consideration for the entire span, not just service in his present church.

There are times when the pastor might be considered for an extended leave, as in the examples given above. Such an occasion may well be beneficial to both church and pastor and may arise from extraordinary circumstances.

Vacation time should be negotiated up front, prior to call. If the church is too penurious about it, or if the pastor is too demanding, then let them not accept each other and move to other candidates and churches.

If the pastor is lazy, irresponsible, and lacks accountability, then he shouldn't expect to be given such things.

If a church is unreasonable, ungrateful, demanding, and thinks their job is to make sure the pastor works hard enough for his modest pay, then I trust they will get the pastor they deserve.

Anonymous said...

I think we are pretty much in agreement.

Most of our small towns were pretty homogeneous. Hope I spelled that correctly!

Those pastoring upwards of 20 years usually weren't pastoring a whole church of much younger adults. Usually he was pastoring a church of folks commensurate with his own education and "time in service", so it worked out pretty fairly.

Not many of those little churches, if they were composed of younger folks or folks lower in economic status could afford someone with a lot of education and experience.

But then, sometimes we were so small and rural all we had was "supply" preachers hired on a weekly or monthly basis.

Amazing how many pastors and missionaries we turned out, given our lack of funds and buildings and SS supplies, etc.

Truly we were God blessed!