What is a Ministry Sabbatical?

Wheat Ridge Ministries defines a ministry sabbatical as a period of time, usually three months, when ministry leaders and congregations set aside the leader’s normal responsibilities for the purpose of rest and renewal toward sustained excellence in ministry.

A ministry sabbatical is not an extended vacation nor is it an academic sabbatical that normally involves extensive study. A ministry sabbatical is a release from the routine of the call for the physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual well-being of the ministry leader.

A Biblical Perspective on Sabbaticals

The word sabbatical is drawn from Sabbath. The Hebrew word for Sabbath means to “close or rest” and is connected with the last day of Creation when God rested. (Genesis 2:3) God both models and commands Sabbath rest for his people. “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)

Jesus affirmed the importance of rest saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28) The Biblical example of Jesus’ own frequent withdrawal to a quiet place to meditate, pray and be renewed is a model. In His ministry, the constant demands of people led Jesus to step away on a regular basis.

See also: Genesis 1 and 2; Exodus 20:8-11, 23:10-12; Leviticus 25:1-7 (Sabbatical Year), 24:8-25 (Year of Jubilee); Psalm 23; and Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

Why is a Sabbatical important?

Roy Oswald, Alban Institute, suggests that the rapid change and complexity of congregational life and ministry raises the need for three months of sabbatical rest and renewal every four to seven years. He believes that 20% to 30% of ministry leaders he speaks to are in a state of severe burnout. Another 20% of the same audience is on the way to severe burnout.

Richard Bullock and Richard Bruesehoff in Clergy Renewal: The Alban Guide to Sabbatical Planning suggest the following motivations for considering a ministry sabbatical.

  • Continual spiritual growth facilitated by periods of rest and renewal is vital toward being an effective minister.
  • Pastoral responsibilities are not contained within normal office hours and regularly involve weekends.
  • Rapid changes in parish ministry can increase the likelihood of burnout without periods of rest and renewal.
  • Burnout makes ministry and the minister, dull, hollow, and uninteresting.
  • Provides the opportunity for congregations to examine their dependency on the ministry leader and consider expanding the roles of lay leaders.

What does the ELCA or the LCMS say regarding Sabbaticals?

The Rev. A. Craig Settlage, Director of Mission Support, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, shares …

‘A sabbatical? For me?’ Parish pastors and rostered lay ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America might well ask these questions, and the answer is ‘Yes, consider the possibilities!’ A sabbatical for a parish pastor or rostered lay person is a time for rekindling the sense of calling, for growing in one’s knowledge, and for deepening one’s spiritual life. It is a time for renewal and refreshment for those who serve others. It is also a time for a congregation to rediscovering its own resources for lay leadership within the congregation and to be itself renewed as a result of the sabbatical.

Pastors and rostered lay leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) are encouraged to discuss a sabbatical with their congregation, to determine the sabbatical policies of their synod, and to explore the possibilities for a “Sabbath” in the midst of their ministries. The ELCA is grateful for the support of Wheat Ridge Ministries for these life-giving and spirit-renewing times of Sabbath.

The Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., Dean of Ministerial Formation and Associate Professor of Practical Theology, Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis shares …

There are natural rhythms in the order God created that, even in a fallen world, are health-giving and spirit-enhancing. Failure to appreciate and connect to these rhythms propels us toward disease and ill-health. Acknowledging and coming into “sync” with these rhythms strengthens our resilience and creativity.

There are many such rhythms. One of them is time off and away, of which Sabbath-keeping and sabbatical-taking are two manifestations. It is in the best interest of both parish and church worker to consider both of these. It is in support of the latter, sabbatical-taking, that this portion of Wheat Ridge Ministries’ website is dedicated. The motivation for sabbatical-taking is not exclusively remedial or preventive. It is simply health-giving and spirit-enhancing. It promotes wellness and wholeness. I encourage congregational leaders and workers of the church to begin their conversation about sabbatical-taking now, or to continue the conversation in earnest. Everyone will be enriched.