How a Healthy Sabbatical Can Help You Finish Well in Your Ministry
By: Dan Knuff August 6, 2019
I was reading Bobby Clinton’s book, The Making of a Leader, a few years ago. Clinton came to the conclusion that only 30 percent of leaders “finish well.” Which struck me as a pretty startling statement.
I started to think about it in my context of pastoral ministry and three questions came to mind: Do most pastors finish well? Why don’t pastors finish well? What are some things that pastors can do to make sure they finish well?
The last question about, “What are some things that pastors can do to make sure they finish well?” really started to work on me. Around the same time, I was given the opportunity by my elder board to start planning my first sabbatical. I had just come through a really tough season of ministry where I was helping our church heal and recover from a scandal involving the senior pastor. He was removed from leadership and the church members were hurting and confused. I felt their pain and hurt. Some of that pain and hurt even got directed towards me.
I could see that all was not well as I started to look below the waterline in my own life. The whole experience had taken a much bigger toll on me more than I was aware of. I was emotionally drained and really tired of the drama. However, I did what most pastors do in those tough circumstances of life, I just kept going. Pastors are great at that by the way. Some of the toughest people I know are pastors. The amount of pressure, stress, and messy situations that they have to deal with would make many people snap.
I like to think that most people, even pastors, are a lot like rubber bands. We can get stretched for long periods of time and not really know the damage that is being done to our souls. We can only get stretched so far- and then we snap. Something breaks within us, and it’s not good. We know it and the people closest to us know it. I sensed that I was getting really close to stretching too far, so I rejoiced at the opportunity to take a seven-week sabbatical.
This was a defining moment in my life and I wanted to make the most of it. I came up with a plan on how to have a healthy sabbatical. I hope what I learned can help some other pastors as they consider taking a sabbatical.
My plan had three main goals: travel, read great books and study God’s word, and focus on my family.
Goal number one was to include some travel.
This was an experience that I always wanted to do, but never had the time to actually make it happen. Now, this might be different for you. I really like to travel and traveling doesn’t stress me out.
If travel does stress you out, stay at home and do some things you really enjoy but never had the time to invest in. For some, this could be taking a seminary class, going to a conference or seminar, joining a gym, or maybe working on a project at your house (that would be the last thing I wanted to do on a sabbatical, but I know some people enjoy it.)
I had always wanted to do a Reformation Tour in Europe and follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther. It was a bucket list thing that I never really thought would get checked off my list. I knew this experience would be educational, fun, and spiritually encouraging for my soul. I was able to spend 12 days traveling all over Germany, Switzerland, and France.
I learned practically everything there is to know about Martin Luther and saw some of the most beautiful places on the planet. One of the reasons that I took this trip was just to have some alone time to think and pray.
We can get so busy doing the work of God, that we forget about the work God wants to do in us. I desperately needed some alone time to hear from God without any ministry tasks calling my name.
The only way this first goal can happen is if you aren’t checking your emails while you’re on sabbatical. I know for some, that might seem like I’m asking the impossible. It’s quite freeing and humbling to know that the ministry can and will get done without you, your leadership, or preaching gifts.
Goal number two was to read some great books and study God’s Word.
For the past twenty years, I had a personal goal of reading fifty books a year. Most years I hit my goal, but some years I didn’t. The most important thing was the commitment to never stop learning and growing. I never wanted to think that I arrived, or that I had learned enough and could just sit back and relax. This mentality might be a big reason why so many pastors don’t finish well. Somewhere along the way, we stopped learning and growing. I had a pastor tell me one time that he never picked up a book after seminary. He felt he learned all he needed to learn.
I picked books that fed my soul including the Bible. When I’m tired, hurt, and frustrated I find myself drawn to the Psalms. I gravitated toward David’s raw emotion as he deals with the challenges of life. I also read some great books on leadership. Boundaries for Leaders by Henry Cloud is one of the best. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzerro is a great sabbatical read. Reading challenging books is a must for a healthy sabbatical.
Goal number three, I wanted to spend extra time with my family doing things that they actually wanted to do.
Our spouses and kids make huge sacrifices so that we can take care of the church. Make sure you honor them on your sabbatical. One of the best gifts you can give them is your time and attention. That’s what our families crave the most from us. Opportunities to make some memories with us when our heads aren’t buried in our phones, studying for our next message, or running over to the church to solve another crisis. My kids really wanted to go to Orlando and visit Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
Would those have been my top choices of things to do on a sabbatical? Probably not. However, it was meaningful to them and that’s really all that mattered. My kids recently brought up how much they enjoyed that trip and how it was the highlight of their summer. Spending quality time with our families is a HUGE part of having a healthy sabbatical.
So if you are wondering if you should take a sabbatical, the answer is YES! My desire for every pastor is to be the kind of leader who finishes well. Taking a sabbatical is one of the best ways to ensure that happens. I can say that it was truly a transformational experience for me.
I came back refreshed and with newfound clarity about what my next season of ministry would look like. There were going to be some changes that I would face and my sabbatical helped me prepare for those changes.
It was such a gift to me personally and to my family because they got a better version of me after the sabbatical.