Preparing the church for a pastoral sabbatical

The value of a pastor taking a sabbatical leave after a number of years of service to a local congregation is gaining more and more recognition.  In this post I’m not going to attempt to make a case for sabbatical leave, but am going to talk about how a church can prepare for the pastor’s absence for an extended amount of time.  This subject needs careful consideration and it’s important for the pastor as well as for the congregation.  Outsiders might think that all the pastor does is preach a sermon every Sunday morning, but as they say, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Generally speaking, the pastor not only does “spiritual things” like making hospital visits and carrying a burden of prayer for the church family but also functions as a sort of CEO who makes constant on-the-fly decisions concerning how the church calendar is organized, what is emphasized in the church announcements, and what “extra” features are included in a given Sunday’s order of worship.

If the pastor just walks away, off to enjoy a month’s long sabbatical a power void will be created in the church.  Well-meaning people will sense that void and step into fill it and some, who maybe aren’t so well-meaning will see it as an opportunity to reshape the church as they see fit.  The pastor who has happily ridden off into the sunset may return to find such a mess that all the relaxation of the sabbatical will drain away as they have to deal with the destruction that the power void has created.

With all that in mind, a wise pastor and church leadership will firmly address leadership issues before the pastor leaves town.  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Don’t just engage a sabbatical interim pastor and toss it all in their lap.  There are levels of trust and responsibility that an outsider, or even an insider lacking sufficient experience, can’t address.  Make a list of exactly what that person will do: preaching, administering the sacraments, praying the pastoral prayer.  The interim will basically do the “tip of the iceberg” stuff that outsiders think is the only thing the pastor does.
  2. List all the other things the pastor normally does in a week and assign each portion of that to a different lay leader.  Who will initiate the church prayer chain?  Who will visit the sick in the hospital?   Fill every position with a willing layperson.
  3. List all the organizational responsibilities of the pastor and assign them.  Different churches have different organizational flows, but if the pastor signs off on the music, what goes into the church bulletin, etc. name the person who is going to have that authority.
  4. Name a person who will serve as “service platform manager” – they will do the things in the service that the pastor normally does: do the call to worship, offer the benediction, call for the ushers, welcome visitors, etc.
  5. Commit to the current structure of the church during the sabbatical.  There will be no changes to the order of worship, the makeup of the praise team, or the leadership of the church.  The sabbatical will not be the time when things will be changed because someone with a big voice insists that the offering should be taken differently or the announcements should be done at a different time in the service.
  6. Having prepared for all the expected things, prepare for the unexpected.  Create a “pastoral committee” of three trusted lay leaders in the church.  Grant them “pastoral authority” in the church.  When a decision has to be made that would normally be made by the pastor, refer it to the committee – any two of the three can decide.  Some churches think that they will just give the interim pastor that authority, but that’s a mistake.  That person won’t have the knowledge of people and past practices of the church to make decisions as the pastor.  If the church names just one lay person their decisions will be subject to doubt and disagreement.  A committee of three will carry a sense of authority and fairness.

All of the above can be done in just one board meeting if the pastor has done the necessary homework to list all that they do in a given week.  Having made the appointments, publish them in the church bulletin prior to and then during the duration of the sabbatical.  It will remind the congregation that the church isn’t adrift while the pastor is away.  It will remind those who have an agenda of their own that there is already an agenda in place.  Not only that, but developing lay leaders is a Biblical model for the church.  The returning pastor might just find that some of the things that have been occupying his or her time really was never his or her job in the first place!


Church Website Advice

These days Jackie and I are enjoying visiting lots of different churches.  Every week or two we are in a different place and ready to join some congregation in worship.  Being Nazarenes our first choice is one of our own tribe although I am quick to add that we’ve enjoyed fellowship in a variety of groups.

Sometimes we’ve driven past a church nearby and have stopped to check out any church sign for information, but most of the time we head for the internet.  The results are a real mixed bag.  I’ve seen church websites that looked terrific and I’ve hunted for church information only to come up empty.  I’ve found lots of good, current information and I’ve found some nice looking websites that are horribly out of date.

So here are a few words of advice concerning your church web site:

  1. If you don’t have a web site get one!  Listen, whether or not you are interested in the Internet, most people are.  Not having a website today is equal to not being in the phone book 10 years ago.  You NEED a website.
  2. If you post current events keep them current.  Listing last year’s Christmas party as current says bad things about your church.  Compare it to not having the grass mowed at the church – it speaks of not caring, not being organized, and of neglect.
  3. If you aren’t going to keep the site current then DON’T post any current events.  Turn the website into a billboard for the church with only static information including some of the things I’m about to list.
  4. Post your service times and make them easy to find.
  5. Post your church address and include directions.  It’s amazing how many church websites never bother to name their state.  Put complete directions, and make them easy to find.
  6. If you want to do more, a really nice thing to do is include some photos, especially of the church in worship.  My wife often wonders what the ladies wear to church.  She knows that we will be welcome even if we don’t quite meet the local dress code, but she wants to fit in.  Photos of people in a regular worship service help a lot.

Remember, people DO look you up on the Internet.  Don’t just have a Facebook page – not everyone can see it.  DON’T let someone’s nephew who is a whizbang at doing fancy webpages do yours.  It needs to look on purpose and grown up.  Simple with relevant information is better than impressive and out of date because no one who actually cares about the church’s image has a clue as to how to update the page and the nephew is long gone.  You can have a reasonable, easy to maintain, easy to Google website for very little money.  Really, trust me, you NEED a website that meets at least certain minimum standards.