What We Believe

The Why and How of a Sabbatical for Your Pastor

Kenneth Vander Molen

New Horizons: March 2021

Caring for Your Pastor

Also in this issue

Caring for Your Pastor

Decoding a Secular Creed

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to spend time with a pastor in his home, just to see what life was like for him and his family? Years ago, in a previous church, I did exactly that. Just as we all sat down to supper and were about to pray, the phone rang.

It was a member of the church calling to inform the pastor that a family member was in the hospital and might have some serious health issues. The member suggested, even insisted, that the pastor go at once to the hospital.

The pastor hung up, kissed his wife goodbye, and headed off to the hospital, a forty-five-minute drive away. When he returned, I asked him and his wife if interruptions like this one happened often. Their response was that it was just part of the life of a pastor.

The Need for Sabbaticals

I am reminded of Elijah in 1 Kings 19, who was so weary of his prophetic work that he sought to withdraw. Jesus Christ himself, throughout the course of his ministry, often “withdrew to desolate places to pray” (Luke 5:16; see also Luke 6:12; 9:18; 11:1).

It is true that all of us as believers are called to strive now in order to enter later into our promised eternal rest: “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Heb. 4:11). On the other hand, in the time before Christ’s return, the creational mandate of a day of rest and worship remains in order to refresh us spiritually and physically. A pastor engaged on the Sabbath in public and private ministry, however, does not always get the rest on which other believers have come to rely for their earthly journey.

Having served as an elder for years, I have read many pastors’ reports to the session of that month’s funerals, weddings, hospital visits for the sick, visits with new attendees, counseling meetings, committee meetings, youth theology classes, adult Sunday school classes, family visitations, session meetings, guest preaching, presbytery meetings, and general assembly—not to mention the preparation time for two sermons a week! Add to that what does not appear in the session report: personal devotions, home upkeep, exercise, spending time with wife and children, and—you get the point.

As an elder, I need to be supportive of and caring for my pastor. Our church wants to keep our pastor for a long time. If timely breaks will help him serve Christ’s church longer for God’s glory and for the building up of the church, then study breaks and sabbaticals need to be a part of our church’s yearly planning, and may God be praised in the process.

Sabbaticals: What They Are and What They Are Not

First, a sabbatical can be described as a break or change from a normal routine. The Strong’s Concordance definition of the Greek word sabbaton is “day of weekly repose.” Because of the unique nature of a pastor’s ministry on Sunday, a different form of Sabbath rest must be considered. In my research on sabbaticals, I frequently find words like rest, restoration, and renewal. The purpose is to get away for a time from ministry relationships, routines, and responsibilities. Whether it is a few weeks or a few months, a sabbatical is a restful change in the pastor’s schedule to set aside the stress and burned-out feelings of ministry and to focus on areas that need renewal. In some cases, it may restore past joy and zeal for ministry. To be clear, there is no one sabbatical that fits all. It is the job of the session and congregation to help plan with the pastor what a sabbatical might look like.

Second, I would like to highlight what a sabbatical is not: it is not a vacation. The vacation time a pastor has will already be built into his call. Any sabbatical would be over and above the scheduled vacation. Goals for sabbaticals and vacations are different.

For many OP congregations, in the Lord’s providence, it may not be financially or logistically possible for the pastor to be gone for a long stretch of time. But even a break of just two or three weeks can mean so much to a pastor. If this is your church’s situation, consider spreading a number of shorter study breaks out over a year’s time to better fit the church’s circumstances.

For other OP congregations, longer sabbaticals may be possible. Let me share with you one example of a sabbatical that an OP pastor took who has been at his current call for many years. He had taken a short sabbatical and a number of study breaks throughout his time as pastor, but this sabbatical was for four months. He attended a marriage conference and stayed in the United Kingdom to study at the Tyndale House, a place used internationally as a sabbatical study location for pastors. While there, he prepared for teaching a seminary class. He read a good number of books completely in one sitting, which would not have been possible during a normal week of ministry. After returning to the United States, but before the sabbatical was complete, he also took a class at a seminary. He planned the sermons for the year ahead and laid out the church calendar. However, the pastor completely shut off all communication with the congregation except for a few times reporting by email on how things were going and providing prayer requests. He shared pictures on a website if people were interested. Afterward, the pastor debriefed the session on the work he had done and how he was planning to apply what he learned to his future ministry in the church. Much of what this pastor did on sabbatical would not have happened without this dedicated time. Meanwhile, the elders and congregation were stretched, but also grew in their care for the sheep.

A Revived Joy

I currently serve on the Committee on Ministerial Care, which studies the needs of pastors in the OPC and provides ways of caring for them and their spouses during all phases of ministry. The CMC has placed on their website, opccmc.org, information on how to get a sabbatical started. To further help sessions and congregations, the CMC provides financial grants designated for sabbaticals.

As an OP elder speaking to my fellow elders, I would challenge you to take the lead in offering a sabbatical to your pastor. It will certainly stretch your gifts in serving the congregation while he is gone, but there will also be a revived joy in serving alongside your pastor and congregation when he returns. If given periodic study breaks and sabbaticals, pastors tend to serve the church longer and with fewer cases of burnout. In the long run, caring for your pastor this way now saves you all the work of calling another pastor in the future.

I would also encourage OPC members and congregations to consider that you have a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ who is generally available 24/7 to serve you. He has been given gifts to preach and to shepherd you. Please pray for your pastor daily as he takes up the calling to serve the body of Christ as a minister.

Finally, I would encourage OP pastors to please speak to your session if you need a break because of burnout. Too often pastors leave their calls earlier than necessary because of the high and sometimes unspoken expectations placed on them.

May Jesus Christ receive glory and honor in our efforts together as a church both to labor for his kingdom and to take rest when appropriate.  

The author is a ruling elder at Harvest Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Wyoming, Michigan, and a member of the Committee on Ministerial Care. New Horizons, March 2021.

New Horizons: March 2021

Caring for Your Pastor

Also in this issue

Caring for Your Pastor

Decoding a Secular Creed

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