It’s Time for a Break: Reflections on Sabbatical and the Small-Church Pastor

It’s Time for a Break: Reflections on Sabbatical and the Small-Church Pastor

by Dale Sellers

On June 26, 2021, I will be embarking on a new journey down a path that I’ve never traveled before now. Actually, I won’t be going anywhere. My new journey will be to take a 40-day sabbatical. I have served in ministry for almost 40 years and have never had the opportunity to go on sabbatical. However, even now as I write this, the thought of taking a 40-day break is stirring up some old memories that I thought I had left behind many years ago.

Truthfully, shutting things down for several weeks in a row has never been an option for me because the majority of my ministry experience has been in the small church. Therefore, I’m quite sympathetic to every leader who’s response to my announcement goes something like this: “Good for you, Dale. I hope it goes well. But I could never do that in my current setting and still have a job!”

Truthfully, shutting things down for several weeks in a row has never been an option for me because the majority of my ministry experience has been in the small church.

Why I Could Never Do This

I get it! I could not have seen a way to do this either when I was pastoring a small church. The responsibility of shepherding my flock always overrode any serious consideration of taking extended time off. I know personally the inner turmoil that accompanied any consideration of taking a break.

Here are a few of the reasons for this:

1) Who is everyone going to turn to when I’m not there?

The lack of consistent, stable leaders constantly tormented me. I want you to know that I did everything I possibly could that John Maxwell and the other leadership gurus told me to do back then. But I really struggled to establish a trusted group of leaders to hand things off to. And when I did have a season of solid leaders, they all moved out of state within a short period of time.

In the end, it seemed like it would have been better if they had never stepped up in the first place because everything I had given to them to lead came right back on me!

This, in turn, led to this problem: I tended to pick up what got dropped by their departure and then had a very difficult time letting go of it again. Most of us pastors become “gun-shy” for this reason. Our experience tells us that those we’ve handed things off to won’t last! Experience this enough and you’ll soon find that you’ve become cynical, distrusting, and somewhat hard-hearted.

2) The mindset of our church board and congregation.

As sad as it is to admit, the majority of people in our churches think we work for them. The thought is that they hired us to do the ministry of our church FOR them. “Who is going to carry on the task of ministry if you’re gone, pastor?” Even the hint of suggesting that you need a break is often met with comments like, “Well, I don’t get to take off whenever I want.” And, “You know we pay your salary to actually work here, pastor.”

3) Even if our church would have approved of me taking a sabbatical, I certainly couldn’t have afforded to go anywhere based on my current financial situation.

It’s simply a matter of fact that most full-time small church pastors barely make enough to get by. While serving in a past ministry, there was a heated exchange that took place between a couple of our board members over giving me a small raise. The person against giving me the raise made this statement to the rest of the board, “If we pay you that much (which wasn’t “that much” by the way) then you’ll be making more than me!” This person seemed to believe that their pastor being paid above the poverty line was an insult in some way.

4) Everyone will leave my church if I’m out of the pulpit for an extended period of time.

In other words, I won’t have a church to come back to. Here’s the reality my friend: “If your church falls apart when you’re not around, then you aren’t leading well and it’s not healthy.” You cannot build your ministry on your personality, your production, or your passion. While all of these things are important leadership traits, the church built on the personality of a particular leader always loses in the end.

5) People in the “real world” don’t get to go on sabbatical. So why do I think I deserve to do so just because I serve in ministry?

Sadly, I’ve heard this a lot over the past few years. It appears that a lot of folks who are not in full-time ministry have a real problem with pastors “getting an extended vacation” called sabbatical. I’ve even been in some intense conversations where the disgruntled party says that pastors need to “buck up” and get over it.

Pastoring is one of the hardest jobs on the earth. Leading volunteers requires great wisdom and tenacity. Therefore, people who make comments like this to you really have no idea what it’s like to be on call 24/7 and also to be critiqued for every thing you do. By the way, those same people will be the first to jump all over you if you make a mistake or go through a difficult season. Sheep seldom understand the dynamics at play for their shepherds.

At a Crossroads

One of the consistent observations that I’ve gleaned from almost 40 years in ministry is that many of our pastors are not healthy. This obviously isn’t new news. Research after research has revealed this truth for decades. However, it appears that our churches, by and large, aren’t motivated to do anything about it. I can concur with this research as I continue to come in contact with pastors on a weekly basis who are hurting, broken, broke (financially), discouraged, and in some instances, even depressed.

Add to this the impact of trying to navigate the consequences of leading our churches through a world-wide pandemic and you have a recipe for disaster. I recently read two different reports that stated up to 80% of pastors are considering leaving their ministries because of the added pressure of leading in the pandemic.

Even more startling news we are discovering is that many small church pastors have had no significant break, much less a vacation, since the effects of the pandemic began over a year ago.

Here’s the sobering truth of this news… what we’re doing isn’t working and certainly isn’t sustainable. The churches in America, and around the world, are at a crossroads of how they plan on proceeding forward. And like it or not, no one has the option of ignoring this issue any longer. Choosing to “kick the can down the street” will almost certainly result in the demise of your church.

Up to 80% of pastors are considering leaving their ministries because of the added pressure of leading in the pandemic. 

Options for Small-Church Pastors

As I wrap up this article, I wanted to offer some practical hope and help for any leader who finds themselves in need of a break. You may not be in a situation that allows you the opportunity to take a 40-day sabbatical. However, there are still some things you can do to replenish yourself. Understand this… continuing to do what you’ve always done isn’t an option!

Practical Possibilities: 

1) Take some time off even if you have to spread it out.

This is not optimal, but it’s better than nothing. Pastor, you’ve got to start somewhere. Resolve to build a consistent Sabbath into your weekly schedule. Allow Sabbath to become a part of your weekly rhythm. No one can really argue this point with you. Even God took a day off after creation and He wasn’t even tired!

You’ve got to decide now to spend some time away from work with your family. If finances are a real barrier, you can always choose a “staycation” with your loved ones. We have friends who have given us an open-ended invite to come enjoy their new swimming pool. I know from experience that Jesus will provide if we will just create space for Him to work in. I’m sure you also have friends like this who would love to pour back into your life.

2) Cut back on your ministry programs.

One of the great mistakes made in small churches is the thought that we must provide programming to match the larger churches in our area. Pastor, this is simply not possible. You don’t have the resources to keep up with them. And I can assure you that Jesus doesn’t expect you to do this. It’s much better to be known throughout the community as the church that does one or two things really well than to be known as the church that does a lot of things poorly.

Practical Tip: If you need an excuse to cut back on programs, just blame the pandemic. I plan on doing this for at least the next five years!

3) Taking some time to replenish doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot of money.

I know this point first-hand. My upcoming sabbatical isn’t something that I had planned on doing at the beginning of the year. So I don’t have a nice cash reserve available for exotic trips.

The majority of my sabbatical will be more along the lines of the staycation idea that I presented to you earlier.  Even though I’ll be mostly around the house, the Lord has given me some clear directives to follow. Here are a few:

1 – Put my laptop in my backpack and don’t bring it out again until after the sabbatical is complete.

2 – Remove all apps on my phone associated with work.

3 – Turn off all notifications associated with work.

4 – Stay off of my phone except to check in on my family.

4) Talk with any “trusted” board members/elders and transparently tell them how you feel.

If our churches are ever going to become healthy, then at some point, they are going to have to provide care for their pastors and leaders. In most cases, there is no intentional plan in place to sow into the marriages and health of our ministry staff. This has to change.

Practical Tip: Churches need to provide margin in their yearly budget to send the pastors and spouses away for a time of focused marriage support. You will find that the investment in creating healthy staff marriages costs much less than the cost of a marriage that falls apart within the church staff.

5) Be willing to let go of your ministry in order to save your marriage, family, finances, and health.

The only way to ensure that you don’t sacrifice yourself and the most important people in your life on the altar of ministry is to establish certain absolutes that you are unwilling to violate or compromise. Absolutes are non-negotiable. That’s what makes them absolutes.

The only way to ensure that you don’t sacrifice yourself and the most important people in your life on the altar of ministry is to establish certain absolutes that you are unwilling to violate or compromise.

Here are a some proven suggestions:

1 – Schedule a weekly date night with your spouse that is solidly placed on your calendar. It’s amazing what it will do for your marriage to let your spouse know by your actions that they are a priority to you.

2 – Don’t allow “church events” to keep you from attending your own children’s activities. Many leaders become aware of this only after they chose a meaningless committee meeting over their child’s sporting event or recital. These moments with our children are so fleeting. Pastor, don’t miss them!

3 – Be willing to cut back on your hours at the church and take a second job if your church can’t, or won’t, pay you a livable wage. Notice I didn’t say spend more time away from your family. You must be willing to “cut-back” before you can “add-on.”

(* Note: If this upsets the congregation you’re leading, use it as a springboard to discuss earning a salary that you can live on.)

4 – Discover something non-ministry related that you enjoy doing and do it! Everyone of us needs to have “time to let our hair down” away from ministry. In fact, some of you reading this article don’t even have any hair left to let down because of ministry! 🙂

The Results Of Taking A Break

1) Renew Your First-Love.

It’s a sad fact that many of us lose our love for Jesus because of our commitment to the ministry. In other words, our ministry becomes detrimental to our ministry. I’ve personally experienced this. Taking a break can provide the opportunity to get things back on track with you and your personal walk with the Lord.

2) Regain a Right Perspective.

It’s often been pointed out that there are times when we can’t see the forest for the trees. Serve in ministry long enough and I’ll guarantee this has happened to you. Anyone who has heard me share my story knows that every major mistake that I’ve made in my adult life can be attributed to exhaustion on my part. This has been true without exception. If I had only taken a break when I most needed it, I would most certainly have avoided a great deal of pain in my life as well as in the lives of others.

3) Refocus on Your Mission.

Your mission describes “why” you exist as a ministry. It’s so easy to lose the perspective of why you do what you do if you never step back and take inventory of your effectiveness. You can see with greater clarity why you are where you are at this particular moment when you allow yourself to take a break to replenish and refill your soul.

So stop thinking that taking a break will be detrimental to your ministry. In reality, the opposite is true. You choosing to take a break could be the very thing that you, along with those you lead, needs as a reminder that your ministry is not your ministry. It’s Jesus’ ministry. And He who began a good work in you is quite capable of completing what He started!

It’s time for you to take a break, my friend!

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