Baptist Testimony Volume 51 Number 8 September 2005

From Where I Stand
Maynard H. Belt
MARBC State Representative

A Treatise For Local Churches On Pastoral Sabbaticals

I have been contemplating this subject for sometime and decided that I needed to give attention to writing about it. When statisticians tell us that fifteen hundred pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches, fifty percent of pastors’ marriages will end in divorce and seventy percent of pastors constantly fight depression, something certainly needs to be addressed. Have you ever considered that your pastor might need a time away from ministry in order to be refreshed and possibly even extend his years of service to the Lord and His people? In my study I am finding that Baptists are far behind some denominations in caring for their pastor’s physical and spiritual welfare, many even having a “sabbatical policy” in their constitutions. There is not space to say all that I have written about this subject but I would be glad to send “A Treatise for Local Churches on Pastoral Sabbaticals” to any church leaders who are interested. Simply drop me a note or an e-mail. Hopefully I can entice you to do so by sharing with you a brief summary.

The term “sabbatical” comes from the Bible word, “Sabbath,” which means “to cease, to rest.” In Genesis 2:2 it states that, “On the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.” The Sabbath or sabbatical is referenced in many passages of Scripture: a rest for the land every seven years called the Year of the Release (Leviticus 25:1-5; Deut. 15:9; 31:10); the setting free of Israelitish bondservants (Exodus 21:2; Deut. 15:12); and creditors required to release debtors (Deut. 15:1-6, 12-18) are just a few. It principally means to stop or cease from what you are doing.

Primarily there are two types of sabbatical – one for study and the other for rest and renewal. A sabbatical referenced within the academic world of education often allows for a period of private study with full recompense after seven years of teaching. There are occasions when a church may give a study sabbatical for their pastor to pursue further education. My primary interest is the consideration of the local church in giving a sabbatical to their pastor for the purpose of physical and spiritual rest, renewal, refreshment and re-vigoration. A temporary “stop” or “ceasing” from his present ministry.

Many pastors experience what Elijah experienced after extended service for God. The victories, defeats, blessings and burdens over the years take their toil on body, soul and spirit. Elijah, exhausted both from serving God and running from the conflicts of ministry, found himself under a Juniper tree crying out to God to take His life. That was Elijah’s wish but not God’s will. God’s will was to restore him through rest and nourishment so that he could finish the work that God wanted Him to do. Elijah wanted God to take his life, but God wanted Elijah to go and touch a life. And that he did, when he called out Elisha to follow him and eventually take his place. God wants all of His servants to finish well. In order to do this, periodically, they need times of rest and renewal, just like our Lord did (Matt. 14:23; Mark 1:35), in order to fulfill the tasks of ministry.

Pastoral ministry is a 24/7 commitment to the care and nurturing of a congregation. The demands upon a pastor in today’s world are becoming more and more urgent. In the midst of such demands it is very easy for the Lord’s servant to lose focus, purpose and even a sense of God’s leading in the affairs of the church. Joy can be replaced by despondency and discouragement. Without a period to renew and recharge, a weary pastor may think that a change in ministry might be the answer. This is seldom true, for he will simply carry his “needy” soul to a different location. The pastor is a giver every day and there comes a time when he must receive.

The primary intent of a sabbatical (Sabbath rest) is to abstain completely from everyday work. It is a time to relax mind, body, and soul in order to be renewed, nourished, and free from worry about how things are going and what needs to be done next. It is not a time for running away from the problems and perplexities of life, but an opportunity to receive grace to face them, refresh fellowship with God, review past spiritual commitments, reshape commitments for the future, and restore the joy of salvation and the blessing of service to a holy, loving and righteous God.

A large majority of our pastors having served a number of years in ministry have never had the privilege of a “pastoral sabbatical.” Granted, God has blessed them and given them the needed strength and grace but some refreshing times away could have made the journey so much smoother. In case you haven’t noticed before, in all of Paul’s epistles to the local churches He opens by saying, “Grace and peace unto you,” but to Timothy and Titus He says, “Grace, MERCY and peace unto you.” Evidently, just grace and peace will not do for preachers, they also need MERCY! Again, if you are interested, in this treatise I deal with timelines for a sabbatical; some activities the pastor might be involved in during this time; how to handle staffing during the pastor’s absence; options for funding; and a suggested Pastoral Sabbatical Policy, which could be incorporated into the church constitution. I hope to hear from some of you, and so do many of our pastors!

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