Sabbaticals are a foreign idea to most people who are not professors, and thus many congregations and sessions may never have thought about granting a sabbatical to their pastor. This present article is designed to encourage congregations and sessions to do just that. Sabbaticals can be a healthy and productive means for ministers to become better students of God's Word and thus to become better pastors. By permitting a pastor time for focused study and learning, sabbaticals can benefit not only the pastor himself, but more importantly the congregation that he serves and the broader church.
Because the concept of a sabbatical is easily misunderstood, I first clarify what a sabbatical is and is not supposed to be. Then I discuss why it is appropriate to grant sabbaticals to pastors and offer suggestions as to how pastors might use their sabbatical time fruitfully. Finally I present some reflections on how churches might cope with logistical difficulties that sabbaticals raise, such as, bearing the financial costs and meeting the pastoral needs of the congregation while the pastor is away.
Sabbaticals: What They Are and What They Aren't
The notion of sabbaticals for pastors may immediately raise questions about why ministers should enjoy a benefit that most other people do not. Yes, most pastors work hard and face plenty of stressful situations, but many other people in their congregations also work long hours and face constant stress on the job. Why should a congregation consider giving its pastor a sabbatical when the other hard-working people in the church would never dream of receiving one from their employers?
That is a good question, and I believe that the initial answer is this: pastor sabbaticals should not be thought of as a time to rest. Sabbaticals are not vacations with an exalted name. If a congregation believes that its pastor is overworked, then it should lighten his pastoral responsibilities. Sabbaticals should be times of work—but a different kind of work from usual. Sabbaticals are periods in which a person interrupts his ordinary routine in order to engage in focused study and learning, for the purpose of gaining knowledge and skill that will make him better at his labor and will benefit the people for whom he works. I would hasten to add that taking such a sabbatical periodically may have the side benefit of alleviating stress and avoiding burnout, since often a change of pace itself can be rejuvenating. But that is not a sabbatical's primary purpose.
Sabbaticals are most often associated with those who serve as professors at schools of higher learning. While sabbaticals could potentially be of benefit to people in many other occupations, there are good reasons why they are particularly appropriate for professors. In order to fulfill their responsibilities to teach at an advanced level and to publish material that makes a contribution to current scholarship, professors must spend a lot of time reading and researching. Maintaining expertise in an academic discipline and gaining mastery in a particular field of research requires focused periods of study. In the midst of their ordinary routine of teaching, mentoring students, and fulfilling committee assignments, it can be difficult for professors to set aside adequate time for this focused study, and over a stretch of time this can cause professors to fall behind in their learning, to the detriment of their teaching and writing. For this reason many colleges, universities, and seminaries have sabbatical programs in which professors, often for a semester, are relieved of ordinary classroom and committee responsibilities so that they can devote their time to reading and research. When professors are diligent and use their sabbatical time well, they should be better teachers when they return and thus their students and institutions benefit.
Why Sabbaticals for Pastors?
Pastors are not professors, but many of the same principles that make sabbaticals beneficial for professors also make them beneficial for pastors. In the Reformed tradition we have embraced the ideal of the learned pastor. The OPC, reflecting this tradition, continues to require—with occasional exceptions—its ministerial candidates to earn a bachelor's degree and then a master of divinity degree from a seminary. It expects a candidate for ordination to have gained competency in Greek, Hebrew, biblical exegesis, systematic theology, church history, and apologetics. In other words, we do not simply take the most pious man in the congregation and make him the pastor, nor are we satisfied with someone who has memorized many Bible verses or catechism answers. We want pastors who are generally well-educated and specifically, in J. Gresham Machen's words, experts in the Bible. Before an OPC minister gets into the pulpit, he should have studied and researched the passage that he is going to preach. Before he counsels a young church member who is struggling through Religion 101 at the community college, he must understand what higher criticism of Scripture is, what its presuppositions are, and how to respond to it intelligently. Before he gets up to speak at presbytery when charges of theological error are brought against one of his ministerial colleagues, he must be well-acquainted with the doctrine at issue, with the relevant biblical texts, and with the systematic implications of erring on this doctrine. Zeal and piety are requirements for the ministry, but without knowledge and learning to accompany them a pastor is ill-equipped for his work.
To be a learned pastor, furthermore, requires ongoing study. Even the best seminary education cannot come close to teaching someone all that there is to know about Scripture and theology. And what a person does learn in seminary grows dull if it is not cultivated. In addition, there are constantly new things to be learned. Biblical scholarship advances, theological debates change, different challenges to the Christian faith emerge. The man who does not stay current will find himself disadvantaged as he confronts the various challenges of the pastoral ministry.
But it can be very difficult for pastors to find adequate time to engage in the kind of reading and study that enables them to fulfill the pastoral ideal described in the preceding paragraphs. Ironically, the demands that Reformed churches tend to put on pastors can exacerbate this problem. Most OPC congregations meet for worship twice on the Lord's Day, and hence expect not one but two sermons each week that faithfully and insightfully expound a text of Scripture. Plus, the pastor may well be teaching Sunday school, catechism, and/or Bible study classes. OPC pastors are also expected to be industrious churchmen at the broader level, participating in meetings and serving on committees of the presbytery and General Assembly. There is often a great deal of material to prepare for preaching, teaching, and reports of various kinds, not to mention the frequent counseling and visiting responsibilities that a pastor must be generally ready to handle. Either pastors must be given sufficient time to study in preparation for these tasks or they should not be expected to pursue all of them. I believe that pastors should indeed be engaged in all of these tasks, so the acute question is how to ensure that they do so in a learned way.
Even pastors who try to be diligent in keeping up with their studies often find themselves with little time for reading beyond basic preparation for the next immediate responsibility. When two sermons and an adult Sunday school class are looming a few days ahead, trying to get some reading done for those three things needs to have first priority. But ministers often rightly feel that there is so much more that they could learn about the passage they are preaching. God's word is immensely rich and there is a great deal of beneficial scholarship available that could allow more light to shine from Scripture through a pastor's preaching. How many times has a pastor been preaching through a book of Scripture and discovered something wonderful two-thirds of the way through the sermon series and said to himself, "I wish I had known that about this book when I preached from chapter 1." If he had spent time doing general study of the book before beginning that series—rather than beginning the series after only reading commentary on the first five verses of the first chapter—he may have preached more rich and edifying sermons from the outset.
There is also that stack of books and periodicals on the pastor's shelf that tends to grow ever higher. In them is a wealth of information about the latest theological controversies that he has heard about but never really investigated firsthand, about the latest atheistic challenge to Christianity that sits atop the best-seller lists, and about new discoveries in biblical archeology that illuminate various biblical texts. Reading this material would enable the pastor to be better prepared to examine the candidate for ordination who knows about the latest theological controversies, to be better prepared to discuss God's existence with the church visitor who has read the latest best-seller, and to preach with more insight from Scripture. But the pastor has so many responsibilities day by day that his immediate worries prohibit much headway into that stack.
Again it must be said that doing more reading and researching is not the only way in which pastors can grow as more effective ministers of God's Word. But it is one very important way. Thus, congregations and sessions should have great interest in helping their pastors be able to pursue this reading and research that the tyranny of the immanent often makes impossible. Providing their pastors with occasional sabbaticals—even short ones—is one way that they may be able to provide this help.
During such a sabbatical, the congregation would normally relieve the pastor of his ordinary preaching, teaching, and pastoral responsibilities. But this should not be considered interchangeable with a vacation. Pastors may well want to do some reading during vacation weeks, but vacations presumably involve spending extra time with family and pursuing recreational activities with no necessary connection to regular ministerial duties. Sabbaticals, on the other hand, should not be used for leisure. Pastors may spend their sabbaticals in a variety of productive ways, but they should always use them industriously in order become better equipped to handle the Word of truth rightly (2 Tim. 2:15) and to proclaim the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).
Before I present some concrete thoughts on how pastors might use sabbaticals, I note that in some circumstances it may not be wise for a congregation to grant its pastor a sabbatical, even when it is logistically possible. If a pastor is struggling with time management issues, for example, then granting him a sabbatical is probably not wise or responsible: a pastor who is unaccustomed to using his time well in his ordinary labors will most likely not use his time well on sabbatical. If he is spending hours every day reading and posting blogs, it may be that he has the time for necessary reading and reflection but is simply using it poorly. In such circumstances, the elders would probably serve the church better by helping the pastor to become more disciplined in his use of time than by giving him more time to squander. Congregations may also be unwise to grant a sabbatical to a pastor who has no plan about how to use it or who is unwilling to be held accountable for how he spends it. When a pastor and session agree that a sabbatical will take a certain form, and when the pastor consents to provide a report afterwards on what he has accomplished, the pastor is more likely to use his sabbatical time diligently and the congregation is more likely to recognize the sabbatical as mutually beneficial and thus is also more likely to be supportive of the idea.
What to Do On a Sabbatical
In this section I present some suggestions for how pastors might use sabbaticals in ways that will benefit them and the church. Of course this is not meant to exhaust the possibilities, but only to stimulate productive conversations among pastors and congregations about potential sabbaticals.
First, a pastor might simply spend his sabbatical time reading. This reading could serve a number of ends. For example, a pastor who is planning to preach through Romans in the near future might use his sabbatical to do general reading on the teaching of Romans or on Pauline theology broadly. Perhaps he is vaguely aware of recent controversies concerning the New Perspective on Paul or Paul and the law but has never had the opportunity to read the important literature on these subjects. Doing such reading would serve both to keep him up to date with contemporary theological literature and also to prepare him directly for a more insightful and responsible exposition of Romans on Sunday mornings. Or perhaps a pastor sees something like the recent publication of Herman Bavinck's four volume Reformed Dogmatics in English translation and realizes that it has been an awfully long time since he read a detailed systematic treatment of Reformed theology. Spending his sabbatical working through Bavinck's Dogmatics could be a wonderful way to refresh and sharpen his understanding of the Reformed system of doctrine and would enrich his catechetical instruction and general teaching ministry.
Second, a pastor might consider using his sabbatical to take a course at a seminary. While most pastors will not have sabbaticals long enough to enable them to take a semester-long course, many Reformed seminaries offer one-week or two-week courses at certain times of the year. Rather than simply doing independent reading in order to catch up on a certain topic or to gain general knowledge about a book of Scripture, many pastors could benefit from classroom instruction and interaction with fellow students. By regaining acquaintance with seminary life, the pastor may also become better equipped to serve the church through supervising a summer intern or through contributing to his presbytery's candidates and credentials committee.
Third, a pastor could dedicate at least some of his sabbatical to writing. Some pastors are especially gifted writers but have little time to exercise this gift. By permitting such pastors to take time to focus on writing for publication, congregations may not only be benefiting themselves but also giving a gift to the broader church. Pastors who have researched and studied carefully in preaching through a book of Scripture, for example, may have gained great insights that could be profitably communicated in writing beyond the confines of their own congregations. Writing is a task, however, that should not be reserved for the rare pastor who is able and eager to write for publication. As I am constantly reminded in the course of my own work, there are few things that test whether a person really understands something better than sitting down and trying to write about it coherently and persuasively. Even if he produces something only for his church's literature rack or for a Sunday school course, a pastor who uses his sabbatical to write can bless his congregation both directly through the final product and indirectly through the general sharpening of mind that the discipline of writing can bring.
A fourth suggestion involves travel. This is less conventional and surely harder to pull off, especially for a pastor with children at home, but may also provide mutual benefit for a pastor and his church. One sort of travel that may be appropriate for a sabbatical is visiting a foreign mission field. Presumably a pastor would spend part of such a trip working with the missionaries in their labors, and he ought to be careful about returning to his congregation more tired than when he left. But taking a break from his ordinary labors to spend a short time with missionaries on a foreign field could in itself be a refreshing experience. Such a sabbatical would not only be a gift to the broader church through its direct support of mission work but could also give the pastor an enriched perspective on his preaching and evangelism and equip him to serve more effectively on a presbytery or General Assembly foreign missions committee. Other kinds of travel also hold promise of benefiting a pastor and his congregation. Here we might imagine a pastor who travels to Israel and gains a richer understanding of biblical geography or who travels to Greece and Turkey before preaching through Acts and gains helpful insights about Paul's missionary journeys. These sorts of trips may be somewhat harder to distinguish from a vacation, but there is no reason why the sabbatical and vacation ideas cannot be combined on occasion.
Concluding Reflection: Logistics
Some readers may have arrived at this point and concluded that granting their pastor a sabbatical would be a good thing in theory but is impossible in reality. Many OPC congregations are small and struggle to meet their budget as it is, and finding competent people to step into the pulpit or to provide pastoral care during a pastor's sabbatical may be very difficult. In some situations it is undoubtedly the case that a church cannot responsibly grant its pastor a sabbatical. But in this last section I offer some concluding reflections on why and how to make it happen when it is actually possible.
First, sessions and congregations should not be so focused on meeting immediate needs that they neglect longer-term needs. This may be analogous to a person who becomes so concerned about his financial obligations month-by-month that he fails to fund his 401(k) or his children's college fund. He cannot simply stop paying his electric bills, but the long-term gain of investing a percentage of his salary each month is well worth some short-term sacrifice. Likewise, churches should look at pastoral sabbaticals as an investment that requires some present sacrifice in order to gain future benefit. Congregations may hear four fewer sermons from the pastor each year if they grant him an annual two-week sabbatical, for example, but if the ninety sermons that they do hear from him are more biblically rich and insightful, then in the long run they will profit.
Second, pastors and congregations might consider arrangements in which the pastor agrees to stay local during his sabbatical. Though he would be freed from ordinary preaching, teaching, and counseling obligations, he would remain available in case of pastoral emergency. This could ease the mind of the session about being able to meet the needs of the saints during a sabbatical and may also reassure the congregation that the sabbatical is for their own good and not simply a way for the pastor to get away from them for a couple more weeks a year.
Third, neighboring Reformed congregations could consider a pulpit exchange arrangement in which they give their pastors sabbaticals at the same time. Though this entails that these pastors would be in the pulpit during their sabbatical weeks, they could preach sermons that they have already preached recently and thus not have much additional preparation work. This could still provide pastors with study weeks relatively unencumbered by ordinary duties and would relieve the congregations of the effort and expense of finding competent pulpit supply.
Finally, congregations who wish to give their pastor a sabbatical might try to secure the interim services of a seminary professor who is on sabbatical. Though professors on sabbatical are ordinarily obligated to pursue their own research projects, some of them may find it profitable to spend part of their sabbatical providing regular pulpit supply or even more holistic pastoral care for a congregation.
These are only suggestions meant to stimulate thinking about important things. I urge congregations and sessions to contemplate the concerns that I have raised in this essay and to work with their pastors to secure adequate time for him to grow as a learned minister of God's Word. When used responsibly and wisely, regular pastoral sabbaticals can be a blessing for the pastor, his congregation, and the broader church.
First published in Ordained Servant, May 2009.
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