In the fall of 2015, I hit the wall. You know the one—the wall ministers hit when they are ready to call it quits. I hit it hard, and it hurt all the way to my soul. I was exhausted—physically, emotionally and spiritually. Only a minister can truly understand why ministers burn out. Days off are rare, long days are plentiful, and our hearts, minds and bodies are often consumed by a variety of responsibilities that are all “just part of the job.” I found my way back to my calling by way of a 3-month sabbatical.
Why take a sabbatical? The statistics for burnout in ministry are mind-boggling. As any minister will tell you, this job is more than a job. It can take over your life if you let it. A sabbatical can give you your life back, inviting you to remember who you are when you are not “The Minister,” and providing you with time to consider how you’d like to engage in ministry differently. It is an ending and a beginning of sorts—one that makes way for change.
What It Takes
For some of us, it’s hard to imagine that anyone else would be able (or willing) to do all that we do. And the truth is—not just anyone could. To take a sabbatical, you will need an interim minister or a strong community leader with pastoral abilities to fill in for you. You’ll also need to think about who will do what, and how.
Here are some key sections of the sabbatical plan our community developed:
Our Leadership Team
- Interim minister (In our case, this position was filled by our associate minister)
- Board president
- Office administrator
- Prayer chaplain team trainer/leader
Who Does What: General Responsibilities
- Prayer consciousness–Prayer chaplain team leader
- Sunday services–Interim minister/music director/guest speakers
- Spiritual counseling–Interim minister/community member who is a psychologist
- Life celebrations, weddings–Interim minister
- Hospital visits–Prayer chaplains
- Supervision of staff–Interim minister with support from the board
- Board meetings–Minister will attend by Skype (This ended up being a very good choice.)
- Fiscal oversight–Board president/treasurer
- Transportation for guest speakers–Board
- Food for guest speakers–Office administrator
Speaker-Oriented Responsibilities (Office Admin/Interim Minister)
- Make a call to each speaker or send an email and introduce yourself.
- Welcome speaker when they arrive, show to office.
- Help set up any merchandise.
- Make sure speaker has water and any other needs are met.
- Assist speaker in getting seated on the front row.
- Conduct all parts of the service except the lesson.
- *Introduction of speaker.
- Thank the speaker after the Sunday service.
- See the speaker out at the end of the service.
*I provided the audiovisual team with a pre-recorded video introduction for each guest speaker. I also prepared a written introduction for the weekly e-blast and our Facebook page. This gave me a presence each week, helped newcomers to become familiar with me, and ended up being much more meaningful to the community than I had expected. I did it all in advance and included jokes and information about my travel schedule, which helped the community feel connected to my experience and gave me a continued presence in the community.
Sunday Schedule (Guest Speaker/Platform Leader)
Here, we listed the date of every Sunday I would be away, the guest speaker we had scheduled to speak, the platform leaders, and contact information for everyone.
Examples of When to Call the Minister
- When there is a major emergency that affects a large percentage of the community. (forest fire, flood, bomb threat, etc.)
- When there is a terminal hospitalization or death of a member or regular attendee.
- If any staff member or board member is seriously ill or decides to leave our employment or exit the board.
- If there is a problem with any community member that would require asking them to leave the community.
- If you can’t find something you really need and you have asked everyone else first.
Examples of When Not to Call the Minister
- When someone refuses to talk to anyone except the minister. (They must speak to the interim minister first. The interim will call the minister, if necessary.)
- When something needs to be repaired. (The board must approve any un-budgeted expenditure. Budgeted expenditures must align with cash flow. Contact the board president for approval and next steps.)
- When a speaker cancels or misses a flight. (The interim minister is prepared with an extra lesson he/she can offer in this situation.)
Our written plan helped create a general sense of ease and comfort for everyone. Preparing it gave us confidence that things would go well. We brought in speakers that had a proven track record of success with our community, and promoted the “Summer Sabbatical Series” for about a month prior to my departure, using in-house posters, email announcements, and announcements from the platform. The end result? Great summer attendance!
Renewing Your Spirit
Unlike an academic sabbatical, which usually involves research, writing and publication, the objective of a ministerial sabbatical, for me, was a return to spiritual health and wholeness. This sacred and spiritual experience is birthed in simple things like deep breathing, acknowledging the Divine Presence within, setting intentions, finding lots of stillness, and coming to a place of authentic gratitude. A sabbatical is a living prayer, for the minister, and for the community. It affirms and grows the relationship between them.
On my sabbatical, I spent a week at Unity Village, Mo. I took a 16-day trip with my husband and my youngest son, ending with our attendance at a four-day spiritual retreat in upstate New York. I sat on my front porch and watched people walk by, sat in the woods and listened to the wind, and sat without thinking, in order to experience, in a new way, what being feels like.
Two weeks before I was scheduled to return, I went to a “silence and song” retreat in the mountains of New Mexico. Being completely quiet in a beautiful setting brought all of life into new perspective. Every bite of food was tastier than before. Every fragrance was full and rich. Birdsong delighted me, and rain called me out into the open to play. I had a visceral awareness of each step I took on the earth and was fully in my body, instead of mostly in my head, as I had been when I started my sabbatical. It was heavenly—and healing.
On the Sunday I returned, there was cake, and hugging and celebration. My community had grown and I had grown. We are stronger as a result of the time spent apart. Oh—and that wall I mentioned? It must have been taken down while I was away!
Returning is not without challenges. Change brings challenges with it and we have experienced a few, but I have a renewed commitment, the community is more knowledgeable, and we are finding that solution-based collaboration works. I’ve learned that, to do my job well, I must be rested, present, spiritually-connected and vital. My sabbatical saved more than my ministry. It saved my life. For that, I’m grateful.