As of last Easter Sunday, I’ve now been pastoring in my congregation for 23 years! I didn’t mention that in my Easter sermon since I wanted every precious minute to focus on the resurrection of Jesus, but as I’ve been catching my breath during this post-Easter week, I marked my anniversary in ministry by re-reading this article I wrote last year: My 22 Best Practices in 22 Years of Pastoral Ministry.
Every so often, I like to re-read something I’ve written previously to see if I still agree with myself. Sometimes I don’t, and while that can be embarrassing, mostly I just give thanks that at least I’m continuing to grow–good growth, I hope, and not going in the opposite direction! Happily though, as I re-read My 22 Best Practices in 22 Years of Pastoral Ministry, I discovered that I still mainly agree–not so surprising, really, since I wrote it just a year ago. But I also noticed that I had missed something else that’s been key to my long-term ministry.
So in honour of my 23 years in pastoral ministry, I’d like to add one more best practice to my list:
Take regular sabbaticals.
When I started pastoring, my congregation already had a study leave policy in place for whoever their lead pastor would be–a four-month leave after six years of ministry, at full salary, in addition to vacation, with a proposal submitted six months in advance, and an expectation of at least a year’s service upon returning. Sounds like a great privilege, doesn’t it? Only at just 12 years old, the church had never had a pastor stay long enough to try it, so my first study leave experience was an experiment for both me and the church.
Here’s what I learned then and over the years:
- Church leadership is crucial. When I first talked with our church council about taking a study leave, some wondered whether it would require a congregational decision. “No,” said our deacon chair at the time, “the congregation already has a policy in place, so let’s work with that and simply keep the congregation informed as we go along.” The rest of the council agreed, and I so appreciate their leadership in moving forward.
- Congregational support is vital. When I left for my first study leave, I received a basket full of cards from the congregation. When I returned, they gave me a binder with each page from a different individual or family with photos and notes about what had happened in their lives while I was gone. That was fun for them to put together, great fun to receive, and yes, I know I’m spoiled!
- Have a plan. For some pastors, a study leave might mean seminary or other courses, or some kind of service or other learning opportunity. I’ve used each of my study leaves for writing projects which require reading and other informal study instead of course credit.
- Be organized. For each of my study leaves, I’ve arranged for alternate leadership for worship, pastoral care, and other responsibilities for the time I planned to be away. When I returned from my first leave, I discovered that my Worship Committee was even more organized–not only had they arranged for speakers for every week of my first month back, they had even double booked one of the Sundays!
- Be clear about expectations. As part of my current study leave, I decided to continue with my Sacred Pauses group, to lead Holy Thursday communion, and preach on Easter Sunday. Some might say I haven’t exactly left, but we felt this was win-win all around. My husband and I both wanted to celebrate Easter with our church instead of being visitors somewhere else, and my Sacred Pauses group agreed to focus on the Scripture texts that are the focus for my book manuscript which helps me with my writing during this time.
- Establish healthy boundaries. I’m still working on this one, since I’m a little too willing to dip into my church email or even take the odd meeting while I’m supposed to be on my leave. But at least I’m keeping track of any church time, and have promised to pay myself back after my leave is over with the permission of our Personnel Committee.
- Don’t get hung up on the language of study leave vs. sabbatical. When my congregation established its policy, members were more comfortable with the language and emphasis of “study leave” rather than sabbatical. But increasingly I’ve found that people will use the term sabbatical, and wish me a good rest in addition to the writing they know I’ve planned.
- Build in some rest time. Yes, even on a study leave, don’t feel guilty about taking some time to rest. Go to worship where you can be a guest and not responsible for preaching or anything else. Spend extra time with your family. Travel. Stay in your pyjamas all day. Read novels. Take an afternoon nap. Rest and be renewed.
- Know that sabbaticals can build church confidence. You are not indispensable. The church depends on God, not you. As one of our worship leaders said before my first leave, “One of the great things is that you’ve supported us and worked with us, so we know we can handle things when you’re gone.”
- Know that the church will be the church without you. While I was away on my first leave, my congregation built a gym–I took part in the ground-breaking before my leave, and celebrated the gym’s opening on my return. During my second leave, the church renovated the front office area, while I again conveniently missed all the construction dust. On my third leave, my office got a fabulous makeover, and now that I’m into my fourth leave, I’m wondering, what is the church up to now?
- Know that they’ll still love you. When I returned from my first leave, our council chair said, “We were glad to see you go,”–what? Now just a minute, I wanted to say, but then he continued–“and we’re even more glad to see you back!”
- Take time to ease back in. Returning from a leave can be overwhelming, so I generally plan for a weekend or week away within the first month back. While it may seem odd to return only to go away again, I find that helps to reduce some of the shock of re-entry.
- Don’t worry about FOMO (the fear of missing out). Yes, you’ll miss things, and you won’t ever completely catch up. Some pastors will even ignore any emails that come in while they’re away and just start with a fresh slate.
So that’s what I’m learning about study leaves and sabbaticals so far. If you’re counting, you know that at 23 years, I’m actually taking my current leave early–a partial leave of two months now to help me meet my Abingdon Press deadline, and my other two months in reserve for later. Although this is earlier than the stated church policy, splitting the time into two shorter leaves works better for me, and our council felt it was also easier for the church. Thank you to my council and congregation for being so great to work with and for all of your support!
Writing Prompt/Response: What about you? What study leave or sabbatical tips do you have to share? What questions does this raise for you?
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