Four Steps to Your First Sabbatical

September 9, 2016
Four Steps to Your First Sabbatical

By Mark Dance

Sabbaticals are awkward for pastors and for churches, even for those in academic communities. Outside of the world of academia, you can pretty much assume that few understand, much less care about granting you a sabbatical.

I would like to help you change that in your church because you and your church will benefit from this practice.

I am convinced more pastors would experience a longer and healthier ministry if they consistently practiced a weekly Sabbath and periodically took a sabbatical. Next Thursday I will share “Four Steps to Successful Sabbaths” – but today I want to help you get four steps closer to your first sabbatical.

Step 1: Walk Slowly Through the Process

Start by finding an advocate to champion your project. Be careful to make sure you understand and respect the right channels of approval. If your church already has a sabbatical process, then do your homework and follow that process respectfully.

I required my staff to submit their sabbatical requests before the annual budget was finished so they would not need to ask for unbudgeted money in mid-year. If you show up in the middle of a budget year with a half-baked plan, don’t expect everyone to get excited about it.

Step 2: Clarify the General Purpose

Sabbaticals are more than vacations, but don’t assume your people know that. My last church didn’t have sabbatical policies when I became their pastor, so I helped them get their mind around it by calling it “Project Time.” This was much easier to explain than a “sabbatical”—especially to the vast majority that did not work on a college faculty.

What is the win for you and your church? Is there a book or ministry initiative you need to do some off site research on? If your sabbatical is a response to ministry burnout, tell them how you plan on getting healthier spiritually, physically, and emotionally.

Step 3: Articulate Your Specific Goals

Communicate your specific goals during the application process, then afterwards come back and share how you achieve those goals. Much of what happens on a sabbatical is not goal oriented or measurable, but understand those subjective experiences are almost impossible to communicate.

My first sabbatical – I interviewed 12 pastors about church growth and relocations because we were experiencing both.  

My second sabbatical – I spent weekdays in remote Arkansas cabins reading, resting, and writing a sermon series/book on the Sabbath, which I preached soon afterwards.  

Step 4: Express Genuine Appreciation

Sabbaticals are not a given, they are a gift. Guard your heart from any feelings of entitlement. An ungrateful disposition will not only kill the deal for you, but also for those who serve alongside or behind you.

Be prepared to get less than you ask for. I asked my church for a month because I knew that two or three would be too much to ask from a church with no history of sabbaticals. Understand a church which makes an investment like this is an exception to the norm. Be appreciative both on the front end and after you have finished your sabbatical.

Sample Sabbatical Plan

  • Full time pastoral staff only
  • Eligible after every five full years of service
  • Four weeks with the full salary and benefits (1-3 months is average)
  • A special project in their field of service
  • Considered on a case-by-case basis (can be rejected/amended)
  • Approved by Senior Pastor, Finance, and Personnel Committees
  • Employee must apply in writing for reimbursement of expenses
  • Application will be made 90 days prior to starting

This article originally appeared at LifeWay Pastors and is used by permission.