How to Take a Sabbatical

How to Take a Sabbatical

Church Leadership

The work of a pastor never ends.

There’s always someone to meet with, church bathrooms to clean, a small group curriculum to plan, volunteers to train, or a sermon to write. And while all of these are good and necessary tasks in ministry, the constant pressure to do more can drive church leaders to exhaustion.

I’ve been there.

In my early ministry, I served a church plant and worked in a coffee shop to help pay my bills. The grind of building a church from the ground up while working a second job became so normal that I couldn’t even recognize how exhausted I was. Luckily, my lead pastor was a good friend who saw that I was skating near the edge of burnout. He forced me to take a sabbatical to rest. Yes, forced. I didn’t think I could leave all my pressing work undone and, in some ways, I didn’t want to.

I don’t think my experience is unusual. Far too often, pastors don’t rest because they don’t think they can. We preach about rhythms of rest and practicing the sabbath to our congregations while silently feeling like that blessing is off-limits for us. And so, we slowly march closer and closer to burnout where the quiet contemplation we typically find in rest morphs into a dire questioning of our calling. Instead of prayerfully considering what God might have for our next ten years of ministry, we secretly wonder if we should leave ministry all together.

According to Barna research, at least one in three Protestant pastors has seriously contemplated leaving ministry in the last three years. 1 More than half say they do not have the luxury of a private life.2 Less than a quarter of pastors would describe their relationships as flourishing, and less than one out of five pastors would say they are personally flourishing.3 Pastors are struggling, exhausted, and ready to leave the pulpit for a healthier lifestyle.

So how do we thrive and stay in ministry for the long haul? Is that even possible?

Between our unique cultural moment and the pressure of ministry leadership, we need to prioritize sabbaticals—extended periods of rest to spend time with God, to contemplate where he might be leading our ministry, to study, and to connect with our families and friends.

There is no singular right way for a church to practice sabbaticals, but every church should care for their leaders by offering, even mandating, that pastors take them. If you do not currently have sabbaticals in your church or are considering how you might update your current rhythm of pastoral rest, here are some parameters to consider:

1. Rest

It isn’t easy to slow down, especially when a lot of us are used to running on coffee and the adrenaline of immanent church deadlines. Having nothing to plan, no fires to put out, and no meetings to run can leave us feeling bored or useless. The temptation is to fill our schedule with home repair, travel, or family events. But don’t miss the unique opportunity to rest both passively and actively.

Passive rest—sleep—is essential for recovering and lowering our cortisol (the stress chemical) levels. During a sabbatical, you can not only catch up on sleep, but set a healthy sleep schedule. When you’re tired, take a nap. You need it.

Active rest is participating in hobbies, attending events, or visiting places that bring you joy. Your sabbatical gives you the space to participate in those things that always get bumped off your schedule. Make them a priority for both you and your family.

2. Grow

God desires a relationship with you just as much as he does with the people you preach to on Sunday mornings. Your sabbatical gives you the space to pray, read Scripture, and walk with God without any agenda. During this time, you don’t have to be a “pastor”—you are a disciple.

It is a special blessing to worship in a service that you did not plan and are not responsible for when you are used to working on Sundays. Consider attending sister churches during your sabbatical where you can worship without having to shepherd someone. If you choose to attend a different church, let your congregation know why and reach out to the pastor at the church where you will attend. Clear communication will help your church know why you are not around on Sundays and help the visiting church best serve you and your family during your sabbatical.

3. Prepare

Like Jesus withdrawing to pray and Elijah retreating to the mountain, your time away from ministry is an opportunity to hear from God. Define a purpose for your sabbatical. God may give you a new vision for your ministry, direction for your church, or call you to start something new. Take time to intentionally listen to God about your leadership, teaching, family, your church’s direction and vision, and the way you approach ministry. You may come back from your time both rested and changed.

If a sabbatical is not on your immediate horizon, you don’t have to wait to find a healthy rhythm of work and rest. A sabbatical can give you time away from work, but if you do not correct the root issue of your burnout, you will continue to risk your longevity in ministry. Some simple practices could be creating a rule of life, practicing and protecting a sabbath day, setting a sleep schedule, or delegating tasks to others.

God loves you, pastor. You can rest, both in seasons of work and on sabbaticals.

Check out John Mark Comer’s series The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry and Rich Villodas’s series The Deeply Formed Life for more ideas on how to rest well.

1 BarnaGroup, The State of Pastors Vol. 2 (Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2024), 18.

2 BarnaGroup, The State of Pastors Vol. 2, 27.

3 Barna Group, The State of Pastors Vol. 2, 33.

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Drew Fitzgerald

Associate Publisher, RightNow Media

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