Good Expectations for Your Pastor’s Sabbatical

Brett McNeill

Originally Published in New Horizons June 2024

It’s encouraging over the past few years in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to see more and more congregations grant sabbaticals to their pastors. The Committee on Ministerial Care has been advocating for more consideration of sabbaticals and we have some helpful resources for sessions and congregations about why they are important on our website ( But once a congregation grants a sabbatical, the question still remains what should we expect our pastor to do on his sabbatical. Expectations matter because the pastor wants to honor the church that gave him the sabbatical. Remembering why we grant sabbaticals will help us to set good expectations for our pastors.

Rest—First and foremost, a sabbatical, as the name implies, is a rest. It’s a rest from ordinary labors as a pastor—both study and all the emotionally taxing labors of shepherding. Burnout is far more common among pastors because of the emotionally intense nature of it. If your pastor doesn’t rest, he’s not doing what he was charged to do. Rest doesn’t just mean sitting around. If your pastor is anything like me, he can’t just sit still. He’ll need to find a hobby or activity that he enjoys that allows him time to rest from the mental labors of ministry. The first month or more of his sabbatical may simply be a time of pulling back and decompressing. I strongly recommend that you encourage him not attend your own church over sabbatical. It’s just too hard to disengage from the needs of the congregation while being physically present. He needs to learn to slow down and be still.

Reflection—Rest naturally gives way to a time of reflection. Once he’s had time to disengage, he’ll be able to start taking an honest look at his last several years of ministry and at his own spiritual condition. It’s easy for pastors to hide in the messy lives of others and avoid the messiness of his own heart. A sabbatical is one of the few opportunities your pastor will have to look at his own heart and life without the background noise of others’ needs vying for his time and attention. You don’t want him to waste this time. In both of my sabbaticals the Lord revealed areas of pride that I have had to take to the cross. It has been (excruciatingly) painful. But it has been wonderful as well. It’s a good time to read books that probe the heart. We need to heed Isaiah’s warning how easy it can be to honor God with our lips, but be far from him with our hearts. (29:13)

Re-Entry—The final stage is preparing for re-entry into ministry. This doesn’t mean that he starts working. Rather, he should humbly consider what the Lord might want to be different when he comes back. The sabbatical is meant for healing and growth. After my first sabbatical, my scheduled changed. I decided to have slower, more reflective mornings. I prioritized time with people more than time in my study. On my second sabbatical it became clear to me that I need to listen more and speak less. I started to see how I wanted my preaching and counseling to improve to better connect the rich theology (we confess with our lips) to our hearts. I was able to get this clarity because of time that my congregation gave me to slow down.

These stages aren’t neat one-month-increments. They are simply the natural progression that time away from the stresses of ministry allows us to walk as we reflect on the wonderful calling we’ve been privileged to receive as pastors. My prayer for OP churches  is not just that they will grant their pastor regular sabbaticals, but that he will benefit from these times of rest so that he might better serve the congregation.