Why Sabbaticals Are Critical for a Pastor's Well-Being—And Your Church's

(Unsplash/Mohamed Ajufaan)

Sabbaticals are a critical component to creating healthy rhythms for pastors. Burnout is now more prevalent than ever before in ministry since the onset of COVID-19.

According to data we've collected from surveying over 1,000 churches across the country, 56% of churches did not have an online presence prior to COVID-19. Not only are pastors adjusting to remote work and leadership for the first time, but they're also learning to care for people in a global pandemic, facing an economic downturn and during social and political unrest.

Understandably, this heavy load has led to emotional fatigue and burnout for church leaders. Even before COVID-19, we saw an increase in prominent pastors stepping down from ministry due to burnout, depression and/or moral failure, which has been further perpetuated by the church's stigma of mental illness.

Offering a sabbatical plan as part of your benefits policy will help ensure pastors avoid burnout and help them refocus on their personal calling and the church's mission by taking a step back to gain perspective. In a world where we're more digitally connected than ever before, pastors need designated time away from the noise to seek the Lord above all else and be a more effective leader.

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It's helpful to remember that a sabbatical is not a vacation. It is an opportunity for pastors to go deeper into personal and spiritual development. It's a way to refocus and renew their spirit, mind and body to ensure they are not emotionally and spiritually drained or burned out.

As senior leaders begin to consider offering a sabbatical policy, various questions come to light, such as:

—How many years should a pastor have to work before they can take the sabbatical?

—How long should the sabbatical be?

—How often can the pastor take a sabbatical?

Through our compensation and benefits analysis, we've collected data from over 2,400 churches across the country who have shared details about their sabbatical plans. Take a look at these takeaways to see where your plan falls in comparison to similar churches.

—Of the 2,416 churches surveyed, 1,746, or 72.29%, of churches do not offer a sabbatical program.

—Of the churches that offer a sabbatical program, 54.17% require the pastor to wait more than seven years before taking it. 31.44% of churches require a four- to six-year waiting period; 9.06% of churches require a one- to three-year waiting period; and 5.33% of churches allow annual sabbaticals.

—Of the churches that do offer a sabbatical program, 36.94% allow three to four weeks to be taken for the sabbatical, 29.31% allow more than eight weeks; 15.63% allow five to six weeks;11.9% allow seven to eight weeks; and 6.22% allow one to two weeks.

—Of the churches that do offer a sabbatical program, 66.1% offer it every six to seven years; 20.72% offer it every 4-5 years; 6.38% offer it every year; 4.83% offer it every three years; and 1.97% offer it every two years.

The majority of churches that we surveyed did not offer a sabbatical (72.27%). However, the ones that did (17.73%), offered it after seven years of service (54.2%) for three to four weeks (36.96%) and allowed a sabbatical to be taken every six to seven years (66.21%).

The average tenure of a senior pastor is three to four years in American churches today. That said, the average tenured pastor is never going to earn the right to take a sabbatical at the churches that have a sabbatical option in their benefits package available after seven years. More so, if a pastor hits burnout before they are ever able to take the sabbatical, then what benefit is the sabbatical?

With the onset of COVID-19, many pastors worked tirelessly to shepherd their congregations in a challenging season, and they are entering the fall more tired than ever. If you are a senior leader or board member at your church, prioritize the spiritual and emotional care of your pastor. Take a look at your sabbatical policy and ensure that your pastor has the opportunity to take time to renew their spirit and refocus on their calling on a regular basis.

When considering a sabbatical package, senior church leaders should ensure the policy is caring for and protecting your pastor and your church's long-term health. If your pastor is burned out, it can inevitably affect the long-term health of the church, so considering a sabbatical plan can save you from experiencing the detrimental effects of pastoral burnout.

For more on the benefits of offering sabbaticals, check out these relevant resources:

—10 Ways to Prevent Burnout in Ministry.

—8 Tips for Pastors Struggling With Burnout.

—3 Reasons Your Pastor Needs a Sabbatical.

Sutton Turner is the chief operating officer at Vanderbloemen, which serves teams with a greater purpose by aligning their people solutions for growth: hiring, compensation, succession and culture. Through its retained executive search and consulting services, Vanderbloemen serves churches, schools, nonprofits, family offices and Christian businesses in all parts of the United States and internationally.

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