Friday, March 31, 2017

Sabbaticals: What I've Learned About What Works

Today marks the last weekday of my three-month sabbatical. The missus and I are taking a staycation weekend so that I don't drive myself nuts with trying to accelerate back into work mode, and then on Monday morning, I head back into the office like I've done for the past five-and-a-half years.

While my sabbatical was primarily utilized to work on several different projects--my Doctor of Ministry thesis and its proposal, a book proposal, and an additional class in my D.Min. program--I also learned a lot about the nature of the sabbatical itself and of what worked and what didn't work. I have come away with a firm belief that any (and I do mean any) parish pastor working on a full-time basis would benefit from one, and so in the interests of promoting the practice of granting sabbaticals, I wanted to offer a few thoughts about how pastors can make the most of one--

Concerning length of time: the guidelines in my denomination are three months of sabbatical after five consecutive years of service. The ratio of sabbatical time to service time tends to vary a bit from denomination to denomination, but in general, at least one month for every two years of service seems to be the minimum. With that in mind, I'd suggest not taking anything less than two months as a sabbatical. There are two main reasons for this--

It means a pastor will have accumulated at least four years of ministry at your current parish, which is an important yardstick--the first year is often the honeymoon period, but years two and three can really make or break a ministry, and not all pastors survive them. It is important to emerge from those years with a clear sense of mutuality and reciprocity so that the church feels invested in its pastor when they begin planning for the sabbatical.

And secondly, honestly, anything less than two months would have been *way* too short. I purposely took the entire first week of my sabbatical as a vacation--I usually take the week between Christmas Day and New Year's Day as vacation and didn't in order to get all my proverbial ducks in a row for this sabbatical--but even with that week of vacation, it took a *long* time to fully unwind from the responsibilities of running a parish day-in and day-out. If I'm being completely truthful, it probably took me most of the month of January--a full third of the sabbatical. In a two-month sabbatical, that would have been half of the sabbatical. Two months needs to be the minimum. Three is preferable.

Next: don't neglect your usual spiritual habits just because it's sabbatical. While I wasn't always at a church on Sunday mornings, I kept up with reading the Scriptures, studying commentaries, and taking time out of the day for prayer, and I absolutely needed that while away from my primary spiritual community (the congregation I serve). It gave me time to keep them centered in my life even as my life did not revolve around ministering to them, but it also gave me time to spiritually recharge after five-plus years of rewarding, but sometimes intense and even overwhelming, ministry.

Be intentional about how you're going to spend the sabbatical! At my congregation's 2016 annual general meeting--a full eleven months before my sabbatical would begin--I presented them with a one-page outline of why the sabbatical was important (besides it being a part of my contract) and how I planned to use the time away. The parish board of directors, with the counsel of our regional minister, set up an ad hoc pulpit supply committee to fill the pulpit for the past three months. And I set out specific personal milestones for each month of the sabbatical that I expected to meet with each of my projects. All of this planning took the better part of a year to put in place, but it all made the sabbatical go very smoothly.

On a similar note--the sabbatical needs to advance a pastor's skillset somehow. Frankly, most continuing education programs aren't enough. Certain classes in seminary are already likely to be at least partially dated when they're taught, and with five or more years in the rearview mirror, they've only become more obsolete. It doesn't have to be returning to the academy like I have done--there are all sorts of ways to update a ministerial toolkit. And quite simply, being able to update skills is so critical in today's church, in which congregations across the country are struggling because they're operating out of a mid-to-mid-late 20th century paradigm in an early 21st century world. Congregations are bubbles, and it is easy for that bubble to become a time capsule as the rest of the world passes on by. Don't let that happen.

Be realistic about how that advancement will happen, though. Neither the church or pastor should bite off more than they can chew for the sabbatical, and neither should try to do separately anything that may have been left undone when the sabbatical begins. It is only three or so months, after all--not the full year of the Biblical sabbatical model in Leviticus--and setting aside some time to recharge (like the staycations I took/am taking to begin and end my own sabbatical) needs to be a part of those months. So consider this the "Rome wasn't built in a day" maxim, but for sabbaticals.

And finally, acknowledge that a sabbatical is a substantial gift for any congregation to give to its pastor. Many congregations do not grant their pastors a sabbatical, and pastors eligible for one may not be able to accumulate the required service time before concluding their ministry at that particular parish. If you're searching for a new pastorate, be sure to ask about the possibility of a sabbatical if it is not brought up during the discussions about salary and benefits, and if the congregation says no, be prepared to either do some education on the topic (if it's simply a matter of not being aware of the trend of granting sabbaticals to pastors) or to accept that they may be signaling their lack of long-term interest in you (if they simply refuse to consider inserting a sabbatical into any letter of call or contract).

I hope this is a helpful resource, and if you are interested in seeking some sort of sabbatical policy at your own congregation, let me know how I might be of further help. When done correctly, sabbaticals can be a Spirit-led and productive gift furnished to pastors from congregations, and after experiencing one for myself, I adamantly believe that they are a crucial part of optimally setting up both church and pastor alike for the most fruitful time together possible. It is, then, a part of the Gospel work to provide such means for self-improvement, and to be responsible stewards of these means so that they are maximized for the benefit of all the people of God.

Vancouver, Washington
March 31, 2017

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