Thursday, June 23, 2016

Honoring the Sabbath

My upcoming newsletter column will be an announcement--having already submitted a proposal at my congregation's annual general meeting this past January--of my upcoming sabbatical for the first three months of 2017.

Those columns, though, only have space for a few hundred words, and I chose to dedicate those to outlining for my congregation the process of calling a part-time interim sabbatical pastor to provide worship and administrative leadership in my absence.

But there is a larger discussion to be had here.

Many (perhaps most) churches still do not offer their pastors any sabbatical time, despite the fact that (a) it's Biblical (Leviticus 25:1-7; the people are to refrain from their usual work after six years, the seventh year is meant to be a rest for the land that physically nourishes them, much in the same way a pastor spiritually nourishes a people) and (b) church leadership experts have concluded that a sabbatical is an extremely useful tool in prolonging a pastor's tenure at their congregation rather than adding to the churchwide revolving door of pastorates, which has been at staggering proportions for years, with an estimated 1,500 clergy leaving their ministries every *month.*

I'm lucky--in my search and call papers with the Disciples of Christ denomination, there is a space to put in any request for sabbatical time to churches who might feel led to extend a call to me. Following my denomination's guidelines, I asked for a three-month sabbatical after every five years of service. FCC Longview inserted precisely such a clause into my "letter of call" (church-speak for "my contract").

But there is still education to be done. A sabbatical is emphatically not a vacation--in fact, while on sabbatical, I'll probably be working almost as much as when I'm on the clock now. My sabbatical will be devoted to two main tasks: working on my Doctor of Ministry thesis, and teaching public speaking, advocacy, and debate at a local Christian school. Both are meant to expand skills that I possess but haven't made much use of in parish ministry (academic research and academic teaching).

A sabbatical, rather, is meant to rest those parts of our souls most dedicated to ministry and exercise other parts of us that have atrophied, or to build up new skills elsewhere.

For pastors thinking of asking their congregations for a sabbatical, that is the best piece of advice that I can give: highlight how the sabbatical will grow you as a pastor and as a Christian. If your congregation has never given a sabbatical to a pastor before, they'll understandably want to know how and why your sabbatical won't simply be a three- or four-month vacation ("I work forty hours a week just like the pastor and I don't get to just drop everything for three months!").

It is an even tougher sell if there are people who still hold to that mentality that pastors must only work one day a week (Sundays), because our work during the week is invisible to the vast majority of the congregation. The most time-intensive of my tasks--sermon preparation and composition, Sunday School and Bible study lesson planning, those sorts of things--are all invisible to everyone, and even my visitations are usually either one-on-one or just me with a single family or household.

But it is the variability of those tasks that makes the sabbatical necessary. It is supremely difficult--and frankly, emotionally unhealthy--to go straight from a hospital visit with a dying congregant to a committee meeting, but every pastor I know, myself included, has had to do it at some point. Do that enough times, and it takes its toll on you if you are not careful.

So, the sabbatical really does matter for us pastors. And how we use it matters to both pastors and their congregations alike.

To that end, I wrote a simple, one-page proposal that I gave to everyone in my parish a year before I would begin my sabbatical, outlining what my contract offers, when I would take the sabbatical, how I would use it, what my level of involvement in church and denominational affairs would be, and how the congregation might fill my absence. Even if your congregation gives you (or your pastor) a sabbatical, it is an exercise that is very much worth doing.

In the midst of that, discussing how to pick up the things left behind in my absence has resulted in some amazing discussions. One of the hardest things about a sabbatical, I am told, is making sure roles are clearly defined so that people don't fall through the cracks, and preparing my lay leaders for my absence, far from inciting trepidation or worry, has brought up a belief that this is an opportunity to do ministry rather than to lament (or secretly celebrate!) my absence.

Ideally, every congregation with at least one full-time pastor could offer that pastor a sabbatical. We're a long way from that being the standard, but anecdotally, I can see it happening. More of my own colleagues are taking sabbaticals, hopefully wherever you are, you're seeing pastors there exercising that spiritual discipline as well.

For such an important spiritual discipline it is. It comes from one that made it into the Ten Commandments: honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.

It is a great gift to me that I serve a congregation that is doing that. I hope this post will help other pastors and churches do likewise.

Longview, Washington
June 23, 2016

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