My father-in-law, as a master gardener, has a close connection to the earth.
He has enriched his garden through the years with hundreds of loads of pecan hulls from the local pecan company.
Because the earth gives back so freely and because he believes it’s a biblical principle, every seventh year he gives the land a rest. He treats his garden much better than many churches treat their pastors.
I am in my seventh year as pastor of First Baptist Church of Jefferson, Georgia, and I just completed a month’s sabbatical.
I am thankful to my church for giving me a season of rest to reflect and refocus my work.
During this time, my wife, Tina, and I visited with Tim and Sammie Callaway, who discipled us as teenagers.
Tim was my pastor and was very influential in my decision to enter ministry.
Tim shared that one time when he and Sammie were preparing to go on vacation, my father came to him and said, “Tim, I’d like to go on vacation with you.”
Tim was puzzled by that and asked him why would he want to do that.
My father replied, “Because every time you go away on vacation someone dies, and I want to go so I can make sure it won’t be me.”
This funny story contains some of the expectations placed on pastors.
Sometimes vacations are cut short by deaths in the church. When other families are leaving for three-day weekends, Sunday still rolls around for the pastor and other staff.
Christmas Eve services usually dictate what a pastor can do regarding traveling on Christmas Day to spend time with family. Some churches are not very generous with their vacation time.
The pastor is expected to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So even when the pastor is not working, if a church-related text, phone call or email comes in, it pulls the minister away.
This interrupts times of rest, requires emotional energy to be spent and anxiety can ensue.
Even though the minister is not on the clock, this is work.
A trip to the market, hardware store or post office can turn into a 30-minute counseling session with a church member.
While these are opportunities pastors are thankful for and even seek out, as we never cease being pastor, it’s just to say that sometimes it is difficult to find rest.
Christianity Today reported on research based on interviews with 734 pastors that quit last year. One of the reasons cited was that there was no sabbatical plan for the pastor.
Jesus left the crowds and went to places where people did not know where he was.
If he inserted himself in the crowds, he couldn’t say, “Oh, I’m sorry, today’s my day off. No miracles today. I don’t have time for your troubles today. I cannot bless your children today.”
The disciples tried that once, but Jesus would have none of that.
However, Jesus was intentional about pulling away from the crowds and sometimes he moved on to another village. He couldn’t fill every need and he didn’t.
When he needed rest, he pulled away from the crowds in order to get it. Surprised?
God laid out the example of rest in creation. After creating everything in six days, God rested on the seventh. Was God tired? I don’t think so.
God’s rest was placed within the framework of the created order as a template for us.
Pastors and other ministerial staff have added to the burden by not finding Sabbath. Sunday is a work day for us. Not setting aside another day for Sabbath is an additional contributor to burnout.
Churches can help by encouraging pastors to have a consistent day off and stay away from the office on that day.
They can help by giving pastors adequate vacation time and by trying to protect the pastor’s ability to remain away when it’s not detrimental to the church or the pastor’s ministry.
Churches can also give a pastor extended time away after several years of tenure at the church.
Ministers must be wise in how they use these gifts. If they know they may be leaving soon or if they are floating resumes, taking a sabbatical is not ethical.
Such time away would be seen as a poor investment in their pastor by the congregation, making them hesitant to offer it again to future ministers.
During an interim period, an interim pastor steps in, the laity steps up and the church moves on. So why is it that so many churches don’t think they can do without the current pastor or other staff for one, two or three months?
With proper leadership, the church runs fine and the pastor returns better than when he or she left.
Just as we awake for the new day better for having rested the night before, a sabbatical prepares the pastor for the new season of ministry ahead. This isn’t just a gift to your pastor; it’s a gift to your church.
Sabbath is good for everybody, even the land.
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.