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The dark side of sabbatical

Congregations and pastors can benefit from a sabbatical. But some predictable problems can arise when leaders step away from their posts. Mark Miller-McLemore offers some advice on how to avoid these pitfalls.

Illustration by Jessamyn Rubio

December 7, 2010

Sabbaticals have been praised as a balm in Gilead for the pastoral body, mind and soul. For the last 30 years, more and more ministers have adopted this academic model of time away, with a twist.

There is little doubt that pastors’ stress is high and that sabbaticals can benefit pastors and congregations, particularly long-serving pastors. But there is a dark side to almost any sabbatical, and it is worth considering. The negatives may not be eliminated, but they may be anticipated and thus controlled a bit by eliminating the surprise.

The following stories from three congregations illustrate potential dangers in pastoral sabbaticals.

The phantom job interview

It was the first sabbatical the small, blue-collar church had considered, so a reassuring part of the sabbatical policy was a provision that the pastor would stay at the church for at least one year after the sabbatical’s end. The pastor accepted the terms gladly, since he had no desire to leave.

His sabbatical was a delight of exploration, reading, worship in other places and styles, healthy activity, and prayer and reflection on where his ministry at the church would lead. It was also interrupted by a job offer extended to his wife. Though neither felt called to make a move, the wife decided it was good to take a look, and the potential employer flew the minister husband to the new location for a day as well. The visit confirmed that they were not interested.

As is often the case in church circles, however, word got around (was it from their 3-year-old?). Someone heard that the pastor was using his sabbatical to find a new job. Two lay leaders called a meeting, and the pastor tried to explain. But the damage was done, and leaders felt betrayed. The feelings of mistrust lasted for more than a year, until a consultant advised the congregation: “Let it go.”

Anxious times

The senior minister planned a sabbatical to follow a challenging capital campaign. It included plans for a family trip overseas. Unfortunately, the annual stewardship campaign did not go well. The congregation was anxious about money, and the budget looked difficult. Still, it would be almost impossible to change travel plans, with all the arrangements involved. Could things be left in the hands of the young associate pastor?

The senior pastor left with matters still up in the air. The associate felt over her head. Lay leaders felt abandoned. Even though the senior pastor had provided contact information and tried to stay in touch, people were upset that their pastor had left them in such a state.

The absence exacerbated a long-simmering conflict between the associate and the senior pastor, and eventually the conflict led to both pastors’ departure.

The first day back

Organizers of a retreat for ministry students invited an experienced senior pastor who would be fresh from a sabbatical exploration to speak about the sabbatical experience. They also invited his associate pastor to share what it was like to hold things together in his absence. What a great learning opportunity!

The retreat occurred on the very first day of the senior pastor’s return. When the two pastors arrived at the event, the senior pastor suggested that, judging by their ride together, things might be a little like couples’ therapy -- fresh and raw. He was correct.

The pastor aptly described the process of going on sabbatical as feeling like Elijah handing the mantle of responsibility to Elisha. It was a burden removed and an immense weight lifted from his shoulders.

But his associate had assumed that great weight. As they put it: “I slept more.” “I slept less!” “I traveled to Europe.” “I went back and forth to the hospital!” The tense edge in the associate’s voice was obvious. These two are good colleagues, and I do not doubt that they have worked through the issues. But the emotions were real.

These stories are particular to their congregations, but the problems could happen anywhere. As churches and pastors consider whether and how to plan a sabbatical, it’s important to keep some key issues in mind.

• Not every church can afford a sabbatical. Smaller churches with a solo pastor struggle in very practical ways to handle their leader’s absence. Sabbatical can happen, but it takes a great deal of work: a long time in preparation, a lot of responsible volunteers, and follow-up. For some congregations, it may be simply too hard to manage.

• Something hard to pin down occurs when the community’s faith leader steps away. The symbolic power of the priestly role is a real part of any pastor’s experience, even in less priestly traditions. Something real and powerful and meaningful attaches itself to the pastoral relationship, something partly personal and partly symbolic, something mysterious and holy. During a sabbatical, “it” is missing, and it is missed.

Further, congregational anxiety is less contained without the pastor at the center to model faithfulness in the face of fear. The burden of added anxiety can mean sleepless nights for staff and lay leaders and can co-opt their agendas.

• A sabbatical always involves someone who is left behind. Spouses, associate pastors, lay leaders and others carry an extra load. Envy, weariness and resentment are not noble responses, but they are predictable. The congregation should anticipate them and seek ways to respond with understanding.

• A sabbatical forces a pastor to negotiate a transition in role, responsibility and self-definition. Transition involves an “in-between” phase that is hard. Pastors should expect and plan for such a transition when they begin and end sabbaticals. It is hard to move from the world of engagement and authority and accountability to a world of rest or a world of study or writing, and back again.

Ritualizing the separation, such as in a blessing and sending ceremony in worship, can help anchor the transition in a spiritual context. Pastors may want to plan a personal trip that takes them away for a time at the beginning, as they seek to break old routines and find routine in the new.

It is equally hard to move back, but again, rituals can mark the transition and move it ahead spiritually. One church shared ribbon stoles for everyone in the congregation to wear on the day their pastor returned as a symbol of increased and shared ministry. Always, finding ways to say a pastoral “thank you for this gift” is critical -- both for the time away and for the extra work it took to bring it about.

• Life goes on without the absent pastor -- and that is both good and hard to accept for those of us who lead. Staff and lay leaders take on tasks and step into roles that once were the pastor’s. They may not want to give them back.

• The increasing prevalence of pastoral sabbatical in an era that stresses “clergy self-care” may have led some new pastors to think of it as something all pastors deserve and should expect. But it must have a larger purpose. To be worthwhile of congregational support, a sabbatical ought to connect explicitly with the ministry to which the pastor will return. Otherwise, sabbatical risks seeming like an extended paid vacation.

Sabbaticals can be wonderful times of renewal and growth for both pastors and congregations, with the potential for energizing ministry for the long haul. They also have the potential for trouble. A good sabbatical requires expectant hope and good planning, with a wise awareness of the dark side.