For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest.—Leviticus 25:3-5
Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.—Exodus 34:21
This past Sunday we announced that my brother Randy is taking a one-month sabbatical from his position as Worship Pastor at Community Church. This has been in the works for a long time, and was actually postponed twice because of COVID-related travel cancellations. I’m excited for Randy, and I hope you’ll join me in praying for this to be a spiritually refreshing season for him and his family.
At my previous church, I was blessed to enjoy a three-month-long sabbatical in 2015, after having served the church for 10 years. For the most part, people were very supportive, kind, and encouraging, but there were also rumblings of “why does he get a three-month paid vacation? We don’t get that in my line of work.” A sabbatical isn’t something we hear about much outside of the church, and it’s understandable that most people wouldn’t know what it is or why it’s important. Let me do my best to explain:
First, the biblical idea of the Sabbath is an important one, but unfortunately many believers are confused by it. Without devoting a whole article to the issue, I’ll just say that for New Testament Christians, it’s not a law we are bound to, but a principle we would be wise to pay attention to. We aren’t Jewish, and our standing with God isn’t determined by our faithfulness to the Law. So we don’t have to keep the Sabbath (which is Saturday, by the way, not Sunday), but we would be foolish not to rest. God intends for us to live our lives in a natural rhythm of work and rest. So everyone should work hard at whatever God has called them to do, and everyone should take days off. Everyone should take vacations, because life is hard. Being a teacher is hard, and being a correctional officer is hard, and being a stay-at-home mom is hard. Observing the principle of the Sabbath, in one way for another, is important for everyone.
So if a pastor is living a wise and balanced life, working hard, taking days off, taking vacations, then why does he need this thing called the Sabbatical? Well, the short version is that working in full-time ministry is like no other job. When we give someone a sabbatical, we are acknowledging that there is a unique spiritual wear-and-tear that comes with working in the church that is above and beyond the stresses of everyday life. Eventually it takes its toll in such a way that hitting the reset button requires more than a week or two off.
When I was an eager, inexperienced pastor, I was shocked when my mentor in ministry said something that at first I thought was far too cynical for a godly man like him. I learned much of what I know about preaching and leading a church from pastor Mark Hanke, who is now the Senior Pastor of Salem First Baptist Church in Oregon. Mark is a wise, courageous, humble leader, an incredible preacher, and an all-around giant of a godly man. Once someone asked him why he was so obviously eager for his upcoming vacation, and he said “because ministry is toxic.” His words confused me, because I know that no one loves the church more than Mark. How could he say something so negative about God’s church? And why would he continue to give his life to something if it was unhealthy?
Today, I know exactly what Mark was talking about. I love Jesus and I love His church, but I recognize that the longer I spend in full-time ministry, the more certain things are building up in my system, and every once in a while the system needs to be flushed so they don’t reach toxic levels. When you are in ministry, you do a lot of absorbing. You absorb criticism and take it with a smile. You absorb praise and try not to let it go to your head. You absorb the stress of other people’s relational problems, and the pain of other people’s grief. You absorb the frustration of planning your life around meetings and events that other people have no problem skipping out on or cancelling at the last minute. You absorb the disappointment of people moving away, people stumbling into sin, people’s low levels of commitment. You learn that people are often pretending to be more spiritual than they really are around you, and then you have to learn not to take it personally and love them anyway.
But the real wear-and-tear comes not from what we absorb, but from what we give away, and from the spiritual condition we have to keep ourselves in to be able to give it. You see, when you are preacher or a worship leader, you stand up in front of God’s people and represent Him every Sunday. There is no room to be out of step with Him, because Sunday is coming. Sunday is always coming. Other people can have a week where they don’t feel all that close to God, but if Randy has a week like that, he’ll still be up on the platform, leading God’s people in worship, even if in his heart he’d rather be out fishing. If I’m in the middle of an unresolved conflict with my wife, when Sunday comes I will still have to get up and preach the Word. Every Christian should be faithful in prayer and Bible reading, but for pastors it’s essential. Every Christians should take good care of their marriage, but if you’re a teacher or a correctional officer and you get a divorce, you don’t also lose your job. If my marriage fell apart I would lose my job, and rightfully so. If Randy had some kind of spiritual meltdown I would have to fire him. Most people get paid for what they do, but as a pastor I get paid for what I do and for who I am. Spiritual health is important for everybody, but when you are in full-time ministry the stakes are significantly higher.
This is why all ministry staff at Community Church receive a one-month sabbatical every seven years. It’s built into our employment contracts and our budget, because we want to say to people: “we recognize that you will pay a price to do what you do for Jesus and His Church. We know that serving in this way will take its toll, and we want to do what we can to keep you spiritually healthy for the long term.” Again, please be praying for Randy over the next month, that God would refresh his Spirit so he would be ready to stand up every Sunday and lead us in worship when he comes back. And please pray for all of our staff, and everyone you know who serves in ministry, that we would live with wisdom and balance, and that we would continually walk closely with God.