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Pastor Sabbatical

Periodic Sabbath Rest

A pastor sabbatical is simply a period of rest. However, a sabbath rest is much more than vacation. It is rest with a purpose.

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The idea of a clergy sabbatical is rooted in the Old Testament. God worked for six days creating the universe and its inhabitants. He then rested on the seventh day (Genesis 2:1-3). Throughout the Old Testament God instructs his people to follow his pattern: work six days and rest on the seventh (for example, Exodus 16:26; 20:9-10; 23:12; 31:15; 34:21; 35:2; Leviticus 23:3; Deuteronomy 5:13). The pattern was further reinforced by God's command to allow the land to rest every seventh year (Leviticus 25:1-5). That meant no farming - no working the ground - every seven years.

I don't believe those commands are directed to us today. But even though we are not commanded to practice sabbath rest, the pattern of work-rest is still as important now as it was then.

History of the Pastor Sabbatical

While the clergy sabbatical is rooted in the Old Testament, it also has a more recent context. During the Middle Ages, schools of higher education began to grant their instructors a leave of absence every seven years. This was done to help the teachers renew their passion for their subject.

This practice continues today in most colleges, graduate schools, and seminaries. The leave of absence, or sabbatical, generally lasts at least one full semester and often for an entire academic year. While away, the professor continues to receive his or her salary from the school.

In the academic setting, the sabbatical provides professors the opportunity to rest, continue their education, write books or magazine articles, travel to places relevant to their area of study (museums, archaeological digs, libraries, etc.), and teach at other institutions. A successful sabbatical re-energizes the professor and renews his or her passion for the subject he teaches.

It is within this context that the pastor sabbatical was born.

Are Pastor Sabbaticals Necessary?

Most pastors will never receive a sabbatical. Those who do, however, find it to be a transformative experience. Your pastor will probably survive without a sabbath rest. But a sabbatical will help him or her thrive in your church.

What's The Purpose of a Pastor Sabbatical?

In general terms, a sabbatical strengthens and further develops a pastor's ability to serve the church. This happens when your pastor experiences the results of a well planned sabbath. These results include the following:

  • New Perspective. Perhaps most significant, your pastor will gain a new understanding of the world in which your church ministers. This will deepen his own insight and positively affect his preaching and his service.
  • Spiritual Renewal. One of the easiest places to dry out spiritually is in the pulpit. A pastor is constantly talking and teaching about the spiritual life. But because it is so much a part of his conversation and work, maintaining and developing his own spiritual seems less important. So it is easy to neglect. A pastor sabbatical can be a time to renew spiritual disciplines that got lost in the busy-ness of life.
  • Rest. Pastor sabbaticals are not vacations. However, intense stress needs more than a week or two to break away from. It will take your pastor a month just to unwind from the stresses of every day ministry.
  • Education. Whether or not he actually earns a degree or certificate, a pastor sabbatical is educational. He will learn from his travels, from his research, from new relationships, and from quiet times alone with God.
  • Renewed Passion and Vision. All of the above results lead to this. Your pastor will return from his sabbatical with a clearer sense of mission and the renewed energy to work toward accomplishing it.

What Do Pastors Do On Sabbatical?

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Sabbaticals can be designed any way you wish. However, there are a few things that pastors frequently include in their time away.

  • Visit Israel. A visit to the Holy Land helps bring biblical events to life. It transforms a pastor's teaching.
  • Write. He might finish a doctoral dissertation or write some articles for publication.
  • Visit missionaries. Part of her pastor sabbatical might inlcude time to meet with missionaries where they work.
  • Travel. Visiting other countries can be educational, eye-opening, relaxing, and restorative. It will give new perspective.
  • Ministry projects. He might help a church rebuild after a fire, serve meals at an inner-city mission, or help with outreach at a major sporting event.
  • Rest. Though a pastor sabbatical is not vacation, he should take time to rest. Without rest, the stress levels of ministry cannot be broken.
  • Education. Many pastors use their time away to further develop their understanding of ministry, counseling, or preaching.

These are just examples of what other pastors done on their sabbaticals. Your pastor doesn't have to focus on just one thing while he or she is gone. A little variety will make the time more productive. 

Paying for a Pastor Sabbatical

You are convinced that your pastor needs a sabbath rest. He knows what he wants to do while he's gone. The congregation is supportive. But how are you going to pay for it all?

You are going to need money for guest speakers while your pastor is gone. Your pastor needs extra money for travel, supplies, seminars, retreat centers, and other expenses. A pastor sabbatical isn't cheap. So how can you afford it? Here are a few ideas...

  • Make it a budget item. The best way to pay for a pastor sabbatical is to plan for it well in advance. Put it into the annual budget and save the money over several years.
  • Special offerings. Allow people in your congregation to give sacrificially to your pastors time away. Do this only after you have thoroughly educated them about the need and purpose of your pastor's sabbatical.
  • Continue paying your pastor's salary. I don't think I need to say this, but my experience suggests that I probably should. Your pastor's bills won't stop just because he isn't preaching every Sunday. Keep paying his full salary so that he can afford to be gone.

Planning for a sabbatical might seem financially overwhelming. But if you plan ahead, set money aside a little at a time, and look for alternative sources of assistance, giving your pastor a sabbatical becomes something you can't afford not to do.

The Timing of a Pastor Sabbatical

The length and timing of your pastor's sabbatical are important issues that need to be addressed in advance of any sabbath rest. Consider the following points as you think through these issues.

  • How long should your pastor be on sabbatical? A good general guideline is to provide one month of sabbatical for every two years of service. So if your pastor has ministered in your church four years since his last sabbatical, give him two months. I, however, wouldn't exceed four months away because the transition back into church ministry becomes very difficult after that point.
  • How often should your pastor go on sabbatical? This is something that should be worked out within each individual church and with each pastor. Pastors under higher levels of stress need sabbaticals more frequently. Pastors with introverted personalities also need to get away more frequently. No matter what you decide, don't be a slave to your plan. As a general guideline, though, I would suggest that pastors take sabbaticals every four to seven years.
  • Start planning for your clergy sabbatical at least a year in advance. It will take that long to prepare people in your congregation for your pastor's absence. Some will need to be convinced of the importance of a pastor sabbatical. Others will need to be trained to do some of your pastor's job functions while he is gone. And your pastor needs to begin deciding what he will do so he can maximize his time away.
  • Plan for a period of re-entry transition. Give your pastor a few weeks to get back into his or her routine. Encourage him to tell his story. Plan a special event where your pastor can talk about her experiences. Have a series of small group meetings where people can meet with your pastor and talk about what happened while he was gone.
  • Don't take away any vacation time during a pastor sabbatical year. If you give your pastor three or four weeks of vacation time each year, he should still be able to take that time earlier or later in the year.

Pastor Sabbatical Conclusion

One of the most common refrains I hear when discussing pastor sabbaticals is, "I don't get that much time off, why should my pastor?" I hope that after reading this page you don't feel that way. Your pastor needs and deserves a periodic sabbath rest. Your church needs and deserves it too.


If you're finished reading this page on pastor sabbaticals, return to the pastor salary page.

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