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Sabbaticals are a must for healthy pastors and healthy congregations

The necessity of holy breaks

By Erin Dunigan | Presbyterians Today

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.

Learning together

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. It also led to further conversations with the congregation about how “we need to rethink the entire ‘pastor’ thing.”

The traditional job description and expectations that come with it, she said, “don’t seem to be working for most folks.”

Sabbatical funding

As the conversations continue, Meacham’s congregation has found the sabbatical of their pastor so beneficial that they are now working on a plan to set aside funds yearly to cover the costs of future pastors’ sabbaticals. A Lilly Endowment grant helped with the first sabbatical.

However, before the grant was approved, the session vowed “to figure something out” to make their pastor’s sabbatical happen with or without the grant, Meacham says.

The Rev. Dr. John McFayden, executive vice president and chief of church engagement for the Board of Pensions, says he cannot stress enough the importance of sabbaticals. He says they enable pastors to get away from the demands of their responsibilities for a long enough time for the pastors to reflect on their ministry.

He admits, though, that many congregations are reluctant to offer sabbaticals because they cannot see themselves doing without their pastor for an extended time. They are especially concerned with how to finance the pastor’s leave and fill the pulpit, McFayden adds.

Recognizing that some congregations don’t have the financial resources to pay for the redundant coverage while the pastor is away, the Board offers a grant of up to $3,000 to help cover expenses. The grant, however, is not meant to replace other funding sources, but to supplement them.

“Assuming that pastors and congregations would begin to set aside some time for the pastor to be able to do this, and resources in order to do so, the grant is meant to come alongside those other sources,” McFayden said.

Creative sabbatical scheduling

The Rev. Steve Melde has served Christ Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, for more than 20 years, and recently took his second sabbatical.

“The best part, in my perspective, was that it was the personnel committee and the session who noticed that it had been seven years since my last sabbatical and suggested that it was time I took one,” said Melde.

Because the church’s associate pastor was preparing to retire, it was more challenging for Melde to get away for three months. Melde and the session decided to break the sabbatical into two six-week increments.

“I have to say, it worked out wonderfully for me,” said Melde. “Being gone for three months in a row has its own stress.”

Dividing the sabbatical in two sections was helpful both to Melde, who could get work done in preparation for being gone, as well as for the congregation, which was able to more easily adjust to the pastor’s absence.

For Melde, the sabbatical provided time to reconnect with his family.

“It allowed us to do family things over the weekends that we normally don’t get to do on a pastor’s schedule,” he said.

The sabbatical also allowed Melde to dedicate time to a sermon series that he had long wanted to work on. The sermon series was titled “The Other 167.”

“With 168 hours in a week, and one hour spent in worship, I wanted to take a look at what are we doing in the other 167 to grow in our relationship with God in other places — in nature, at home and in the world,” Melde said. But he wanted to do more than preach about those places. He wanted to preach from them.

“What the sabbatical allowed me to do was to go into those places and to record myself preaching and then share that with the congregation when I returned,” he said.

For example, the pastor went to a beach, and even went to a location where a prickly pear cactus was growing out of a roof.

“I preached there, with that cactus up above me, about finding God even in the midst of our daily human life,” he said.

For Melde, breaking the sabbatical into two segments worked beautifully for him and his congregation. One thought he has for his next sabbatical is to break it into three sections — one month a year for three years.

“That would give the time to do some of that long-term planning as well as some relaxing,” he said.

After 17 years, ‘a break’

In May the Rev. Dr. David Parker of Presbyterian Church of the Way in Shoreview, Minnesota, will have served his current congregation for seven years. Part of the terms of call includes taking a sabbatical after six years of service. Parker has been a pastor for 17 years, in three calls. This year he’ll take his first sabbatical.

Though some pastors have the chance to take time off between calls, that hasn’t been the case for Parker.

“After 17 straight years of ministry, I really am looking forward to a break,” he said. His sabbatical will begin in July and run through September.

Parker applied for a Lilly grant and had big ideas for his sabbatical, including a visit to Scotland to participate in the Highland Games in a small town where his ancestors are buried. Although he did not receive the grant, his personnel committee decided to move forward with his sabbatical, rather than waiting to reapply for a Lilly grant the following year. This means the congregation will not have outside financial assistance to pay for pastoral coverage during Parker’s absence.

What Church of the Way does have is a commissioned ruling elder who grew up in the congregation and went to seminary, but decided not to get ordained. He oversees pastoral care, works with the deacons and has agreed to cover some of the responsibilities for the sabbatical period, including moderating session meetings and preaching occasionally. The church also has several members stepping up to fill the pulpit.

In preparation for being gone, Parker conducted a preaching class in which he taught seven members of the congregation how to look at Scripture, structure a sermon and generate ideas for preaching.

“We now have seven individuals who have a sermon ready to go while I’m on my sabbatical,” he said.

Of the seven, three are immigrants — one from Cameroon and two from Ghana. Though the congregation has historically been predominantly white, about 20 years ago a couple, immigrants from Ghana, joined the church. Slowly, other Ghanian families began joining. When a local congregation closed, many of that church’s Cameroonian members joined Church of the Way.

“So almost overnight we changed from 98% Caucasian to a congregation that now comprises about 15% African immigrants,” said Parker.

This has led him to his new focus for the sabbatical time, and the question Parker will be asking is: “How can we be more than a white church with immigrants, and instead become a truly multicultural church?”

Parker sees his upcoming sabbatical as a growing time for the congregation as well. During his time away, Parker hopes the congregation will wrestle with such questions as: Who are we? Where are we going? Where does God want us to go?

These are exactly the types of questions that Edmiston hopes that both pastors and congregations will ask during a sabbatical time. Her hope is that pastors will be able to use the time to reevaluate their own pastoral identity — what God might be calling that pastor, in that context, to do next — and that congregations will do so as well.

“It is a time to step away, to look at where we have been and where we might be going,” she said. “It is something that everyone needs, but especially when you are in a vocation where you depend on God speaking to you. It is a time to listen to what might be being said.”

Erin Dunigan is a PC(USA)-ordained evangelist living in Baja California, Mexico, where she founded Not Church, a gathering of atheists and agnostics who wish to deepen their spiritual journey. She is also a freelance writer and photographer.

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