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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!