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.
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.
Roy M. Oswald, a senior consultant with the 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.