Why give ministers a paid sabbatical? The first thought that comes to mind is to prevent burnout. Even when a minister loves what he or she does and takes vacation time as well as spiritual renewal days here and there, the constant demands of providing nurture and inspiration week after week are cumulative. According to Rev Erin McCabe, Sr Minister, Unity Village Chapel, Mo., discussions of the issue of burnout in ministerial school revealed that burnout can begin as early as five years into ministry. To prevent losing our ministers to burnout, congregations may want to seriously consider including at least a three-month sabbatical between year four and five of ministry.
I had experienced burnout myself. As minister of a small Presbyterian congregation in the 90s, I requested a three-month sabbatical at the seven-year mark, already feeling discouraged and tired. By the time the sabbatical began in year eight, I realized I had no energy left to stay in that ministry. I did agree to stay six more months, but it was hard for all of us. Rev Scott Schell, from Columbine Spiritual Center, Boulder, Colo., is planning a sabbatical at year ten with both he and the board aware that the outcome is uncertain as to whether he will stay or leave when he returns. Can he reclaim his joy in ministry?
There is more than burnout to consider, however. Rev McCabe offers this positive rationale:
A sabbatical honors and acknowledges the level of commitment, dedication and rigorous attention conscientious ministry requires of a minister. A minister’s job does not close at the end of the work day nor does it cease on the weekend. It is an ongoing act of consciousness and service. Conscious ministry demands the dedication of one’s life, time and vitality. Providing a sabbatical is a community’s way of creating a healthy environment which acknowledges, honors and stewards their spiritual leader.
When I came to Unity Spiritual Life Center of Yakima, Wash., in July of 2005, I remember being impressed that my contract included the possibility of taking a three-month paid sabbatical after seven years. At year five, I started to ask questions: Were they serious about this? What would it look like to have me out of the picture for three months? What steps could we take to make it a fun, interesting, empowering time for all of us?
That’s one of the keys for making sabbaticals work for everyone: getting clear about the benefits and creating a sense of excitement, curiosity and anticipation for what this time can bring.
Early Planning Brings Everyone on Board
When these discussions began in 2010, Unity of Yakima averaged 40-50 people on Sunday mornings. We have a high level of participation for a group our size. Even so, how could a small, remote congregation like ours with no other paid ministry staff possibly offer their minister three months off with pay?
A year and a half before my 2012 sabbatical, a specially-formed leadership group began to meet together to look at ways we could assist volunteers in feeling more comfortable and clear about sharing leadership. We were especially focusing on Sunday services flowing more smoothly. During the next nine months, we developed training and job descriptions for the greeters, platform assistants and prayer partners who are part of worship leadership every Sunday.
At our October 2011 annual meeting, the board and I talked with the membership about what a sabbatical is and how we as a congregation could see it as an opportunity for new experiences, new voices on Sunday mornings, and new appreciation for one another. We included an increase in the budget for speakers. I spoke of my own excitement to be able to feed the contemplative part of myself with extended time to simply be.
About three months out, at a town hall meeting, we handed out a half-page plan entitled, That All May Go Well during Cheryl’s Sabbatical. It included a process for dealing with facility issues needing immediate attention—a “who ya gonna call?” plan. It also put forth the creation of a Worship Team that included representatives from the major leadership groups involved on Sunday mornings. This ad hoc Worship Team met monthly until I left, creating a list of all that needed to happen on Sundays, from opening to closing. Special attention was given to providing hospitality for guest speakers and checking in with everyone involved in leadership on a particular Sunday to be sure they remembered and were ready to go.
Shortly after that town hall meeting, we put out a Sunday speakers sign-up sheet. (Larger churches will likely give more planning effort and funds to find exciting, well-known speakers for this time.) Out of the 13 Sundays I would be gone, eleven slots were filled by congregants! We offer congregants who speak a small honorarium of $75. Guest speakers from out of town are paid $150. Though these funds were budgeted, that didn’t mean the money appeared readily available. That is, until one day two months before my sabbatical began, a congregant brought in a tithe from unexpected income that was just the right amount to cover all our speakers. Woo-hoo!
Setting Boundaries and Letting Go
At last, the planning was as done as it was going to get. The time was here. It was time to go. Before I left, congregants had asked if they could call me to go to lunch. I gently said no. Well, if they saw me in the grocery store, could they come up and say hi? Yes. Boundaries are interesting, aren’t they? Especially in a relatively small community.
It took three weeks for me to really let down and stop thinking that I needed to check in at the office during the week. My administrative assistant helped me with that. She didn’t call me about church business, even when she could have used a little extra support. There was a rhythm to my time which truly fed my soul. Though I didn’t have a large budget for travel, I was able to take a road trip away for a week or ten days followed by a couple weeks at home. I repeated this several times over the course of the summer. This is sacred time for the minister to decide what will truly be refreshing to his or her spirit.
When there were only two weeks left, I could feel myself starting to make the transition back into ministry. I joined other congregants at another Unity church to hear Barbara Marx Hubbard, whose book we would be using for our fall small group book study. I began to formulate what I would share about this sacred sabbatical journey on my first Sunday back.
The middle of September, I returned to a congregation that felt proud of how they had done that summer. Sunday attendance had stayed higher than previous summers as they supported all who spoke. Several new people who visited saw what was happening and are now members. Yes, there were a few rough spots and a few people who got upset about this or that. Hmm—same as when the minister is there, right? Overall, it was a positive experience for all of us.
Think you and your congregation could never manage a sabbatical? Think again! Unity Spiritual Life Center of Yakima did it and so can you!
(Thanks to Rev Scott Schell at Columbine Spiritual Center in Boulder, Colo., and Rev Erin McCabe at Unity Village Chapel, in Unity Village, Mo., for their valuable insights for this article.)