Sabbatical: A Healthy Distance

Rachel Boehm Van Harmelen

(Article first appeared in the October 26, 2009 issue of the Christian Courier)

“From a distance the world looks blue and green
and the snow-capped mountains white
From a distance the ocean meets the stream
and the eagle takes to flight.”

The lyrics of this 90s-era Bette Midler hit, “From a Distance,” imply that eyeing a situation from afar offers a healthy change in perspective. Many pastors are discovering that, too. After years in parish ministry, a sabbatical can provide a much-needed opportunity to contemplate ministry “from a distance.”

Opportunities for reflection and renewal are important in a profession where growing numbers of pastors are opting out of ministry mid-career. According to the Christian Reformed Church’s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence website, nearly 20 percent—or one in five—pastors suffer stress and burnout.

“The parish ministry is the kind of position that has a knack for slowly and insidiously draining a person’s resources—physically, emotionally and spiritually,” says Rev. Cecil Van Niejenhuis, who, until recently, served a church in Edmonton, Alberta, and now works with the office of Pastor-Church Relations for the Christian Reformed Church. “The pace of life and of ministry is such that people simply get worn down.”

Leonard Diepeveen is chair of council at All Nations Christian Reformed Church in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has seen firsthand how years in ministry can sap a pastor’s energy. “Our pastor had been here for seven years, straight out of seminary. So that’s a lot of new sermons, a lot of new situations, without any time to recharge,” says Diepeveen.

Last year, All Nations’ council members began to work with their pastor, Rev. Dave Vroege, to support him in developing and implementing a sabbatical plan, something the church also offered to the previous pastor. Vroege will begin his three-month sabbatical this December. “Churches should be aware that pastors do burn out and do need time to recharge,” Diepeveen says. “They need time to disengage and to think systematically about their ministry, to spend time in a more relaxed setting for prayer and meditation, and to reconnect with family and their calling—all of which can be obscured by the pressures of week-to-week ministry.”

A Restorative Distance
Sabbaticals provide the opportunity to look at one’s ministry in new ways. “Having been on sabbatical, it’s like you’ve benefited from sitting on the balcony and viewing things from afar,” says Van Niejenhuis. “After a sabbatical, you feel ready to take your place once again on the main floor. You come back refreshed and ready to engage in your work again. You think more calmly – and therefore more clearly – and are surely more efficient.”

“During sabbatical, I gained some clarity about what our church needed,” says Rev. Jon Huizenga, who pastors River Rock CRC in Rockford, Michigan. Huizenga recently benefited from a four-month sabbatical. “I came back and led a very effective ‘vision into action’ process that we needed. I hadn’t realized that we needed it until I was away.”

Rev. Dave Vroege, All Nations CRC, is looking forward to sabbatical in December and hopes that it will renew his calling for ministry. “The weekly and monthly responsibilities [of parish ministry] do weigh heavy on me many times and, over several years, it has given me a sense of long-term fatigue,” he says. “As heavy as I feel pastoring to be at times, I do still feel called to it, and I hope that the sabbatical will reinvigorate me for that call.”

Healthy for Families, too
Sabbatical benefits extend beyond pastor to family, too. “Ministry is consuming not just for the pastor but for the whole family,” says Jon Huizenga. “At some level your whole family’s relationships are affected by how the church is going. Sabbaticals provide a temporary, restorative distance from that consuming life.”

For that reason, Huizenga encourages pastors to plan their sabbaticals with family in mind. Family time was built into his sabbatical plan, including one trip with his spouse and two family trips. “Make your sabbatical at least family-friendly,” says Huizenga. “It’s possible that a sabbatical could be a time of stress for a family as a husband or wife goes off for an extended class somewhere. The result? The pastor has a sabbatical but his or her marriage takes a hit.”

Time and Space
Sabbaticals are not all about pastoral health, however. Through sabbaticals, churches win as well. “The church benefits by having a rejuvenated pastor return to them, a pastor who may feel a new sense of calling to the congregation,” Diepeveen says.

Vroege is convinced that his sabbatical experience will be a blessing to members of his church by allowing them to take on new tasks and discover new gifts. “A sabbatical can allow parishioners time and space to engage in congregational ministry in new ways,” Vroege says. “However a congregation decides to handle pastoral duties in the pastor’s absence, some congregants will likely have to do a few new things and may even find themselves freshly considering what congregational life and ministry is about.”

During his recent sabbatical, Huizenga definitely found that to be the case. “The church gained confidence in the staff and board as they led professionally and lovingly in my absence,” says Huizenga. “Since I am the founding pastor, it was excellent for my young church to see that there could be healthy life without me present.”

Sabbaticals remind churches that no pastor is indispensable, according to Van Neijenhuis. “During sabbatical, the church actually manages quite nicely without your presence,” he says. “This is important for both pastor and congregation to sense.”

Sabbatical Tips
Develop a Sabbatical Policy
“Put a sabbatical policy in your letter of call, so the pastor doesn’t need to bring it up him or herself,” advises Leonard Diepeveen. All Nations drew on the experiences of other churches when developing their policy. There are more than 50 examples of church sabbatical policies on the Christian Reformed Church’s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) website. Check them out at http://www.crcna.org/pages/spe_sabbaticals.cfm.

Make a Plan and Apply for Funding
Many pastors are able to secure funding to cover part—or all—of their sabbatical costs. “Applying for grant funding forced me and my church to propose a well-thought-out, fully-endorsed sabbatical plan well in advance,” Huizenga says. “The financial support made the activities we did possible and also provided full funding support for the staff changes we made during my absence.” A list of grants, planning aids and other resources is also available on the SPE’s website at http://www.crcna.org/pages/spe_sabbaticals.cfm.

Strive for A Healthy Balance
“Don’t think of sabbatical as a time to produce something,” says Van Nienjenhuis. “This is not extra vacation time that needs to be justified or rationalized somehow. This is the congregation offering pastoral care—as in care for the pastor. It is part of maintaining health—and the key notion is that in order to be a healthy leader, a pastor must be a healthy person.”

“Find the right balance between activity and rest,” advises Vroege. “I believe this will be different for different pastors. In my case, I think it’s important to do what I can to not overdo it and so come back frazzled rather than refreshed.”

With the right balance, sabbatical can work wonders for weary pastors and their families, while empowering worshippers. If you are part of a church that hasn’t offered sabbatical in the past, maybe now is the time to discover the difference that a healthy distance can make.

 

Sabbatical Reading List

Clergy Renewal: The Alban Guide to Sabbatical Planning by Richard Bullock and Richard Bruesehoff. Alban Institute, 2000

The Spiritual Leader's Guide to Self-Care by Rochelle Melander and Harold Eppley.  Alban Institute, 2002.

The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction by Eugene H. Peterson. Eerdmans, 1993.

Journeying toward Renewal: A Spiritual Companion for Pastoral Sabbaticals by Melissa Sevier and Melissa Bane.  Alban Institute, 2002.