In The Wesleyan Church (TWC), sabbaticals are recommended for pastors after an interval of seven years of full-time ministry. Pastors who have experienced sabbaticals often look back on their sabbatical as a time of rejuvenation, reflection and refocused effort; but many pastors assume that (whether because of funding, church responsibilities or scheduling challenges) a sabbatical would be impossible for them.
In this article, we explore the sabbatical benefits for clergy and congregations and funding possibilities that can help bring sabbaticals into reach for those who think of them as impossible.
The necessity of sabbaticals for pastors
Pastoral ministry is a demanding calling; and the past few years of pandemic-shaped life have required new skills, new patience and new forms of leadership from pastors. Over time, the pressures of constant service, emotional support and the expanding pastoral role can take a toll on a pastor’s physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.
Sabbaticals provide an opportunity for preventive pastoral maintenance: a chance to step away from the pulpit, hear God’s voice apart from everyday responsibilities and allow new rhythms of creativity. Just as the Bible recognizes the importance of a Sabbath day of rest, pastors too require periods of rest and reflection to maintain their ministry effectiveness.
“Ideally, if a sabbatical is taken well, the pastor will deepen their ability to hear from God, get rested and reconnect with the most important relationships in their lives, and thus live with greater purpose,” said Reverend Dr. Judy Crossman, who — in her role as an academic dean, professor and pastor — has taken two sabbaticals and helped design others’ sabbatical processes.
While all these themes (deepened ability to hear from God, rest and reconnection with important relationships) can be experienced during a pastor’s time away, by the sabbatical’s end, the pastor and their support system can also include a strategic plan to maintain these healthy habits in ways that keep ministry sustainable.
How do sabbaticals help congregations?
While the benefit for the pastor is clear, sometimes congregations wonder how sabbaticals benefit the organization which (for a time) is left without the staff member’s leadership.
Longevity in leadership
Recent findings from studies of pastoral well-being have found that clergy who prioritize rhythms of rest, friendship and connection “not only rank better in their mental and emotional well-being, they also have the energy and support needed to prioritize building other leaders, influence the vision for their church and prioritize a succession plan when it’s time for them to transition out of ministry.”
Although the investment of finances and effort can feel daunting for many churches, prioritizing sabbaticals is (ultimately) an investment in a sustainable congregation.
“I took the sabbatical while I was in a good place. Not burnt out or searching,” said Reverend Scott Conn, senior pastor at Laurel Wesleyan Church in Laurel, Delaware, who took his sabbatical in 2023. “It helped me to clarify and reaffirm my call. I remember the conversation with my wife, when I told her, ‘I don’t see myself doing anything else than what I’m doing in this season of life,’ and she confirmed that thought.”
Multiplication of leadership
An extended absence from the congregation can allow the body to identify other voices (neighboring clergy, key laity, friends from the denominational family) to speak into the church’s ecology of discipleship.
But if the pastor takes a sabbatical in a healthy enough place to multiply their leadership, the sabbatical period can be an asset in elevating capable servants in the congregation.
Congregational culture of service
Sabbaticals help congregations gain empathy into the joys, challenges and systems of ministry. Many attenders are unaware of the day-to-day goings-on in the church; the extended absence of the pastor who usually facilitates these details offers fresh opportunities for others to learn, take on perspective and (when the pastor returns) return to their role as laypersons with greater empathy and understanding for their shepherd’s routines.
“People get the opportunity to see just how much the pastor does,” said Jessica White, recalling Reverend Conn’s sabbatical period at Laurel Wesleyan Church. “Little things can get overlooked — the grass got long because of a miscommunication with the lawn care who usually talked to the senior pastor. People stepped up to support one another in congregational care and visiting one another. Other preachers stepped in and their styles benefited the church.”
Churches who offer regular sabbaticals are more attractive to future ministers — not just because of the “perk,” but because empathy, understanding and partnership are key ingredients in a healthy church — and sabbaticals are emblematic of congregations that share those dispositions.
Many pastors see sabbaticals as impossible because of the financial impact. Sabbaticals often require time away from work and the financial strain of supporting others who fill in for the pastor during an extended break can be daunting for clergy and congregation alike. Here are some funding possibilities available for pastors.
- Grants and scholarships: There are numerous Christian organizations and foundations that offer grants and scholarships to pastors looking to take a sabbatical. Organizations like the Lilly Endowment and the Louisville Institute, among others, offer application-based grants for sabbaticals. Pastors should research these opportunities and apply for the financial assistance they need.
- Congregational collaboration: Congregations can collaborate to create a fund designated for pastoral sabbaticals. Members can contribute regularly to this fund, demonstrating their commitment to the pastor’s well-being and spiritual growth.
The necessity of sabbaticals, the availability of funding and the significant benefits they offer to everyone should encourage more congregations and their pastors to consider this much-needed break from the demands of ministry. In doing so, churches not only invest in their pastor’s well-being but also in the long-term health and vibrancy of their local body of Christ. Sabbaticals are not a luxury; they are a vital and sustainable practice for the spiritual and emotional health of pastors and their congregations.
Rev. Ethan Linder is the pastor of discipleship at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, and contributing editor at The Wesleyan Church’s Education and Clergy Development Division.