Four years ago I walked away from the ministry.
According to statistics, it's a surprise more pastors don't. The Alban Institute estimates that 17 percent of pastors are experiencing burnout. A study of one major denomination concluded that less than one-third of its pastors were happy in their work. Another 30 percent were "deeply ambivalent" about ministry. And 40 percent described themselves as "heading for burnout." When clergy are facing this level of dissatisfaction, the congregations they serve cannot be expected to thrive. Is there an answer?
There is. It's biblical, practical, and beneficial for both pastor and congregation.
In my case, I resumed my position as senior pastor after 90 days. My church had given me a gift—nothing to do for three entire months, a sabbatical. And it made all the difference.
I returned to the same congregation, refreshed in my vision, passionate about my calling, and eager to work smarter, not harder, for my Lord and His Body. To my surprise the church had not only survived, but was doing just fine without me. They had grown spiritually and had a fresh concept of what a pastor actually does.
The codependency that is often created in clergy/laity systems needs to be periodically challenged so that both congregations and pastors can realign their dependence on God. It is my firm belief that, in many church situations, if a sabbatical calendar is not practiced, God will often step in to provide for a "dependency breaker" that can be more painful than the sabbatical itself.
A season of rest
In the last hundred years, sabbaticals have become primarily identified as the time off used by professors in universities who want to study a subject for a concentrated period of time, usually in a location away from home. Prior to that, however, sabbaticals were used as a means for clergy to recuperate and restore their physical and spiritual vigor.
The word sabbatical does not appear in the Bible in reference to people in any profession. Instead, it comes from a section in Leviticus that mandates a season of rest for the land: every seventh year the fields were to lie fallow to allow for the replenishment of the soil (25:1-7). That makes good ecological sense, but it is not the primary purpose of the sabbatical law.
The sabbatical law had more to do with the people of God, Israel, and their dependence on the land for their sustenance. God's intent was to ensure the Israelites dependence on Yahweh—and not the land—for their needs. If God's people became too attached to the land as their source of food, they would begin to treat it like an idol.
In fact, Baal, Yahweh's principle "competition" in the hearts of His people, was the god of land and fertility. As history proves, the Israelites found it easy to forget Yahweh's care for them in favor of Baal (1 Kings 16:32 , 2 Kings 21:3), who they believed gave the land its fruitfulness.
The sabbatical's purpose for the Israelites was that once in every seven years they would stop producing food from the land. This meant not only that they would be dependent on God for one year, but for three: They would need to depend on Him for the year before the sabbatical, because He promised they would see dramatic increases in production. They would need to depend on him for the Sabbath year, while the ground was fallow. And they would need to depend on him for the year after the sabbatical, since no food was gathered and stored ahead for that year.
What's all this got to do with my pastor?
Good question. Look at it this way: your pastor is the one who is often depended on for spiritual fruit in your church. He is, for better or worse, the soil—the dirt—on which your spiritual and church growth are dependent.
Can I tell my pastor you told me to call him "dirt"?
But think about this: If we were honest, we would admit that churches easily become dependent on their pastors. They look to them for leadership, for help when they're in trouble, for counsel and advice. They look to the pastor to bring people to Christ, to plan and provide Christian education and discipleship, to visit the sick, marry the engaged and bury the disengaged. The expectation is that the pastor is the one who should have a plan to provide people with spiritual benefits. He is expected to manage the maintenance of the church as well, bringing in the necessary finances and numerical growth. One study showed that in a typical church, the pastor is required to wear at least 16 different and distinct ministry "hats."
Breaking the dependencies
I'm not asking you to feel sorry for your pastor. After all, wearing all those hats is often what he's called—and paid—to do. But it's unrealistic to think a person responsible for such a huge spiritual role can do it without periodically getting away for an extended time of renewal.
It's time to stop the madness. Break your dependence on your pastor by giving him a break. Don't tell him what you expect him to do during the break, just give him a substantial chunk of time away to be fallow ground. The amount of time will vary depending on your congregation's resources. It could be anywhere from one to six months, but the idea is to bless your leader with an opportunity to reconnect with God, his family, and himself in a meaningful way.
Of course sabbatical might be difficult for some pastors to take, because they've been convinced that without them the church will come down like Jericho's walls. Sometimes pastors get caught, as Chuck Swindoll says, "believing their own stuff." A pastor can, over time, equate his sense of value, even his position before God, with his ministry. A sabbatical can break this dependence, too.
So, this year, for Clergy Appreciation Month (October), consider sending your pastor packing. He'll come back realizing that he can trust God to take care of you, his congregation—that it's not all about the pastor. And, conversely, you'll be more dependent on God for the life and vitality of your local church.
Ron Benson is currently interim pastor at Calvary Missionary Church in Livonia, Michigan. For more information, contact Ron via his website at www.ronbenson.net.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian magazine.
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