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Sabbaticals are a must for healthy pastors and healthy congregations


The necessity of holy breaks

June 15, 2020

Pair of sunglasses resting on the sand at the beach.

Ethan Robertson/Unsplash

The word “sabbatical” has its roots in the biblical concept of Sabbath — a rest. And yet, until recently, resting from one’s job for an extended period of time was a perk found mainly in the world of academia. It certainly wasn’t a common practice in corporate America or in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

But that appears to be changing. In 2017, nearly 17% of employers offered sabbaticals, according to the Harvard Business Review. And as the secular world wakes up to the benefits of rest and renewal for its workers, Presbyterians likewise are discovering that sabbaticals are not a costly luxury, but an affordable must for the health and vibrancy of ministry.

“We tell our churches and our pastors that the sabbatical is good for so many reasons, including that it teaches both the pastor and the congregation that the congregation can survive without the pastor,” said the Rev. Dr. Jan Edmiston. Edmiston is the general presbyter for the Presbytery of Charlotte, where sabbaticals are required in the terms of call for any installed pastor.

 A sabbatical, according to the Office of the General Assembly (OGA), is a “planned time of intensive enhancement for ministry and mission.” Different from a vacation, it is meant to be an opportunity for the pastor to strategically disengage from normal tasks so that mission and ministry might be viewed from a new perspective.

OGA recommends sabbaticals for all full-time pastors and educators serving churches who have served in their current position for six continuous years. Commonly, sabbaticals are a three-month time away.

The Rev. Shannon Meacham was in her 15th year of ordained ministry when she took a sabbatical for the first time last year. She was eight years into her current call at Ashland Presbyterian Church in Hunt Valley, Maryland.

After leaving her previous call, she took only two weeks off, which included moving across the country with two small children, before serving her current congregation. Meacham is the first pastor at Ashland Presbyterian Church to take a sabbatical in the congregation’s history.

“When I negotiated the contract, it was very helpful that the presbytery had a policy of sabbatical, and that the interim who came before me had already done the work to help educate the congregation about its importance,” Meacham said.

As many pastors choose to do, Meacham used her sabbatical to travel — visiting the Greek islands with her husband, going on a Disney cruise with their four children and attending the Newport Jazz Festival with her husband. All were amazing adventures, but Meacham found that “simply having the time” was the “most healing and most restful.”

Neither she nor the congregation could have imagined the benefits of the sabbatical prior to her actually entering into it. Ashland Presbyterian Church, as Meacham describes it, is a healthy congregation but also tends to be fairly pastor-centric, with her serving as the only full-time staff member. The sabbatical helped them see things differently.

“We love her, but this was really good for us. Within a week of her being gone, I realized that it was going to be OK,” said Penny DeBoer, one of Ashland Presbyterian Church’s deacons and a member of the sabbatical team that was created to oversee things in Meacham’s absence.

“I am their leader,” said Meacham, “but this is their church. And though I’m an integral part, they realized that I can be removed, and they can still be who they are.”

Meacham and her congregation chose the theme of “Reclaiming Joy” for both her own sabbatical and the church’s sabbatical without her.

“We chose that theme because we, like many churches, are struggling with the changing nature of what it means to be church, and it can be a really hard time. We wanted to intentionally choose joy in the midst of it,” she said.

Now that Meacham is back, she tries to maintain healthy boundaries that both benefit her family and keep the congregation moving forward, away from a pastor-centric mindset.

“The time away let me see how out of balance my life was,” she said.

Erin Dunigan, PC(USA)-ordained Evangelist living in Baja California, Mexico; Founder of Not Church, a gathering of atheists and agnostics who wish to deepen their spiritual journey; Freelance Writer and Photographer

Today’s Focus:  Sabbaticals

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Judith Freyer, Board of Pensions
Brian Frick, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray:

Lord God, grant us the humility and wisdom to follow the leadership that you have appointed. Grant us the willingness to perform the tasks that you have commanded for us to do. Let us be constantly reminded of your sovereignty, and protect us from those who put stumbling blocks in our way. Amen.

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