Before we get into creating a pastor sabbatical plan, we need to examine why a pastor sabbatical plan should even be on the table.

As a pastor, you know that your occupation is unique. Your work, your calling, and your schedule are substantially different than those who work in other fields.

But one of the most fascinating things that sets pastors apart is their passion to cast a big vision for the future.

A surgeon may have a passion for finding and using the latest high-tech medical equipment.. A professor may set their sights on achieving tenure at a prestigious university. An attorney may be driven by a passion for winning that high-profile case.

Pastors are constantly looking into the future, discerning how God might be moving, and what they might need to do in order to be in alignment with the Spirit.? And whether they realize it or not, what they really might be needing to gain complete clarity is a pastor sabbatical.

Pastor Sabbatical Worksheet — A guide to avoiding burnout

Pastor Sabbatical Worksheet

Create the basic framework of your sabbatical plan within six-weeks. Have an answer for your board when they ask, “How will we manage without you?”

Let’s face it: pastors are tired. The new millennium has been intense ministry for most pastors. When you get tired, you get stagnant, the vision becomes routine, and you run the risk of burning out.

A fantastic solution to these issues is creating a pastor sabbatical plan and then scheduling when to make it happen. This extended period of time away from the constant demands of ministry can help you rediscover God’s calling, reimagine how to fulfill the mission, get refreshed for a new season, and give the Spirit plenty of time and space so you can clearly hear from God again.

Every pastor has experienced the Monday morning blues after a busy weekend. But when you live in a constant state of burnout, you put yourself and your whole ministry at risk.

A sabbatical may or may not be the solution. However, it’s important to explore what a pastor’s sabbatical plan could look like as well as understanding the value of a typical sabbatical policy.

A healthy church starts with a healthy leader. Unfortunately, so many pastors find themselves unintentionally burning the candle at both ends. While a sabbatical may sound like a nice opportunity to regroup, refocus, and revisit the vision for the church, you must begin with the reality that you may be burned out.

So with that in mind, let’s identify burnout, ways to deal with it, and then move into creating a runway to a sabbatical.

Signs You Are Experiencing Pastor Burnout Today

When you think of what the word “burnout” literally means, what comes to mind? You probably picture something that is literally “burned out,” such as a car engine that hasn’t been maintained and has overheated and been damaged beyond repair.

The term “burnout” is a condition where you cannot function at a healthy level. The root cause of burnout is stress—mental, emotional, and spiritual. When you don’t have the proper resources to live and lead at a sustainable level, the inevitable result is that you will be burned out.

Signs of pastoral burnout include:

  • Not feeling motivated
  • Being tired all the time
  • Negative attitude
  • Lashing out as church members, family, or staff 
  • Not caring about the job anymore
  • Arriving late or avoiding appointments 
  • Irritability
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Addictive behaviors
  • Conflict in relationships

Those are just a few indicators. Burnout looks different for each person. But in general, those are some of the signals to look out for.

The result of burnout is that you can’t keep up with the workload, your relationships are damaged, you no longer feel fulfilled in your ministry, and you are engaging in damaging behaviors or addictions to escape the pain.

At the very least, your ministry suffers. At its worst, irreparable damage can be done to your family.

Why Pastor Burnout Happens

The sabbatical is not unique to pastors, nor is burnout. Any type of person in any role can get burned out. But there are some unique factors in pastoral ministry that make pastors especially prone to burnout.

1. Unclear job description.

Many churches don’t have a clear job description for pastors, or any role for that matter. And if they do, it is often vague or inaccurate. Most pastors know the feeling of accepting a ministry position, only to find that it includes many more responsibilities than they were led to believe.

This lack of clarity about your exact job can make you feel like you’re constantly trying to hit a moving target. How can anyone feel successful when they don’t know exactly what they are supposed to do?

2. Vague definition of success.

In the church world, we sometimes talk about “success” as if it is a worldly thing. But everyone wants to feel successful. It is one of the primary motivators for anyone in any type of role.

Other types of leaders have sales goals or metrics that give them a clear indicator of success. But what exactly does it mean for a pastor to be successful? Is it the number of members? The size of the staff? Number of baptisms or conversions? The dollars given in offering?

To complicate matters further, many church members have different definitions of a “successful pastor.” This can make it difficult to feel like you are winning on any level.

Is success tied to giving, visitors, or attendance? Is success tied to baptisms, small groups, and volunteering? Not having a clear definition of success can lead to burnout in key leaders, even the lead pastor.

3. Lots of critics.

Criticism is not unique to pastors, but the special role of a pastor makes him or her susceptible to critics in a way that other leaders aren’t. Because you receive your salary from church members, they can sometimes feel like they have a right to express their opinion . . . even if it’s hurtful or done in a destructive way.

A person can only take so much criticism. It is not unusual for a pastor to leave a perfectly good ministry because of a small handful of critics who made their life miserable.

4. Lack of control.

Many pastors feel hamstrung by a board or elders who expect them to produce results, but won’t give them the authority to make decisions driving those results. After a while, you simply want to give up rather than reaching for continual change and improvement.

5. Sedentary lifestyle.

Let’s be honest: most pastors don’t get enough exercise. Ministry is a job filled with meetings and study. There aren’t a lot of activities built into the pastor’s life that require movement.

When you combine a sedentary job with lots of stress and pressure, that is a recipe for poor eating, weight gain, and all the health concerns that come with it. The resulting lack of energy can be a big contributing factor to feeling discouraged and burned out.

6. Stress due to compensation issues.

Ministry is one of the lowest-paid professional careers. Many pastors deal with stress because of low compensation, lack of adequate vacation, or frustration due to poor benefits.

When you are not compensated well, you don’t have access to the best services and resources that can help you deal with burnout adequately. And when you don’t have the funds to take a nice vacation (or a pastor sabbatical), it only adds fuel to the fire that can lead to greater burnout.

7. A culture that doesn’t openly deal with burnout

In the Christian community, we tend to see ourselves as “soldiers of Jesus” who keep going, no matter what. It is almost seen as a sign of weakness if a leader or pastor admits they are hurting or need a break.

After all, the Apostle Paul endured shipwrecks and prison to carry the Gospel forward. The least a pastor can do is make it through one more round of Christmas services, right?

But when a pastor is going through depression, discouragement, or burnout, he or she is tempted to stuff their feelings down and soldier on. They feel guilty for seeking help or admitting to anyone in their circle that they are struggling.

The best-case scenario is usually that they secretly seek help . . . which ironically only adds to their stress since they are afraid someone might find out.

8. Spiritual warfare.

A factor that is not often discussed, but yet is certainly a factor, is spiritual warfare. Ephesians chapter 6:12 reminds us, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (ESV).

Burnout is not only a mental, psychological, and physical issue—it’s also a spiritual one. Pastor, you are doing work that the evil one hates. You are a target for his attacks.

It doesn’t mean you need to walk in fear, or that every issue you face is only due to a spiritual attack. It simply means that we must acknowledge the reality that we are battling on multiple fronts. As a result, we must use a variety of strategies to keep burnout at bay.

Strategies for Dealing with Pastor Burnout (When You’re Already Burned Out)

Creating a pastor sabbatical plan is one of the best and most underutilized ways a pastor can not just deal with burnout, but restore their passion for the mission of the local church. We will mention this strategy below and then go into greater detail regarding how to create this plan later on in this article. 

For now, here are a few ways you can immediately address burnout in your life.

1. Enlist Allies to Help

If you are married, talk to your spouse about your feelings. They are likely already aware something is wrong, so why not come out and admit it? Your spouse is your very best ally in the fight against burnout. They can help protect your time, set good boundaries, and remind you that you are loved outside of your role as a pastor.

Another great ally can be a trusted church leader, counselor, or friend. Tread carefully here because asking for help from the wrong people can backfire. That being said, is there someone in your inner circle whom you can trust? If they know your situation, they can help you create a plan to work through your burnout and become a healthier and happier version of yourself.

It is also worth noting that there are entire communities online dedicated specifically to discussing the life of pastoring filled with other pastors who may have or are currently experiencing ministry realities similar to you. One such group is The Pastor’s Circle on Facebook. This is a closed group that you can apply to join and find community with other pastors from churches of all sizes around the world.

2. Pay Attention to Your Physical Health

The medical community has uniformly recognized that humans need 7.5-8 hours of sleep each night. Chances are very high, though, that you are not getting that much sleep. Maybe you are staying up too late at night or getting up too early. Or perhaps there are other causes such as stress or too much blue light before bed. Whatever the case, do whatever you can to get adequate sleep, which promotes healing, energy, and a physical reset each night.

In addition, doctors recommend thirty minutes of exercise each day as a minimum. When you take a walk, go for a run, do some cardio, or go for a bike ride, it burns calories and gives you an energy boost. If you don’t yet exercise regularly, go for a short walk each evening to get into the habit. You will be amazed at how much you enjoy it.

Finally, it’s important to reduce bad food and eat more healthy ones. There are all kinds of programs and apps designed to help with this. Even if you don’t use any of them, we recommend reducing fats, sugars, and carbs in addition to increasing your intake of vegetables and lean proteins. It’s hard to break bad habits and start newer healthy ones—but we’re talking about your life here. Isn’t your family and your calling worth the little bit of pain required to have more energy and extend your years?

3. Don’t Neglect Your Mental Health

One of the best places to start is by spending time on a hobby. Ministry demands are endless. You could work a hundred hours a week and never get everything done in your church. You probably feel a little guilty spending time on a hobby, but it’s honestly one of the best things you can do for your mental health. A hobby will give your mind time to relax and unwind. After all, you are not a “church robot” who can work all the time. It’s important to take some time for yourself.

We have already mentioned this, but it bears repeating because we are talking about your mental health . . . which affects everything else in your life. A counselor or therapist is a trusted resource where you can work through your problems and get a professional perspective. There is no shame in seeing one. The wise person is the one who recognizes they need help and then takes action to get it.

Make sure to engage in prayer, Bible reading, and journaling. We are not suggesting that burnout can be fixed just by these activities. However, as a pastor, you know better than anyone else how important a robust spiritual life is. Are you praying and reading your Bible on a regular basis? Are you taking a few minutes to journal? If not, make it a regular part of your day. God responds in mysterious ways when we seek His help.

4. Lower Your Work-Related Stress

Are you taking all your vacation? It is amazing how many people don’t take all of their allotted vacation. Sometimes it is due to not scheduling it far enough in advance, and the clock runs out. Other times it is due to feeling guilty for taking a vacation in the first place. 

But remember, even Jesus took time to rest and get away from the crowds. If you really care about your congregation, you will take every last bit of vacation you have coming to you. A well-rested pastor is a healthy pastor who can fully engage with his or her ministry.

It is also critical that you follow God’s example from Genesis and take a day to rest. The occasional crisis will prevent you from doing this, but your regular practice should be to take your day off. (If you get two, so much the better!) At the moment, violating this principle may seem like no big deal, but over time, the lack of rest will catch up to you.

You can also delegate some of your work responsibilities. Delegating doesn’t mean just offloading the things you don’t like to do. It’s equipping other people to do the work of ministry while you focus on what you do best. Every pastor can learn delegation. When you put a little effort into this, you will have a lighter load that will reduce your stress and free you up to make better use of your gifts.

5. Adjust Your Perspective

Remember, you’re more than just a pastor. When you are called to serve God in ministry, it is a powerful experience that defines your life in many ways. However, you’re not only a pastor. You have a life outside of ministry. It is easy to see your self-worth as entirely wrapped up in the perceived success of your church. When the inevitable problems creep up, it threatens your whole identity. That is why it is key to have balance in your life. You are much more than a pastor.

Also, remember to adjust your expectations. This may sound a bit controversial. But since we are still dealing with a pandemic that has lasted for a year and a half, it is probably a good idea to keep expectations realistic. Our whole world has been turned upside down and as a people, we are still finding our way through this mess. The church is no exception. When you have realistic expectations of yourself and others, then you can be pleasantly surprised when things go really well.

And finally, don’t compare yourself to others. A huge source of stress is seeing other pastors and their churches do well. When you see their success, it’s impossible not to compare yourself. The problem is that you only see their highlight reel. You don’t know what is actually going on in another pastor’s life or church. Remember, you are running your own race. God has not given you responsibility for someone else’s ministry—just your own.

Deciding If a Sabbatical is Right for You (Especially If You’re Experiencing Burnout)

So far, we talked about the concept of a pastor sabbatical, the reasons pastors get burned out, and some practical ways to respond to burnout. Now let’s turn our attention to helping you decide whether a sabbatical is right for you. 

While it wouldn’t be fair to say that spiritual leaders are split on the idea of sabbaticals for pastors, it is true that there is not 100% agreement over the idea.

There are valid arguments for a sabbatical as well as against it. Here are a few arguments from each side of the discussion. (We will address many of the arguments against sabbaticals later in the article.)

Arguments Against a Sabbatical for Pastors

It is important to note that the arguments listed below are a collection of concerns that a pastor, board member, decon, or congregation member may have when the topic of a pastor sabbatical comes up. Some may be easy for your church to dismiss, others may actually be true of your situation and could involve more conversation to make sure everyone is on board.

Churches can’t financially afford sabbaticals. In a time when many churches are struggling, a pastor sabbatical is an unnecessary expense. Many churches have had to let staff go because of shrinking budgets or declining attendance. Plus, you have to spend extra funds to replace some of the things a pastor would normally do (such as filling the pulpit).

It’s hard to measure a sabbatical’s effectiveness. How do you measure whether a sabbatical is effective? There is no precedent for understanding whether the church will get enough value from doing this.

The church can’t resolve issues when the pastor is away. If the pastor is gone, how will we deal with a crisis or other decisions that require the pastor’s input? This will put the church on auto-pilot for a couple of months, therefore holding up ministry progress.

There is too much extra load for other staff. Many church staff members are overworked as it is. How could they possibly take on even more responsibilities than the pastor would normally do? This is unrealistic and frankly irresponsible for the pastor to expect others to carry the load.

The pastor will become disconnected from the congregation. The church relies on the pastor for vision, direction, counseling, leadership, and mentoring. If he is gone for an extended time, the church will suffer because of this disconnect.

A sabbatical is just a paid vacation. If he is off “relaxing,” isn’t that just more vacation time? What could he possibly do that is so productive or necessary, that couldn’t be done during his regular ministry responsibilities?

It’s just a thinly-veiled way for the pastor to rebuild their resume or look for another church. This is just an excuse for the pastor to go on an extended job search and keep his travel to other congregations a secret.

Everyone’s job is challenging; the pastor is no different. Why does the pastor think he has such a hard job? Most people work long hours and have to deal with many challenges and frustrations. Yet they don’t get two or three months of extra vacation time. Why is he so special?

The pastor should just pray for more strength from the Holy Spirit instead of needing extended time away. The pastor should not need more time away to get the vision, strength, or clarity he says he needs. He is just not praying enough or spending enough time in God’s Word.

Arguments against a pastor sabbatical include the cost, mistaking it as a vacation, ministry is no different than any other job, and other objections such as the church cannot afford it.

Arguments in Favor of a Sabbatical for Pastors

As is the case with arguments against a sabbatical for pastors, these arguments for possible reasons a pastor may be considering a sabbatical and could be used in formulating a sabbatical policy or sabbatical plan. We are not endorsing or denouncing any of them. We are simply listing them here for you.

The care and protection of the pastor’s mental health is a big priority. While it’s true that most people deal with stress and frustrations in their jobs, the pastor’s job is unique. He is dealing with emotional and spiritual dynamics, plus long hours, that few people understand. Especially in an age of dramatic cultural shifts and so many changing forces in society, the pastor’s mental well-being is a major priority.

We want to extend the tenure of the senior pastor. A pastor is like a car engine: if you take good care of it, it will last far longer. If you want to have great long-term leadership from an emotionally stable and spiritually strong pastor, a sabbatical is one of the best ways to do it. 90% of pastors will not retire as a pastor — the church body has a responsibility to care for their pastor’s mental, spiritual, and physical health.

A sabbatical helps create new ideas for building momentum behind the church’s mission. Without time to think and reflect, the pastor is caught up in the week-to-week of ministry demands. He must have time to read, reflect, and think for extended periods of time. This is a surefire way to create momentum and energy for the future.

It helps rejuvenate the pastor’s marriage and family life (which often suffers in ministry). Being a pastor requires a huge amount of time and emotional energy. If a pastor doesn’t carefully guard this aspect of his life, his family will suffer. The best ally a pastor can have is his spouse, and a pastor sabbatical helps strengthen this relationship.

The pastor can have uninterrupted study time. One of the primary roles of a pastor is teaching. However, the daily demands on his time make deep study very difficult. A sabbatical gives him the time and space to do deep study that informs his theology and fuels his messages for the coming months and years.

It gives staff and key volunteers opportunities to lead and gain experience. One of the best ways to boost the leadership capacity of staff and volunteers is to give them a chance to actually lead. The pastor’s sabbatical is the perfect time to make this happen.

The emotional toll ministry takes is far greater than many other jobs. Imagine a job where you wore the hats of counselor, teacher, leader, fundraiser, vision caster, chief administrator, chief executive officer, and more. We have just described the role of a pastor. The emotional toll of the position is a huge burden to bear, and is unlike any other job on the planet.

A sabbatical is a biblical concept. Christian tradition, as well as biblical precedent, shows us that after six years of work, the seventh year is designated as one of rest. If God rested after six days of creation, and if God’s people in the Old Testament were instructed to let their land rest after six years of harvest, we should probably pay attention.

It allows the pastor time to address a specific challenge in his life or ministry. A few years ago, when Pastor Rick Warren’s son took his own life, he took a four-month sabbatical to deal with his grief. While not every pastor will deal with such a traumatic situation, there are other circumstances in his church or personal life that can warrant extended time away.

A sabbatical allows for mental health recovery and strengthening not available by other means. If you ask any person who has had a heart transplant when they might be running a race, they would probably say, “Not for a while.” The same is true for any pastor who has been doing ministry for at least a few years. They have been through a lot, and it takes time for them to recover and rest. There is no other way to do this other than a sabbatical.

It is an invitation to establish healthy patterns for the future. Western Christianity has been in a pattern of accomplishment and activity for a long time. We gauge success by how many hours you work. This is not a healthy pattern, and a sabbatical establishes a much better pathway forward that allows leaders to take time to rest and be refreshed. But it doesn’t happen by accident. It must be intentional.

Knowing When to Leave Your Church Rather Than Taking A Sabbatical

Our discussion about sabbatical is not about managing conflicts in the church, retiring, or resigning your position to take a role at a different church.

As we get into the idea of a sabbatical as it is traditionally used for ministers, you will discover that this practice is not meant as a “break from your people” or a “break from all the stress.” If that is a primary motivating factor, it may be a good idea to explore more resources on how to know when it’s time to leave your church.

The sabbatical is meant for the betterment of your current congregation and church as a whole, not time away to decide what to do with your future. Making this type of point clear in your pastor sabbatical plan will help you win the thumbs up and encouragement of those ultimately responsible for approving your sabbatical.

Is A Pastor Sabbatical Right for You?

The arguments listed above (both for and against) serve as a great way to start this conversation with your spouse, mentor, and even a few trusted members of your congregation. 

In addition, there are many other reasons why a sabbatical is called for. Many church sabbatical policies will prescribe a sabbatical in the seventh year of pastoral service, honoring the idea of sabbath.

So . . . is a sabbatical right for you? How you answer this question will depend on a combination of factors.

  • Are you experiencing burnout from ministry?
  • Does your church have a pastor sabbatical policy?
  • Do you have specific ministry needs to address in a sabbatical plan?
  • Are you experiencing unhealthy levels of depression or anxiety from the emotional and physical toll of ministry work?
  • Is there work to be done in order to navigate complex church dynamics to avoid church conflict or even a church split in the future?

The list of questions could be endless, but these are enough to get started. Spend a few moments reflecting on whether a sabbatical is the right answer in your situation.

Creating A Pastor Sabbatical Plan

If you have decided that a sabbatical is the right pathway for you and your church, here are a few suggestions to help you create a plan.

Start planning your sabbatical a year in advance

Planning and actually taking a sabbatical won’t happen overnight. It takes a great deal of time and forethought to not only make a plan, but to carry it through. Don’t expect to get a sabbatical plan approved in a couple of months, especially if your church has never done this before.

You also need to think about the length of the sabbatical. The standard sabbatical length is one to three months. Of course, some churches allocate more time, such as six months, but that is not typical. If this is the first time your church has been exposed to the idea, it is probably best to start with something such as 6 weeks.

Present your plan to key leaders or board members first 

While it is okay to start the conversation with one or several close allies, many pastors make the mistake of bringing up a sabbatical in a board meeting where up to a dozen people are present. People don’t like to be surprised at new ideas, especially in the context of something like a board meeting. A much better strategy is to speak privately with one or two key leaders, get their input on the initial plan you have created, make adjustments, and then revisit the discussion with those first one or two members.

Once you get buy-in, then you can begin talking to more people. By the time you present the idea at a board meeting, it should simply be a matter of formally approving the plan.

It is important to have a well thought out plan prior to bringing the idea of a sabbatical to your board. Work with one or two board members to form an initial plan, and then when you’re in agreement, present it to the board as a whole.

Think carefully through financial issues 

It is no surprise that one of the biggest issues for a church board is how to cover expenses such as pulpit supply during a pastor’s sabbatical. Think through this potential objection and how to address it. Could something else be cut or reduced during this time?

And what about your own personal finances? If you would like to travel during a sabbatical, think about your personal budget and how you can either make more money possibly through a side hustle during this time, or adjust your family budget to save money for travel.

As an aside, a great way to reduce the financial burden of filling the pulpit is by creating a preaching team well in advance. See our thoughts on how to create a preaching calendar and filling that calendar with your own preaching team.

How will you delegate responsibilities? 

One of the other major issues is what will happen with your responsibilities while you are gone? Make a list of everything you do in your role as a pastor and consider how these responsibilities could be delegated or put on hold during a sabbatical. 

In addition, consider how you will communicate to other staff and volunteers, helping them understand the value of the sabbatical (rather than them just feeling like they are taking on extra work).

You also must consider how the church will handle emergencies during your sabbatical. What if a church member passes away? What if there is an urgent personnel crisis? Thinking about these possibilities will help calm your nerves and account for lots of possible scenarios.

Consider how you will fill the pulpit during your sabbatical 

Preaching is your most public responsibility. Will you have staff preach in your absence? Other guest pastors? Perhaps professors from a local Christian college? Will they preach as part of a sermon series, or use whatever sermons they want? Will the speakers be compensated? These are all questions to carefully consider.

Discover even more thoughts on preaching teams here.

How will you evaluate whether the sabbatical is a success? 

“ROI” is a business term that stands for “return on investment.” Good leaders want to know that the funds or time they invest in a project will give them a greater return in some way. This is a great way to think about your sabbatical. How will it benefit the church, the staff, the community, and other stakeholders?

When your board or elders see that you have given consideration to these issues, they will know that a sabbatical plan is not just a whim. It’s a tool for a stronger, long-term ministry.

How to Bring Up the Topic of a Sabbatical with Your Governing Board

As a pastor, you are probably very motivated to pursue a sabbatical. However, the main thing standing between you and that sabbatical is your church governing board. 

It is easy to view the board as an adversary who might keep you from something you need and want. But instead of viewing those people as the enemy, look at them as allies who want the best for you and the church. (We are assuming they are good people with the correct motivations. If you are dealing with true adversaries or people who are damaging the church through bad leadership, that is another issue altogether.)

We have already mentioned this strategy, but it bears repeating: talk privately with a major influencer on the board. You can’t expect to go into a board meeting, share the idea of a sabbatical, and have everyone suddenly give you approval. It just isn’t going to happen.

Invite the influencer out to lunch, present the sabbatical concept and all the reasons it’s a good idea, then ask for feedback. This is a vital step you should not skip. 

Why a private meeting with a board influencer is vital to crafting your plan for a sabbatical

The private meeting does a couple of things. First of all, it respects the place of influence and leadership that person holds. Everyone wants to be treated with respect, especially if they have been a part of the church for a long time. Second, this conversation will give you important feedback as you anticipate the possible concerns and objections of other board members. And third, it will give you important momentum as you speak to other leaders.

Once you have this meeting, and the person is in agreement, invite them to speak to other board members to gauge their feedback. It is far better to have someone else advocating on your behalf than trying to make your own case — at this stage in the game.

As you meet and talk with people, make sure to emphasize that a sabbatical helps further the mission of the church and ensures a healthy culture. Think about the sabbatical from their perspective. What questions would they have? What concerns? Look at it from their point of view. 

They are likely going to worry about three things: 1) Who is going to preach in your absence; 2) Extra expenses during the sabbatical, and 3) How to respond to church members who are skeptical. When you do your research and help equip board members with the right information, this will go a long way toward making your sabbatical a reality.

How to Prepare Your Staff to Continue Ministry In Your Absence

Assuming you are successful in creating a sabbatical plan and getting it approved by your governing board, now you need to think about how the church will run once you’re gone. 

The main thing is not the details. It is your attitude. Don’t approach this with a fearful attitude where your overriding worry is that people will “mess stuff up.” Instead, look at this as an opportunity to help people step into a larger leadership role. After all, it’s not your church . . . it’s God’s church.

As a leader, your job is not to do all the work, but rather equip others to do the work. This should be a time of joy, not fear and trepidation, as you help other leaders rise to the occasion and help them expand their potential.

That being said, you do need to think about lots of details. Begin by making a list of everything you do. As a pastor, this is probably a long list. Since you are planning your sabbatical for the future, probably at least several months in advance, the easiest way to make the list is to keep track of what you do on a daily basis for two weeks.

Then think about how to delegate each of these items to staff and volunteers. Who is best suited for each task? Does each task need to be done? Maybe there are some things that can be set aside during your sabbatical.

A plan to train staff, volunteers, or lay leaders is essential to a successful sabbatical. Your church must operate without you if a sabbatical is to be an effective way to fight against burnout and plan to grow your church in the future.

Make sure to communicate to staff and volunteers well. Explain the value of the sabbatical, and how this is healthy for the church. Cast a vision for their leadership potential. Take time to train and equip them for their responsibilities. And by all means, let others know that these staff and volunteers are able to make decisions in your absence.

Look at the church calendar to ensure that you are not missing anything. Include support staff or secretaries as well. They are often the ones who know more than the pastor when it comes to church operations.

Additional Thoughts from Pastors Regarding Sabbaticals

These are a few resources you will find helpful as you plan for your sabbatical.

The Son of Man Must Suffer Many Things

John Piper, Desiring GodRead John Piper’s letter regarding his sabbatical here.

What I Learned on Sabbatical

Luke Simmons, Redemption Gateway in Mesa, Arizona

Why Every Leader Needs a Sabbatical

Michael Hyatt, Former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers

Should Every Pastor Get a Sabbatical?

Richard Phillips, Ryan Kelly, Bob Doll, The Gospel Coalition

Below are some words of wisdom from a few members of The Pastors’ Circle Facebook group about sabbaticals. Comments have been edited for clarity.

Justin Trapp: Plan a trip at the very beginning. It will help you get in a different mode quicker.

Chris Little: What areas do you and/or your church need to grow? Then study, observe, and prayerfully plan on how to implement. 

Scott Schaller: Find a church where you can worship with your family. Also disconnect from ministry at your church. Let your church members know what you are doing and encourage them, when they see or visit, not to talk about church. 

Seth Widner: I started a 30-day sabbatical to simply enjoy family time after my 4th child was born. My advice is to figure out what you want and communicate it. My last three Sundays preaching, I communicated my sabbatical with staff and our faith family, and I communicated who would be covering my tasks. Since my goal is to establish new rhythms of life with my family and rest, I’m staying on the home front. Outside of being with my family, I’m enjoying some law work and reading Francis Chan’s new book. If my goal was to grow, I’d likely visit other churches and explore new networks But since my goal is to rest, I’m still enjoying worshiping with my home church

Marilyn Arroyo Hartman: Alone time in the mountain … just walking and having out with God … no restraints.

Kevin Blade: Go someplace where you can unplug from the church. Focus on what you need to recharge. I went to a cabin for a few days and filled time reading for pleasure and doing things that help me to relax.

Below are some words of wisdom from a few members of The Pastors’ Circle Facebook group about recharging. Comments have been edited for clarity.

Randy Bartlett: I go camping. With or without the family, we go with our tent and do wood-fire cooking. I am literally disconnected from everything (including cell service!) for a few days. We spend time worshipping as a family, and reading and diving into Scripture.

Tom Baran: For me, it’s fishing in the middle of God’s creation.

Brandon Hughes: Pastors conferences, short getaways with the family, and getting outside and doing my best to shut the phone off.

Joseph Pomroy: Jesus always retreated by himself. I have learned to appreciate retreats of solitude to focus on HIM. If it was good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for us.

TJ Hudson: Turn your devices off and get outside. Set a time daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly to replenish. 

Moving Forward with Your Sabbatical Plan

There is a lot to think about as it relates to first deciding whether or not to take a sabbatical and then how to prepare for it. This underscores the overall importance of planning that should go into the decision and the execution.

When you return from your sabbatical, the main idea is that you will return with clarity for how to lead your church forward in its mission to fulfill the Great Commission. 

It can be a little overwhelming to think through all this, especially if you are currently battling with burnout or if your mental health is suffering. You can always refer to our list above of how to deal with burnout. Remember that you don’t have to go through it alone.

Create a simple action plan for researching, planning, and pitching your sabbatical proposition to your governing board. When you do, you will help avoid conflict, make your marriage healthier, navigate burnout, reduce the likelihood of a church split, and so much more.

You should be applauded for your desire to care for yourself, your family, and your church. You can find hope in knowing that God knows what you need and will use the Spirit to guide you through the next steps of whatever process is most appropriate for you.

Pastor Sabbatical Worksheet

Create the basic framework of your sabbatical plan within six-weeks. Have an answer for your board when they ask, “How will we manage without you?”

Pastor Sabbatical Worksheet — A guide to avoiding burnout