Article

Sabbaticals: Learning to Thrive

The word "sabbaticals" is sometimes accompanied by a negative connotation. When ministers consider a sabbatical they think: "There is never a good time to get away. If I leave now, the church will fall apart." Congregants think: "Our pastor is abandoning us. He is preparing us for his departure."

These misconceptions tarnish appreciation for what sabbaticals are: a natural rhythm that encourages thriving clergy and flourishing churches. Pastors Adam and Christy Lipscomb of City Life Church are sabbatical-advocates after experiencing the refreshment of reflective time away.

Pastor Adam and his wife Christy planted City Life Church 11 years ago. Knowing the necessity of rest to healthy ministry, City Life's local board of administration recommended Pastors Adam and Christy take an eleven week sabbatical—one week for every year of ministry they had served. "The board recommended we take a sabbatical not because they thought we were burnt out, but because they saw it as a necessity of regeneration," says Pastor Adam, "We were very grateful to have people of authority in our life give us the opportunity for a sabbatical, and we gladly accepted the offer."

During their sabbatical, Pastors Adam and Christy took a family vacation with their two children, attended a ministerial retreat together, spent a day serving in Flint, Michigan through water distribution, and took time to connect with other ministerial leaders in their community. This sabbatical also afforded Pastors Adam and Christy greater space for spiritual disciplines. "Heading into the sabbatical, we knew we would have more opportunity for quiet time with the Lord," Pastor Adam says, "But we didn't know how that time would be what defined the sabbatical. It was the greatest gift we received during our sabbatical. God did some pretty amazing things in our lives and the lives of our family. It was renewing and restored our joy."

Nehemiah 8:10, "The joy of the Lord is my strength." and Psalm 51:12, "Restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain me with a willing spirit." were defining verses of Adam and Christy's sabbatical. "Sometimes in ministry there is not enough time to fully process tough times and tragedy. You think, 'I'll deal with it later.' But, it stacks up over time. One night when Christy and I were up late talking, all these old things we just hadn't dealt with came pouring out. The sabbatical was a rejuvenating time to deal with those things," said Pastor Adam, "I went into the sabbatical knowing God loved me but I assumed His love was going to mean something difficult for me. I thought maybe God would deal with me harshly…as the first few weeks of our sabbatical passed, there was a realization that God not only loves me; He also likes me! The best thing sabbatical did for me was to give me a renewed sense of God's love."

When Pastors Adam and Christy returned to their congregation, they explained the sabbatical as "rehab for pastors." This language became a helpful metaphor to the church during the time of preparing them for the sabbatical. "A sabbatical is time away where we give God the opportunity to work in our life," Pastor Adam says. During their time away, City Life brought in an interim pastor to continue the duties of pastoral leadership. Doing this allowed staff to continue with their regular responsibilities. As a result, when Adam and Christy returned, they were not met by a burnt out staff or an overwhelming task list. "One of the things we did not experience was a dip in attendance or giving. It remained strong while we were gone. Often, there is a fear correlated to sabbaticals of returning and having to recover," says Pastor Adam.

For the church, sabbaticals are essential because it helps the corporate body not to depend on a single person: the pastor. When clergy take sabbaticals, it can show the church weaknesses in the organization and systems they have in place. "Sometimes it is good for the church to know their system has a shortcoming so they can fix it with something more efficient than a single person," Pastor Adam says.

Since returning from his sabbatical, Pastor Adam says he feels like an apostle of sabbaticals. To ministers who are hesitant to take a sabbatical, he says, "There is never going to be a great time to go on a sabbatical; you are always going to feel like you cannot get away or it is impractical, but you just need to do it. Sabbaticals help with longevity in ministry and pastors need to build in time to get away and be renewed by God so they can come back with renewed attitudes and patterns of behavior."

Jessica White is a Staff Writer for Education and Clergy Development, and the mother of two young daughters, Abigail and Josephine. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Elementary Education and taught second grade for three years before resigning to stay at home and raise her children. To read more about Jessica and the rest of ECD's writing team, click here.