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2006-10-17 issue:

Sabbaticals for pastors

by Keith Harder

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Heidi Regier Kreider and Tim Schrag (see pages 10-13) represent a growing number of pastors and the congregations they serve who are benefiting from sabbaticals. Sabbaticals have had a long tradition in academia, but increasingly congregations are also seeing the value of granting sabbaticals to their pastors. Over 40 percent of the pastors who responded to the 2005 Mennonite Church USA Pastor Compensation Survey indicated that they have had or are expecting to receive a sabbatical. It appears that the recommendation in the Mennonite Church USA Pastor Salary Guidelines that pastors receive a three-month sabbatical is being followed increasingly.

As Heidi and Tim’s stories indicate, sabbaticals require planning and preparation—for the pastor and the congregation. The congregation must plan for how pastoral tasks will be covered during the sabbatical. In some congregations this may involve engaging an interim replacement, perhaps at less than full time. It may also involve mobilizing resources within the congregation for worship planning, preaching and administration, with other pastoral resources on standby for pastoral emergencies. In some congregations this has provided new opportunities for people to test gifts for ministry. Some congregations have a line item in their budget every year for sabbatical expenses to help pay for these expenses during the sabbatical year.

Sabbaticals are especially useful in keeping the pastor-congregation relationship fresh and vital over a long tenure. Intentionally disrupting established routines and expectations can be refreshing and revitalizing for pastors and congregations. The most fruitful sabbaticals are those seen as mutually beneficial—to the pastor and the congregation.

There is great variety in what pastors actually do during sabbaticals. For some, the time is focused on formal education, perhaps working on or completing a seminary degree or another course of study. It may include formal classes, assignments and the development of specific ministry skills. For others it is a time for informal learning that may involve seminars, reading, visiting other congregations, developing proficiency in a new language or exposure to another culture. Yet another focus may be an intentional focus on being quiet, prayer, meditation, extended retreats—a period of rest and being fallow. Some have found that a service assignment that involves learning new skills or using skills not normally used in pastoral ministry provides a refreshing and rewarding sabbatical experience. Sabbaticals sometimes combine these various elements.

The Lilly Endowment has generously funded the National Clergy Renewal Program. It invites proposals in response to the question What will make your heart sing? The program’s purpose is to strengthen Christian congregations by providing opportunities for pastors to step away briefly from the persistent obligations of daily parish life and engage in a period of renewal and reflection. Renewal periods are not vacations but times for intentional exploration, for regaining the enthusiasm and creativity for ministry, for discovering what will make the pastor’s heart sing.”

Renewal is what characterizes the best sabbaticals—renewal of one’s call to ministry, renewal in one’s relationship with God, renewal of the imagination of what God is doing in the world through the church and renewal of strength and vitality for ministry.

Tim and Heidi and hundreds of other pastors and the congregations they serve can testify to the renewing affect of a deliberately planned time away—time dedicated to renewal. May other pastors and congregations who could benefit from a sabbatical also have that opportunity.

Keith Harder is director of Congregational and Ministerial Leadership for Mennonite Church USA.

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Keith Harder is director of Congregational and Ministerial Leadership for Mennonite Church USA.


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