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Panel Discusses Pastoral Sabbaticals

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.—At their monthly Breakpoint meeting, pastors from western Michigan discussed “The Benefits and Challenges of Pastoral Sabbaticals.” Forest Hills Baptist Church hosted this meeting of the Grand Rapids Regional Association of Regular Baptist Churches Jan. 21.

The meeting took place in the form of a Q&A panel discussion featuring five Michigan pastors: Chris Weeks (moderator) of Kent City Baptist Church; Jeff Burr and Craig Perry of Forest Hills Baptist Church, Grand Rapids; Marcus Little of Berean Baptist Church, Grand Rapids; and Jeff Gunderman of Berlin Baptist Church, Marne. Craig is pastor of student ministries and worship; the other four men are lead pastors.

Most of the panelists’ churches have policies that encourage pastors to take a sabbatical at least once or twice every 10 years. And most of the panelists’ sabbaticals have lasted six to 10 weeks, depending on the length of time they have served at their churches.

Sabbaticals are important, says one panelist, “because the one who invests in others must also be invested in.” Sabbaticals also help pastors “avoid burnout and the sense that the only way to escape is to leave for another ministry,” says another panelist. But pastors often feel guilty when they take time to relax, another points out. “An extended period of refreshment helps bring the appropriate perspective to lead in a healthy manner.”

The panelists agree that the purpose of a true pastoral sabbaticalrefreshmentcan be accomplished only when the sabbatical has general goals rather than a strict structure. And the benefits of such refreshment are many: pastors can reconnect with spouses and children, visit with family and friends, read for personal and recreational reasons rather than necessary study, and be personally renewed. When pastors return from a sabbatical, they may findas these panelists didthat they have regained a proper Christian worldview, that they remain calm in the midst of typical ministry stress, and that they show greater patience in relationships. (One panel participant says that before his sabbatical, he and those close to him noticed that he had begun to provoke unnecessary tensions because of his spiritual fatigue.)

A challenge in sabbaticals, however, is reentering ministry upon returning. Reentering ministry “is one area that we did not give much thought to the first time that we did a sabbatical,” one panelist says. “We discovered that this element should be better planned.” Another panelist adds, “The church leadership should allow for a slower reentry process so that the returning pastor can be brought up to speed regarding what transpired in his absence and to return to the normal routine of sermon preparation.” And all of the panelists agree: “Don’t preach the first Sunday after you return!”

But how can churches finance sabbaticals? “One church budgeted $3,200 extra for special speakers, travel expenses, meals, etc., for a total of approximately $7,0008,000. Money is budgeted annually to be escrowed for the next sabbatical,” explains Ken Floyd, ministry director for the Michigan Association of Regular Baptist Churches. Another panelist’s church received a sabbatical grant from the Lilly Foundation. The MARBC also provides grants through its CPR (Church Partner Relationships) Fund but is pursuing the idea of further helping small churches provide sabbaticals by coordinating speakers.

“The church’s investment in providing us a sabbatical was so meaningful for me as a pastor and for our family,” one panelist says. “We felt especially loved by the church family with whom we serve. This was especially true for our children, as we reminded them that this was a gift given to us by our loving and caring flock.”