by Kathy Neufeld Dunn, Associate Conference Minister (Kansas-Based)
Why should a pastor take a sabbatical? It’s good for the pastor, the congregation and the broader church. A revitalized, renewed pastor who has had some time away in retreat and study will stay longer and serve with greater energy in his or her congregation. At the same time, the congregation will have the chance to exercise lay leadership gifts that they may not have used in some time. They may also get a chance to hear diverse voices and insights. The broader church gains stronger leadership and sharing of ideas across congregations which can only be to the conference’s good.
Pastors who are released for a time from their normal, pastoral duties experience restoration and renewal. A sabbatical is not another name for a vacation. Many sabbatical plans include some form of study. It need not be in a formal, educational setting, but through seminars, historical tours or continuing education workshops, a pastor may develop skills in new ministry areas.
Retreat for prayer and solitude is also a key part of many sabbatical plans. Even Jesus took time away for prayer and solitude, time to listen for the Father’s direction and receive blessing.
Meanwhile congregations may be exploring similar themes back home—how to deepen spiritual growth, or they, too, may be learning and practicing new skills of conflict transformation, congregational discernment, or exploring the possibility of a new service ministry.
Yes, but how can we afford it? Congregations and pastors should have a conversation about their understandings about sabbaticals as they do about other aspects of any Memo of Understanding. In other words, include reference to your sabbatical policy in your pastor’s Memo. If you don’t have such a policy, discuss writing a sabbatical leave policy, so the specifics of timing and funding are spelled out. Then, start dreaming and planning at least a year ahead for the specifics of one. Put some money aside each year for three years in a sabbatical fund that is part of the congregational budget, then during the fourth year when (by MC USA guidelines) your pastor is due for a sabbatical, there is money available. This money would cover an interim pastor or other financial needs during the sabbatical period.
In Western District Conference, we also have two funds that can help support the pastor (or other credentialed minister) for the purpose of sabbatical leave. Grants from the Continuing Education Fund can be paired with a WDC Sabbatical Scholarship. These two funds can help relieve some of the extra financial burden for pastors and other credentialed ministers.
If you’d like to read about one pastor’s very positive time of writing and prayer, read the chapter entitled “Desert and Harvest: A Sabbatical Story” in Eugene Peterson’s book, The Contemplative Pastor which can be checked out from our Resource Library. MC USA has a helpful document online: “Sabbatical, Study and Service Leaves for Pastors.” Conference staff are also happy to discuss any questions you might have about sabbatical leave. It’s a gift to both your congregation and pastor.