by Brett A. McNeill (first published in Ordained Servant Online, April 2021)
This is not intended to be a theological or academic defense of sabbaticals—there are others who are more qualified to do that. Rather, this is simply meant to be an honest reflection on my own experience, with the hope that it might help and encourage other pastors and churches to consider sabbaticals.
It all started when I asked for permission from my session to fill the pulpit for a few Sundays at a sister church while their pastor was on sabbatical. The response from my elders was, “That is fine, but what about a sabbatical for you?”
To be honest, I did not really think I needed one. I had only been a pastor for about eleven years, and things seemed to be going pretty well. But I agreed to track down some material for us to read and consider. To our surprise, there was not a lot out there, and most of what was helpful was not coming from Reformed authors. But we did find some incredibly honest and insightful materials that talked about the toll ministry takes on pastors. Pastors have one of the highest rates of burnout and depression, along with mental health professionals and social workers. This is especially true of smaller churches where pastors are intimately involved in the lives of their members—the intense counseling load, the late-night phone calls, the walking families through tragedies and grief. We did not want to wait until I felt burnt out to do something, so we began the process of planning for me to take a sabbatical the following summer.
There are so many things that could have prevented us from moving forward. We did not have the money. We did not have an associate pastor. We did not know how every aspect of my ministry would be covered in my absence. But my elders refused to let these become barriers. They committed to doing it and figuring how. We figured that it would cost an average of $300 per Sunday to cover pulpit supply and mileage, so they put $4,000 into the annual budget (and committed to putting $700 a year moving forward toward future sabbaticals). I made a list of everything I did, and we started finding volunteers to take over those tasks while I was gone. We recruited pulpit supply for thirteen Sundays. We figured out how the session would function in my absence. But the most important thing we did was prepare the congregation. Six months before it happened, we let them know what was coming. We answered questions. We let them know I was coming back. We set the expectation that I would not be attending worship at our church during that time.
That was all the outward preparation. It was a lot of work, but it was straightforward and expected. What I did not anticipate were the fears that started to fill my heart as the sabbatical drew closer. What if the church fell apart while I was gone? What if families left? Or worse, what if things went well while I was gone? What if the church liked the visiting pastors better? What if they decided they did not want me back? What if I was not indispensable? These are the secret fears of a pastor’s heart that none of us want to admit.
My session has just read Eswine’s Sensing Jesus, which talks about idols of ministry—the desire to know everything, fix everything, and be everywhere. It is far too easy for pastors to try to be their congregation’s savior, rather than point them to their Savior. The idols of ministry lead us to teach our congregations to look to us rather than to Jesus. As my sabbatical drew closer and all of my fears became harder and harder to silence, my own idols became harder to ignore. And I began to worry, “What happens when all the craziness stops? What happens when I stop working on other people’s issues and have to be quiet for a season? What am I going to find when I slow down, and am I prepared for what I will find?” Those questions scared me to the point where I seriously considered calling off the sabbatical. By God’s grace, I did not. And so on the first week of June 2016, I began a three-month sabbatical.
The first two weeks were great. My family packed up the trailer and we headed out camping. Standard issues with camping with four daughters aside, it went well. Once we got into a rhythm, we relaxed, read books, and had fun. Feeling rested, we headed home to begin this sabbatical thing in earnest. I had been directed by some to see my sabbatical as a study leave, a time to read what I did not have time to read in the midst of ministry and work on improving myself as a pastor. My “plan” was to get up, grab my coffee and breakfast, and head into my study for the morning. I finally had time to read without feeling rushed. I could tackle (at least part of) that stack of books I had wanted to get to. I could read the Bible slowly and thoughtfully. This was what I had dreamed about for years. In the afternoons, I planned to work on house projects (I was in the process of drywalling the basement) or do something fun with the family.
I started with a book on leadership, recommended by a friend. It was good—too good. It felt like a spotlight on all my failures in my first decade in ministry. I saw my failures and insecurities and felt overwhelmed. Very quickly I started to dread picking it up. So I tried other books, but it was going much slower than I expected. My sabbatical was almost half over, and there was no way I was going to accomplish all I had hoped to. I was not feeling encouraged and charged about the next decade of ministry; I felt anxious, weak, and scared.
By the fifth week I was a complete mess. My fears were coming true. When all the busyness of ministry stopped and I looked at my own heart, what I found was in far worse condition than I could have anticipated. After five weeks of “time off,” the longest I had experienced since high school, I was a basket-case. The idea of resuming ministry overwhelmed me, and it was not getting better; it was getting worse. I started to wonder, “Was I too broken? Was I beyond repair?”
Then wisdom came in the form of my wife (as it usually does). “When do you feel most relaxed?” she asked. Sheepishly, I told her it was when I was hanging drywall in the basement. It was there that I was able to just stop worrying about the future and process where I was at with God. She said, “So why not start there each day and work until you are ready to quit? Put everything else aside. Stop trying to do too much. Be still. Be quiet.”
So I did. I still read my Bible each morning (a few Psalms), then I headed down to the basement. Finally, after six weeks of being on sabbatical, I started to decompress. I started to gain perspective. I saw benefits to slowing down and not always being in a rush. I realized I did not need a to-do list, I was the to-do list. I confessed my idols and honestly desired to see God remove them from me. Over those next three weeks, I felt the anxiety start to subside. I felt forgiveness for my failures as a pastor, as a husband, as a father, and as a child of God.
Around the ninth week I started to feel human again. By the tenth week, I started to believe that I could return to ministry when the sabbatical was done. By the eleventh week, I was looking forward to ministry. By the twelfth week, I was at a point where I felt I was ready any time. By the last week, I was eager to be back in ministry, though I hoped to do things differently upon my return.
So what did I learn? A lot. I learned that ministry takes a greater toll on ministers than they realize (and they often do not realize it until the damage is done). I learned that I had elders and a congregation who care a great deal for me and wanted to make sure that I am cared for. I learned that it is easy to hide behind our list of things to do and books to read, and that keeps us from being still and knowing God. I learned that slowing down is sometimes the hardest and most important thing we can ever do. I learned how easy it is to try to be a savior to my congregation, which I am simply not equipped to be. I learned that a sabbatical is not a study leave, but a time of rest and healing. Resting means surrendering and not accomplishing. It lays an axe to the root of our pride and self-reliance.
In retrospect, I also saw that I was overly focused on myself. I did not provide enough ways for my children to stay connected with their friends at church. I should have taken more time to play with the family. Should the Lord allow me another sabbatical, there are things I would like to do better.
Would I recommend a sabbatical to other pastors and congregations? Absolutely. In fact, I do it all the time. Commit to it. Volunteer to help. Make it happen. But I think the way we do sabbaticals is as important as having a sabbatical. Pastors need to find a way to slow down so they can reflect, pray, meditate, repent, and heal. For me that was doing projects around the house. For others it might be camping, long walks, gardening, or something else. For some, that might include reading books, taking a class, or attending a conference. Whatever it is, you need to figure it out (hopefully quicker than I did) and learn to be still. It is then that you remember he is God, and you are not. It is only then that you are really able to minister.
Brett A. McNeill is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister serving as pastor of Reformation Presbyterian Church in Olympia, Washington.