They call me Erica. Well, no they don’t. The folks at Buechel Park Baptist Church actually call me Pastor Erica, and the more formal members refer to me as Reverend Whitaker. We’ve been on the seas of ministries together for five years, and COVID has certainly weathered our century-old ecclesial ship.
Buechel Park is a beauty; a holy body of Christ that has held up against decades of dark waters. However, no matter how sturdy the ship, a terrible storm can make any captain and her crew vulnerable to more than just the physical elements.
The pressures placed on pastors today to navigate ever-demanding church life is likened to a captain sailing a ship out into ever-expanding oceans. The challenge for all such captains rests in how to steer the ship and crew through the vast seas of ministry. However, too often congregations believe they have little influence to help cultivate healthy clergy.
No church wants the Moby Dick of ministers. Having your pastor turn into that terrifying white sperm whale who, as a destructive leviathan, is feared and met best at a distance, would be disastrous enough. But having Captain Ahab, obsessed and myopic, lead your congregation also would be deadly.
Leading a ministry into uncharted waters is hard enough when things are going well. But what happens to your minister when he is weary, worn down and in desperate need of time away from the ship? Remember that without rest and recovery, your clergy could turn into the compulsive sea captain, who loses his mind, eventually sinking the ministry and himself into a watery grave.
Right now, all ministers are experiencing ministry sea sickness — which includes mental burnout, many levels of depression and anxiety, physical ailments and soul fatigue. Check out David Burrough’s piece that I’m sure every church took to heart for the health of their pastor.
So how can your church help your pastor and your ministries thrive? In a word: REST. The biblical term is called “sabbath,” which literally means “to rest.” The academic term is “sabbatical,” which is something often taken by professors. Your pastors, and not just your senior pastor, need sabbaticals. Not in two years. Not when your personnel committee finally gets around to it. Now! Right now.
“How can your church help your pastor and your ministries thrive? In a word: REST.”
Yes, I know. Sabbaticals come across like sea monsters in the vast oceans of congregational work. We’ve all heard the horror stories of sturdy Baptist boats going under, consumed by the monsters of divisive issues, decreasing memberships and increasing personnel and property costs. However, a sabbatical for your minister(s) is not the giant white whale that will devour your ship. It’s actually one of the best decisions you can make to navigate the storms.
Churches often avoid providing clergy sabbaticals because they think their ministries wouldn’t survive if their pastor leaves for a few weeks — or worse, that they might discover they don’t need their minister if she can be gone that long. If anything, there is revival to be found in sabbatical taking for both minister and church.
The stories in Scripture that send me to my happy place are the ones when the leader leaves for a period of time and returns rejuvenated. Miraculous moments occur when Jesus comes back to the disciples from some hard-core introverted time. Such as when Jesus starts his ministry at the wedding in Canaan, just days after his sabbatical in the desert. Or the time Jesus meets the disciples in the middle of the sea and Peter walks on the water.
Your minister may not be Jesus, but he or she could look more like Moses, who always was disappearing to the mountains alone to do God-knows-what. Or like Elijah, who is so overwhelmed that he becomes suicidal, and God tells him to stop working, have a snack and take a nap. Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Paul and many more leaders had times of solitude with God to prepare them to enter back into ministry.
“Sabbatical can come in all shapes and sizes depending on the season of the minister and ministry.”
The traditional sabbatical length of time is three months, which is wonderful when you have that option. But is this the only way? No. At Buechel Park, we have two ministers in need of sabbatical, and having two pastors gone for three months in a season of resurrecting church is not ideal. But, our pastors not taking a sabbatical would be more devastating.
Sabbatical can come in all shapes and sizes depending on the season of the minister and ministry. Right now, all churches are in a season of healing and recovering, which creates an opportunity to think innovatively about an alternative sabbatical option for sustainability and longevity for both pastors and congregations.
At Buechel Park, our staff policy grants all ministers and pastors 10 weeks of sabbatical leave after five years of service. (If you don’t have a sabbatical policy in place at your church, stop reading this and email me.)
But in this time of revitalizing and rethinking church, we realized we didn’t want our pastoral leadership diminished for six months. We’ve started exploring a non-traditional plan that would allow both pastors to take one month of sabbatical leave twice a year for two years. Basically, the pastors would rotate taking a month off each quarter over a span of two years, giving them a total of four months of sabbatical leave. Yes, the time away is a bit longer in the long run but it offers a compromise for the minister who is asked to take a shorter leave each time.
Here are three foundational elements to keep in mind when your church maps out your minister’s sabbatical:
- Sabbaticals are not vacation.
- Sabbaticals are for rest, renewal and re-envisioning ministry.
- Ministers need to be fully compensated while on sabbatical.
Yes, Melville’s Moby Dick may be fantasy, but your church’s sabbatical policy shouldn’t be. I wonder, sea monsters aside, if our churches and their ministers could thrive if we all muster courage and a ship ton of faith to trust in the healing power of sabbaticals.
Erica Whitaker serves as senior pastor of Buechel Park Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. She is an avid reader of science, religion and God-knows-what and also enjoys writing fantasy novels. Erica is currently working on a Ph.D. through the International Baptist Theological Studies Centre at the Free University of Amsterdam. She and her husband, Josh, live in Louisville with their two four-legged children, Fred and Lucy. She serves on the BNG board of directors.
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