More and more congregations are becoming aware of the benefits of pastoral sabbaticals: situations in which pastors, in ways appropriate to their context, can step back from the daily demands of ministry and focus on activities and practices that will revitalize their shared ministry with their congregations. Whether a sabbatical is one lengthy period (say, 3-4 months) or divided into smaller segments, one significant challenge can be re-entry. If pastors have a successful and spiritually revitalizing time away, then how can re-entry into the congregation be an occasion for continuing the benefits of the leave rather than an unhelpful “shock to the system?”
As director of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs, I have been blessed to have spent the last decade or so thinking through generative challenges like these (for more of my thoughts on pastoral sabbaticals specifically, see my book, Planning Sabbaticals: A Guide for Congregations and their Pastors, published in 2019 by Chalice Press). Based on this experience and on the thousands of testimonies from pastors who have successfully completed sabbaticals, I would offer the following suggestions for how congregations and their pastors might think about re-entry.
Before the sabbatical:
- Approach the sabbatical as a shared journey between the pastor and the congregation. The more the congregation understands that pastoral leaves represent opportunities for re-energizing the ministry of the pastor and the congregation together, the more likely it is that the congregation itself will undertake appropriate activities that make the renewal period beneficial for both the congregation and pastor.
- Plan ahead for the pastor to engage post-leave activities that will allow for intentional, structured processing. This can be therapy, spiritual direction, or any other intentional space for processing the insights gained during the leave. It might be helpful for the pastor to plan for this in the sabbatical activities budget.
During the sabbatical:
- Create space for the pastor to separate from the congregation as much as possible, including electronically and on social media. If the pastor feels as though she has been continually pulled into congregational matters during the time away, this can build resentment and a sense of incomplete renewal that will likely exacerbate re-entry issues.
- Create opportunities for the congregation to playfully experiment while the pastor is away. This can take the form of special worship services, all-congregational readings, or other “break from the norm” activities. This way, the pastor and the congregation might each have stories to share upon the pastor’s return.
- Considering stipending staff with extra compensation for any duties taken on while the pastor is away. Not only does this honor the fact that many church staff do end up taking on more work in the pastor’s absence, but it also reduces the chance that the staff will feel resentment towards the pastor that can impact the return.
After the leave:
- Mark the return with intentional celebration. This can take the form of a worship service, a community meal, or any other contextually appropriate celebration. This will mark the transition from the liminality of the sabbatical period to the resumption of fully shared ministry.
- Go slowly. We have seen wisdom in a gradual re-entry rather than a “zero to sixty” approach. The pastor might begin with half-days back in the office, or an initially reduced meeting schedule, or any schedule that will allow for a less dramatic break between the relatively unstructured leave time and the hectic schedule of congregational ministry.
- Recognize that congregation members may have stepped up in the absence. We have seen many instances where, in the pastor’s absence, congregation members have taken on greater leadership roles – and in many cases, would like to continue them! More often than not, this is a cause for celebration and a potential paradigm shift in the shared duties between the pastor and the congregation.
- Or lay leaders may have taken their own breaks. Sometimes, the pastor’s renewal period—especially if it is approached as a shared time between the pastor and the congregation—may be a space for key lay leaders to step back and take their own breathers from ministry. This may seem alarming at first, but more often than not this will result in congregational lay leaders coming back to the shared ministry with renewed energy as well.
We have all heard that the relaxation gained from vacations can disappear the first morning back at work; however, renewal leaves are not vacations but rather intentional, structured periods of revitalization. So, the same care and intentionality around re-entry can keep the energy gained in the renewal from dissipating, and sustain the impact of these leaves for the benefit of both pastor and congregation.