A Sabbatical Guide For Pastors

Soul Shepherding’s Sabbatical Guide has met a huge need. It has been downloaded over 21,000 times so far. We’re thankful that pastors and leaders like you have found this resource and then passed it along to your staff or colleagues, whether in church, Christian education, or nonprofit ministries. It is our hope that our Soul Shepherding resources will help you find the encouragement and tools you need to receive all that God has for you.

I created this resource so I wouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel each time another pastor or leader asked for my help in setting up and engaging their Sabbatical. More and more men and women in ministry from around the world are finding and appreciating our Sabbatical Guide. We’ve also consulted with church staff teams, ranging in size from one full-time pastor to those with thirty pastors, to help all of them be renewed on Sabbatical. 

So when people like you want coaching from me or one of our Soul Shepherding spiritual directors we start by having you read this article and our Sabbatical digital guide.

We also offer an online Sabbatical Guide course. This program has everything you need to experience rest and renewal on your Sabbatical. If you need help implementing a Sabbatical we’re happy for you to contact us.

What is a Sabbatical?

Over the years I’ve worked with lots of pastors and leaders from diverse Christian traditions and most do not understand the heart of a Sabbatical. Their church members or ministry partners especially don’t understand the spirit of a Biblical Sabbatical.

A Sabbatical is not a long vacation. It’s not a time to read books on leadership or visit successful churches to learn from them. It’s not a time to write a book, do research, or work on some other special project. These are good things to do and it’s not that you can’t do any of them on a Sabbatical, but they work against the spirit of Biblical Sabbath rest.

Also a Sabbatical is not a job search and it’s not an elder imposed leave of absence to discipline a pastor. When these activities are done in the name of “Sabbatical” it breaks down the trust of church attenders. 

The purpose of a Sabbatical is extended Sabbath rest!

The Biblical precedent and Christian tradition is for pastors to go on Sabbatical once every seven years. Typical Sabbaticals today are from one to six months long, with three being a standard.

A true Sabbatical is a season of Sabbath for prolonged rest. It’s like stringing together a number of Sabbath days. It’s an extended time in which you do no work. You do no pastoring, no leading, no ministering, no visioning the future of the church, no sermon planing. You don’t try to accomplish anything big. You just “do nothing”!

Yes, nothing! Of course, we don’t do nothing as an end in itself — that’d be an empty legalism — our purpose is to worship our Creator and Redeemer (like the Bible teaches in the Sabbath commands of Exodus and Deuteronomy). This is what Dallas Willard taught me when I was meeting with him for personal mentoring for a number of years. He explained that the key to Sabbath rest is: “Do nothing! Don’t try to make anything happen!” Just be with God.

But most of us in Christian leadership can’t rest and BE that freely. So, Dallas would say, “First, you need to train in extended solitude and silence with Jesus.”

Eventually, after your body stops jittering, after your thoughts stop flitting about, after you start feeling your emotions, after your ideal self that performs and pleases is dismantled, after you experience your nothingness and nakedness before God, after you experience unconditional love, then you can hopefully begin to really rest in your body and soul.

We’re putting the words of Psalm 23 to the test. “The Lord is my shepherd,” we say with David. “I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”

Ahh! There it is! He restores my soul. This soul restoration comes as we submit to the Lord as our Shepherd, lying down and being still in his presence.

I tell pastors, including all kinds of men and women in ministry, that to help you do nothing you need to do something. In our Sabbatical Guide and Sabbatical Guide course, we look at a great variety of “somethings” that can help us to relax in God’s sovereignty and care. Even if you feel led of the Lord to have a project focus to your Sabbatical, give strong consideration to devoting the first third or more of your time away with resting in God’s lovingkindness — “relaxing and rejoicing in the presence of the risen Christ” is how I put it in my book Your Best Life in Jesus’ Easy Yoke — and mixing into your project other extended times for prayer and soul care.

Why Do Pastors Need Sabbaticals?

When I met with Dallas Willard he’d ask me, “Bill, how is your ministry to pastors going?” We shared a great concern for the well-being of pastors. One day he told me, “Pastors ought to be the happiest people on earth — let’s work with God to make it happen!”

In Dallas’ endorsement for Hilltop Renewal Center in Idyllwild, CA (a great retreat center where we lead our Soul Shepherding Institute in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care ministry) he emphasizes the need for pastor retreats and Sabbaticals:

I can state without wavering that the single greatest need of the church today is the restoration of ministers. What is required is a quite different approach to their life and work. It is a matter of leading them into a massive shift of the dynamics of their personality under God, and one that cannot be done by more books and conferences. They need to be taken out of the circulation for a sufficiently long time to re-vision and re-structure their lives in communion with Jesus and his kingdom.

While some pastors and other Christian workers are afraid to step aside from their church or ministry for a Sabbatical, most would like to do this if given the opportunity! But Elder Boards, congregation members, and donors often don’t understand the need for a Sabbatical. Most of them are coming from the business world where they feel fortunate if they get four weeks of vacation a year. And yet today even many secular companies like Nike and Google offer Sabbaticals for their long-term employees!

Pastoral work is extremely stressful and a lack of spiritual rest is especially hazardous to the effectiveness of pastoral ministry!

It’s very difficult for pastors and leaders to say no to the needs of the people they care for and to the unending opportunities to do God’s work and grow their church or ministry. But if they don’t care for their own souls under God, respecting their personal limits and nurturing their own relationships with God and their family, then their ministry eventually collapses.

Of course, people in other jobs work extremely hard and have great stress too. But if doctors, attorneys, police officers, CPA’s, or teachers get divorced they usually don’t lose their jobs! If their spiritual life grows stale probably no one worries about it. If they struggle with pornography, alcohol abuse, or other emotional problems it’s usually no problem for their work life, or if it gets in the way then once they get help they can go right back to work.

But pastors are called to a higher standard. Rightly so. Their work is sacred. They minister the Word of God to their congregations. They baptize new Christians. They marry the bride and groom. They conduct funerals. They care for hurting marriages and families. They help people who feel far from God get re-connected.

More than any other workers pastors are Christ’s ambassadors to hundreds or thousands of people. We need our pastors to be morally fit and spiritually healthy! Their message needs to match their character or people won’t follow them.

Pastor Stress Statistics Document Their Need for Sabbaticals

Many research studies have shown that pastoral work is acutely stressful, draining, and dangerous for the pastors and their families.

Here are a few of the statistics on pastor stress:

  • 90% work 55 to 75 hours per week
  • 90% feel fatigued and worn out every week
  • 91% have experienced some form of burn out
  • 70% have a lower self-esteem then when they entered the ministry
  • 70% fight depression
  • The average seminary trained pastor lasts five years in professional ministry

When pastors are over-stressed their marriages and families suffer too:

  • 80% feel unappreciated and left out and unappreciated by church members
  • 80% feel pressured to serve in ways that do not fit their gifts
  • Over 50% say that the most destructive event in their marriage and family was the day they entered the ministry
  • 80% wish their spouse would choose another profession

Pastors get so preoccupied caring for others that their own souls suffer:

  • 72% only study the Bible when preparing their sermons for others
  • 70% do not have a close friend
  • 50% do not regularly meet with an accountability partner or group
  • 44% do not regularly take a day off
  • 85% have never taken a Sabbatical!

I’m sure you’re getting the picture!

Eventually most pastors reach the end of their rope!

And the wives of male pastors are ready to scream!

For pastors not to take a Sabbatical every seven years or so is like a person not having health insurance!

Of course, a Sabbatical alone won’t prevent a pastor or leader from burning out or blowing out morally, but it’s an important part of the pastor’s personal care and formation in Christ.

For more statistics from the research studies on pastor stress see our Soul Shepherding articles: “Pastor Stress Statistics” and “Unfair Expectations on the Pastor’s Wife.” (More studies need to be done on the stress that female pastors’ husbands experience.)

Your Next Step

The next step for you or the pastor or leader you’re concerned about is to read Soul Shepherding’s Sabbatical Guide or register for our Sabbatical Guide course. You may also want to send copies to your key supporters. We’ve updated this resource to make it even more helpful. This easy to read and visually appealing booklet is rich with:

  • Bible studies on Sabbath and Sabbatical
  • Spiritual psychology insights
  • Sample Sabbaticals of pastors Bill has guided
  • Reflection questions
  • Soul care and spiritual discipline suggestions
  • Links to numerous free resources for your Sabbatical
  • Practical ideas for asking for the support of your elders, board, church, donors, or friends

It’s our hope and prayer for you to be blessed with a Sabbatical that connects you with the Lord Jesus for a time of spiritual rest and renewal!

Check out Soul Shepherding’s Sabbatical Guide and Sabbatical Guide course

Then contact us if you need Soul Shepherding coaching or care.



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