Pastoral Sabbatical Leave

I’ve been thinking about the development of pastoral sabbaticals and have some observations.

Many years ago we Nazarenes voted on our pastors annually. Pastors moved frequently in those days – staying in a church on the average of two years. In time, leaders felt that pastoral tenure of two years wasn’t in the best interest of the churches and that the frequent voting was contributing to the short pastorates.

Because of that, the voting period was increased to two, three, or four years. Sure enough, pastors stayed longer and average tenure topped two years.

Then, the biggest change of all came. The vote was replaced with an every four year review. Soon pastoral tenure neared four years. Pastors were staying longer and longer.

In fact, for the first time the denomination had a significant number of pastors staying 7+ years.

With an increasing number of long term pastors, a new pastor-church problem was seen. Pastors who had been in churches a longer amount of time would spiritually or emotionally or physically hit the wall. We began to hear more about burn out and we found that pastors who were now pretty secure would move, not to avoid a vote, but because they had run short of spiritual, emotional, and physical energy. A pastoral move creates a sabbatical of sorts. For one thing, there is a “honeymoon” in which everyone is on their best behavior, creating a much less stressful pastor-church relationship.

Some in the denomination began to think seriously about the Biblical concept of the sabbatical. Pastors don’t necessarily work harder than other Christians, but they do carry unique responsibilities. As shepherds they are “on call” 24 hours a day and they are well aware that more than is true for most Christians, how they handle their day to day responsibilities carries eternal consequences for not only themselves but for their congregations.

At that point, officially, the denomination was ready to embrace the concept of pastoral sabbatical. It was included in our church Manual, not as a hard and fast rule, but as a guideline.

It takes time for concepts like this to filter down through our churches. After all, we have had long term pastors for less than a generation. We can’t blame lay leaders for thinking “we’ve never done it that way before” unless we make a greater effort to educate them about the purpose of the pastoral sabbatical. Most lay leaders are the best friend a pastor can have. Once they grasp the importance of sabbatical leave for their pastor and realize the possible long term benefit for both pastor and church, they will support the Manual direction on this topic.

The Manual puts the sabbatical at 7 years. Personally, I think a four to six week sabbatical at 5 years would be wiser because the break would come closer to the period of time when most Nazarene pastors consider a move.