"For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard." (Leviticus 25:3-4 ESV)
After twelve years of full-time ministry at our church I am taking a sabbatical for two months.
So, what is a pastoral sabbatical? And why would a full-time minister need a sabbatical? More importantly, why doesn't everyone get to take a sabbatical? (I don't have a good answer for that last question, sorry.)
A sabbatical is a season of rest. On the seventh day of creation, God ceased, or completed, his work of creation (Gen 2:2, 3). This, of course, was not a complete cessation of all activity on his part (John 5:16-17). Since he is Creator, and not a creature, he doesn't have limitations, and hence no real need to rest. He did this as an example for us, as he moved from his work of creation to his work of providence. This rest, or cessation, followed his contemplation of the work: "God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good." (Gen 1:31) God's people in their sabbaths, too, were also to reflect and "remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day." (Deut. 5:15) So a sabbath is a time of rest plus refection (contemplation of God's works).
I wouldn't say ministers are necessarily overworked but there is a fatigue that sets in from being continuously plugged in to the church, with all her ministries, needs, crises, and problems. Certainly there are joys and victories, but for some reason the glow of those winning moments don't seem to last as long as the other moments.
For me, at least, full-time ministry is a pretty open-ended thing that you never really disconnect from. It's not a 9-to-5 job. In practicality you are available... whether daytime or in the evening. I accept that as part of serving the Lord's people for his sake. But in time you can become over-extended and drained.
Vacations help, but there is a natural rhythm that ministers often miss out on. Others can work at a job and then unplug and go away for the weekend. In pastoral ministry, you are on duty most weeks and weekends... you really don't get away much, or unplug for any length of time. I find I'm continuously thinking about what needs to be done, or more often, what didn't get done.
Here Bob Thune gives five reasons for pastoral sabbaticals. (Good article.)
Pastoral sabbaticals are usually given after five to seven years of service, and can range from 2 to 6 months. Unlike academic sabbaticals, these don't necessarily focus on more education, research, or writing. For the pastor the main question is, what does this servant of God need in order to have a renewed zeal, effectiveness in service, and continued fruitfulness? This may involve education, research, and writing, but it may involve more simple things like rest, change of pace, exercise, learning something new, reading, travel, etc.
Physical rest and spiritual renewal seem most important to me at this time. People with regular jobs can do their jobs no matter their spiritual condition. A person can draw plans, do research, invent things, make sales, and engage in business, even when not spiritually healthy. Some things can be done on auto-pilot. But that really doesn't work for those ministering the gospel and its blessings to others. We need to pump water from a full well. A sabbatical is when we give the well time to fill up again, especially with some fresh water.
For me the eight weeks will include three dimensions, and here are some of my goals (I hope they are realistic and obtainable):
--Disconnecting from regular church responsibilities.
--Unplugging from emails, facebook, and other social media.
--Adequate sleep and rest, and long conversations with my wife.
--Some family activities with children and grandchildren.
--Exercise, walking 2 miles a day; hopefully with some hiking, cycling.
--Some needed dietary changes. (Though I'm not thinking that is restful.)
REFRESHMENT in the Lord (spiritual).
--Bible reading (Luke)
--Reviewing Scripture memory
--Reading a number of books of interest
--Some long prayer walks
--A retreat at the The Cove with my wife
RENEWAL of vision, purpose, job (vocational).
--Reconnecting with ministry purpose and vision
--Evaluating past ministry effectiveness
--An online course with DTS
--Visiting some area churches on Sundays to appreciate their ministries and to pick up new ideas on doing church
--Asking key questions: what should be different about the next 5 to 10 years? Areas of ministry to give up; new areas to take up? Especially with Jim coming on staff, what areas should I focus on? What's been good, what would I do differently?
I would appreciate your prayer about fulfilling these goals, and that the Lord would truly bring rest, refreshment, and renewal by his Holy Spirit.
You can read more about sabbaticals here.