Sabbatical Obstacles
Thomas Thompson
April 12, 2022
min read

If you decide to undertake a restorative sabbatical, it can be one of the most refreshing, disorienting, refueling times of your life.  You can come through on the other side having done what most people fail to do in their entire lives—Stop.  Really stop, to restart in a new restorative way.

In my leading people for over thirty years, I’ve seen firsthand the power of healthy rhythms—and the toll of unhealthy ones.  Although I had practiced sabbath and times of rest in my life for years, taking my first sabbatical at age 47 truly unlocked my heart and transitioned me into the next phase of my life.

Here are a few things God can do to you and through you in a sabbatical:

  • Allow you to slow down and truly rest
  • Help you become you again
  • Give you perspective on the truth of the last phase of your life
  • Get to know God and yourself in new ways.
  • Awaken new pathways to connect with God, yourself, and others
  • Give those you lead opportunities to grow and rise in your absence
  • Give you, your family, and those you lead the greatest gift you could give them—a sustainable soul

Now, let me explain why I call this a RESTORATIVE sabbatical.  We start by acknowledging that not everyone is on board with the idea of sabbatical.  Some raise objections to the idea. This is why I am calling this a RESTORATIVE sabbatical.  Because these common objections can lead us to a version of a sabbatical that does everything but restore souls. Here are some common objections I’ve encountered:

  • “I don’t get sabbaticals; why should my pastor?” 

When I would look out at my congregation, I saw nurses who pulled long shifts, deputies who faced daily threats, and stay-at-home parents who all worked hard jobs. I could not stand before them and say that my job as a pastor was any more difficult than theirs. Ministry is not more difficult than any other job…but it is different.

My friend Reggie McNeal says, “The senior pastor of a multiple-hundred-member congregation now must be manager of the corporate culture, head-hunter, personnel manager, strategic planner, fundraiser, expert communicator, chief vision developer and caster, ministry entrepreneur, spiritual guru, architectural consultant, plus whatever particular assistance or role the congregation needs at any given time.”

Imagine trying to carry out all these roles while at the same time, shepherding and nourishing the souls of people!  When you are tasked with caring for the souls of others, caring for your own soul becomes part of your job. The pastor needs pastoring. The shepherd needs shepherding. And the one leading people to rest needs rest themselves.

  • “Aren’t sabbaticals just long vacations?” 

It is true that vacations and sabbaticals are both breaks and applications of principles of rest. But they are different in three ways.

  1. While a vacation is a break from work, a sabbatical is a guided process of active rest, where one deliberately trusts God for the unfinished work they leave behind as they disengage to enter a serious evaluation of life and ministry.
  2. While vacations may have rest as a goal, sabbaticals exist to intentionally refresh and allow space to hear from God with the goal of intentional life and ministry changes.
  3. While a vacation is unsupervised “free” time, sabbaticals contain an element of supervision by advisors for both the leader and the congregation.

  • “What will you study/write/re-envision for our church while you are gone?” 

There are times to learn, to study, to write sermons, and to get away to seek vision. A sabbatical is not that time. A sabbatical is an extended sabbath. It is not a time to pursue additional study or training. It is not a time to produce. That is the opposite of God’s intention for sabbath; instead we watch God work while we stop our work. 

Sabbath, and sabbaticals, are not things you work to prove you deserve. They are to be received as God’s gift to us, a time to stop our ordinary work to rest, delight, play, and recover our purpose in Him.

  • “Our pastor has only been here a few years.” 

Sometimes churches will have people on their teams who haven’t invested a long time at their particular church, but who have been investing in the Kingdom for a while, and still need sabbatical rest and rejuvenation. Perhaps they have never had a sabbatical, or they are long overdue for one.  Yet sometimes when a pastor is starting a new role at a new church, it can seem like the sabbatical clock resets back to zero, and they need to start all over “earning” their sabbatical.  

But when we hire pastors, we always consider their time and experience in similar roles at other churches for building comp packages.  So why not consider these as we build "rest packages" too?

  • “If our pastor goes on sabbatical, they may not come back.” 

Ok, there is some truth to this. 

For sure, a pastor will not come back the same. Hopefully they come back refreshed, "re-souled". And of course sabbaticals are not a time to search for other jobs.  But any time we get away and hear from God for a morning, a day, a mission trip, or even a sabbatical, we expose ourselves to the great risk that God would speak to us and lead us in new ways. We don’t want to deny rest for our people or a leader out of the fear that God might speak to bring change.  By the way, a pastor reading this section pointed out that if God is bringing change in the life of the pastor, He is also going to bring positive change in the life of the church.  He’s got that covered! 

My experience has been that when people move on soon after sabbaticals, it is often because they haven’t taken regular ongoing sabbath time for rest and reflection. The sabbatical becomes the first time they get extended time to hear from God and it’s the first time they’ve had their head above water for years or decades.  I’d argue that pastors moving churches every few years may often be a result of being tired or not having time to reflect. Sabbaticals help increase the tenure and effectiveness of a pastorate.

That is why healthy, ongoing rest is crucial. You can’t store up rest and hearing from God. This is why a policy of regular sabbaticals, every 7-10 years, can stave off this kind of radical life change and be more of an ongoing adjustment and alignment with the will of God.  Investing in the ongoing rejuvenation of your pastor actually helps them to give their lives more fully to the congregation.

With these objections in mind, let’s focus on what a RESTORATIVE sabbatical is. We now turn to nine keys that are essential to creating and experiencing restoration in your sabbatical. This list is not exhaustive; consider it a checklist of things to have in mind while preparing for your time of stopping, resting, listening, and restoring to return.

Excerpt from "The Nine Keys to a Restorative Sabbatical." © 2022 Thomas Thompson

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Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

I founded Thompson Leadership to come alongside leaders like you. Together, we will unpack your unique leadership, unearth your biggest challenge, and create an action plan to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be.
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