For several years we were privileged to have Jerry and Renee Ritskes direct our Kerith Creek retreat centre located near Calgary, AB, where they coached clergy and their spouses through some of the stresses they face in vocational ministry. In this article, the Ritskes share some of the lessons they learned through their ministry years.
Many of us dream of having breaks in ministry to restore our passion and our drive. And while sabbaticals are not the “magic bullet” for all your church leadership woes, they truly can refresh you and give you longevity in ministry.
A sabbatical is a prolonged Sabbath. Sabbath is ceasing. It is stopping at regular intervals so we can both rest and gain new perspective through listening – listening to God and to what’s going on inside our own souls. Many of us are much more attuned to the subtleties of our congregation than we are to our own heart. Sabbath is creating space to stop and listen. This is why God offered His people a Sabbath every week: It was intended to be a life-restoring gift.
Here are six things we’ve learned over the years as pastors and church leaders have attended Kerith Retreats during their sabbaticals.
The point of taking a sabbatical is to obtain some much-needed rest. Ministry is spiritually and emotionally demanding. Unless we are continually refuelling, we can run dangerously dry. Some of the symptoms of needing rest include lethargy, emotional disengagement, resentment, loss of perspective, loss of vision, lowered productivity and mood swings. When we reach this point, many of us are surprised and will tend to feel like we can no longer fulfill our calling. By taking a prolonged rest, we can restore some of the resilience we would normally have and avoid the urge to leave ministry.
Over time, we can lose the joy of serving the Lord, and ministry becomes merely a responsibility to fulfill. When we wear ourselves down to this point, we can no longer respond to the needs in ministry in a healthy way. Sabbaticals are one tool to help restore and clear your mind. “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me” (Psalm 51:12).
It takes planning . . .
Many pastors begin planning their sabbatical eight to 12 months in advance. It takes time to prepare everyone, to alleviate fears that people have and to make arrangements for the ministry while you are away. Sabbaticals don’t just happen; they most often are sought after and requested. When a congregation offers a sabbatical, sometimes it is because they see the effects of exhaustion appearing. Take the break before it’s needed – you and your congregation will benefit from it more.
. . . But not too much planning
One of the biggest mistakes we see people make is that they plan too much for their sabbatical. While education courses, reading and visiting other ministries can be great additions to a sabbatical, they can also leave you exhausted. Remember the main goal of a sabbatical is rest! Plan fun activities, time with your family, and possibly even arrange to have your spouse have time off as well so you can replenish together. Make sure you have ample “do-nothing time.”
Three to four months is often a good length of time to start with, depending on personal situations. If the sabbatical is more of a “stress leave,” then it may be necessary to have more time to process what got you to this place of exhaustion. Shorter sabbaticals that take place more often, as opposed to longer sabbaticals that take place sporadically, are usually preferable because they help keep us at our best.
What to include in a sabbatical
- Rest. That’s the number one ingredient: time away from the ever-present responsibility for other people’s souls and the leadership of a congregation.
- Play. Learn to have fun again. When we ask clergy what they do for fun, it’s not uncommon for us to hear, “I don’t know what would be fun for me.” Play is a form of re-creating (recreation) and healing your soul.
- Spiritual perspective. Many people don’t realize the toll on our spiritual life that ministerial serving has. It’s easy for us to focus on our role as servant to the exclusion of our relationship as God’s child. Either through some personal quiet times or through a guided retreat like Kerith Creek, it’s important to be replenished by God’s Spirit and reminded of our own walk with Christ. Remember – “the joy of the Lord is our strength.”
- Reconnect with family. We are often so consumed with ministry that our family and closest friends don’t get much attention. Sabbaticals are a good time to give our best to the closest people to us. A family vacation or extra activities will be welcomed by those closest to you. Having some extra-special date nights would also be a real bonus for you and your spouse.
Replenishing when a sabbatical is not possible
Renee and I created some of our own sabbaticals when we transitioned between ministries. We have taken up to a year off through some transitions and done something very different from ministry. While these times are financially challenging, it’s better than burning out and being out of ministry altogether. We’ve also worked hard at bringing in good rhythms of Sabbath and play into our lives. We probably need it even more now than in our earlier years. By creating regular periods of away time, we found that our souls have been restored in new ways.
This fall, set aside a couple of hours each week to stop and listen to the Lord’s voice. This is not a time of vision casting or of intercessory prayer for your congregation – it’s a personal time of connecting with God. You need time just to hear God’s voice in your own life.
A recent book which has been helpful to me during my times of finding better rhythms is Replenish by Lance Witt. With its short chapters and questions pointed directly toward pastors, it is a great book to journal through.
Don’t let your spiritual and emotional health simply dwindle. If you aren’t able to keep up with the drain of ministry on your soul, then look for more extended times of replenishing. Seek a sabbatical!
As part of the Pastor’s Advocate Series, Focus on the Family has a brochure on sabbaticals that can help congregations and pastors prepare for a sabbatical.
Contact Kerith Retreats at [email protected] to discuss sabbatical plans and how to make the most of a Kerith Retreat while on sabbatical.