Consider a sabbatical … and a related personal update

Many of you who read this blog are in church leadership in some form––whether pastors or involved laity. I want to put something in your mind that you may not have considered, or get you to keep considering it otherwise. Then I’ll share a related personal update.


Last fall, the Washington Post ran a story about a popular D.C.-area pastor announcing a sabbatical. The headline began with a quote from him: “I feel so distant from God.”

After 30 years in ministry––the past 11 leading a megachurch just outside of D.C.––his church had made a way for him to take 14 weeks off, from New Year’s Day until Easter.

I was glad to see this get such attention. For people in public leadership positions, some significant time out of the spotlight may be one of the best ways to recalibrate and be restored.

To be clear, this isn’t just about pastors. It’s about anyone whose work performance is continually subject to public scrutiny. Church world is my primary world, so that’s the context I’ll use for most of this discussion.

One more clarification: This isn’t about people who work hard. That would include a much broader group … and wouldn’t necessarily include all of the people in public leadership positions. I don’t think it would be bad for anyone who does hard work with long hours to consider this. It’s just beyond my scope here. What I’m referring to here is visibility, spotlight, exposure to broad scrutiny. If that includes you, can I encourage you to consider planning for some kind of sabbatical? If you’re a layperson with influence in your church, could you advocate for something like this for your pastor(s)? (Insert other titles like “board member” and “CEO” or “Executive Director” as they apply here.)

I’ve written more about the need for people to consider sabbaticals in the past. If you want more about the why, read that post. Here, I’ll move on to some questions and practicalities.

I posted something about this recently and got a helpful response:

My quick answers:

Some questions and suggestions:

1 – When should we begin planning or talking about this?

Earlier is better. If someone is taking a high-visibility position, I’d recommend establishing this in a formal contract before they even begin. If they’re already in that position, I’d recommend beginning the conversation now.

By my observation, most sabbaticals happen like the D.C. pastor’s above, as a reaction to crisis. We see that someone isn’t doing well and we offer an emergency sabbatical. Do that if you must, but this usually happens because it was overdue. We could have done it with better planning and less hardship if we had done it proactively, instead.

2 – If I’m the one asking for a sabbatical, can I really do it at the start of a job?

I think you can if you’re talking about taking it several years from now. If you ask for a sabbatical that will take place four to seven years later, you’re naming a commitment to be around a long time and you’re asking for your organization’s commitment to your health.

If you’re going to be around a long time, your long-term health is good for the organization. And a long tenure is good for them, too. Leave sooner than planned for a new opportunity … no sabbatical for you.

(A note for folks in The United Methodist Church: Pastors don’t always have the choice to stick around a long time. The Bishop sends as (s)he chooses. I still think this rule can apply. It should be part of the Bishop’s and Cabinet’s responsibility to protect pastors and churches from constant churn. They should especially protect a church from that churn when the church is taking care of its pastors by offering something like a sabbatical. Also, pastors have more say in whether they move or stay than they often let on.)

3 – What should we plan for?

A sabbatical is not a vacation. In fact, for the circumstances I’m discussing, I don’t think it requires someone to do no work (see the note above––this isn’t about people who work too hard). Someone could use that time for research, writing, learning a new skill, etc. They don’t have to spend the whole time at the beach, in the woods, or on the golf course––though if you choose to offer them a beach house or cabin in the woods for part of that time, that would be a generous offer.

What this requires is total withdrawal from that position of public leadership. For long enough to feel it. I’d recommend at least six weeks. Eight to twelve would be better. Perhaps you could begin planning for a six-week sabbatical at the end of someone’s fourth year in the position. Or a ten-week sabbatical in their seventh year.

To be sure, this is a major investment in your leaders. You still have to pay them for this period, you lose their productivity, and they’ll probably be away long enough that you need to invest extra resources to fill the void. But if someone is in this kind of public leadership position, their health is worth far more to you than the cost of a sabbatical.

One other option… My family took a longer sabbatical back in 2013. We went away for a full year. It was probably the most formative and restorative year of my life. If that’s a possibility for you, I can’t recommend it enough. If you don’t think it’s a possibility for you … don’t write it off too quickly. We didn’t think it was possible for us, either. If you do something like this, the expectations need to change: (1) You shouldn’t expect anyone to hold your job for you. (2) You shouldn’t expect anyone else to pay for it. So if you begin to think in this direction, I’d recommend you start saving and start praying. At least, I needed the prayers to trust that we would be okay on the other side of it.

4 – “But the person I’m thinking about doesn’t work hard enough to merit a sabbatical.”

A few responses:

(a) Another reminder that the sabbatical need I’m talking about isn’t about hard work. It’s about public visibility and scrutiny. (And it sounds like you’re scrutinizing. Which may be warranted.)

(b) I’ve seen a few cases where burnout was the cause for halfhearted work. Or where the gratitude for receiving this unusual benefit translated to harder work. So a sabbatical could actually be an answer to your problems.

(c) If they don’t work very hard, well … you may not miss them very much while they’re gone. That should make it easier.

A related personal update

My related personal update may not surprise you given the above. I mentioned above that our family took a year-long sabbatical in 2013. That was to help with an early-phase church plant in Algete, Spain, a small town just outside of Madrid. We’re planning to return there this summer for another 11 months.

We have another site where we’ll be sharing posts and podcasts about that sabbatical. In the future, I’ll reserve this blog for other things, so if you’d like to receive regular updates about our preparations and time in Spain, you can sign up for them here.

A few things I’ll share here about that upcoming sabbatical and how it relates to the above:

1 – I don’t feel distant from God. And I don’t feel on the brink of burnout. I’m actually doing quite well and loving what I’m doing as much as ever. It will be hard to walk away. So as this relates to rhythms and restoration, it would be much more like preventative maintenance than a rescue plan.

2 – I said above not to expect anyone to hold your job for you if you take a year away. When we left in 2013, it was walking away. And then, by the grace of God, I ended up able to come back to the same church and the part of my job I loved most. This time, the church is holding my spot and providing a one-year interim. That’s far beyond anything I could have asked or expected. It’s a credit to some amazing, generous leaders, well-built systems, and an organization built on trust.

3 – I said above not to expect anyone to pay for it. And we do plan and expect to pay for most of this year away. But our church and several individuals have also already said that they want to support us financially. So we don’t go alone in this way either. Again, a credit to an incredibly generous group of people.

If you’re interested in more about our personal plans, see the Ray Sabbatical site. And if you have questions or feedback on the discussion about sabbatical here, I’d love to hear from you.

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