A well-known African-American preacher surprised his congregation Dec. 4 by announcing he is going on sabbatical for a time of spiritual renewal and rest.
“I feel so distant from God,” Pastor Howard-John Wesley told worshippers at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia. “One of the greatest mistakes of pastoring is to think that because you work for God, you’re close to God, that you allow your work to be mixed with your worship.”
Influenced by the recent suicide of Jarid Wilson, a popular pastor who for years struggled with depression and burnout, Wesley will take a break from pastoral duties beginning Jan. 1. He plans to return to the pulpit for Easter Sunday, April 12.
Wesley, just the eighth pastor in the 216-year history of church started when Thomas Jefferson was president, said he has not yet reached the point of exhaustion but believes the Lord is telling him to “be still.”
Wesley, 47, became pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church in 2008. Since then church membership has grown from 2,500 to 10,000. The church holds four worship services each weekend, including one on Saturday.
On top of pastoral duties, Wesley has been a leading voice for social justice. He led community protest marches against the New York grand jury’s 2014 decision not to indict an NYPD officer whose chokehold led to the death of Eric Gardner. A sermon he preached in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was recognized in a Time magazine cover story.
Wesley said there has not been a day in the last 11 years when he has woken up without knowing there is something he needed to do for the church. “Here is the greatest deception of the devil, to convince you that the busier you are the more important you are,” he said. “If you really want to be holy, you’ve got to learn how to rest.”
Sabbaticals for ministers have gained widespread acceptance in recent decades, but they are still rare in the African-American community. In a 2015 study by LifeWay Research, 88 percent of black pastors said they feel they must be “on-call” 24 hours a day, and 99 percent said they work hard to protect their image as a pastor.
Half of pastors across the board said they often feel overwhelmed by the demands of ministry, while just 29 percent of churches have a plan for their pastor to periodically receive a sabbatical.
In September the Lilly Endowment awarded grants to 150 congregations in 39 states to enable pastors to take time away from ministerial responsibilities for reflection renewal.
One of them went to Amanda Langlands, minister of children and education at Faith Baptist Church in Georgetown, Kentucky.
“I am very excited about being awarded the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal grant for this coming summer,” Langlands said. “This was my third attempt in applying, so I was very surprised when it came through this past August.”
Faith Baptist Church in Georgetown allows for full time staff ministers to take a sabbatical every seven years. “This is a great gift that the founding members of the church wrote into the church’s constitution,” Langlands said.
“The life of a minister can feel like such a narrow tunnel of constant forward motion of caring for others, planning programs and trying to meet needs and care for your own family that it is hard sometimes to tend to your own spiritual needs,” she said. “Self-care is a trending topic in ministry circles, but it can almost feel like a burden with everything else that is needed.”
Wesley said his goals during sabbatical are personal, physical and spiritual.
“I want to draw back closer to the Lord,” he said. “Sunday worship does not make up for a deficiency in prayer. Serving in ministry doesn’t make up for a deficiency in prayer.”
“I want to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation without trying to write a sermon,” he said. “I want to travel and sit in the back of somebody’s church and hear the word of God and not worry about what time we’ve got to get out for the next crowd. I want to go to church and only go to one service.”
And after years of preaching at multiple services while early morning attendees visit over brunch, he confessed, “I want to know what a Mimosa tastes like on Sunday.”
Wesley told worshippers at Alfred Street Baptist Church that intentional rest is not just for pastors.
“Don’t you leave vacation days on the table,” he said. “Don’t you leave PTO (paid time off) in somebody’s hand. You take every mental health day they gave you. It is ungodly not to use up all your vacation.”