by Pauline Doerksen
Sabbaticals for those in pastoral ministry are not a new concept. They have been embraced by many and everyone who has done one has a unique experience to tell. Whether the focus was on study, rest or a combination, the books and articles available to help in preparation for such a time has one thing in common: they all approach sabbaticals from the perspective of the person taking it.
I am not setting out to defend the benefits of a Sabbatical. Nor am I trying to suggest that a sabbatical should be done in a particular way. I am curious, however, to find out where a pastor’s spouse fits into the picture when it comes time for a pastor to take that long-awaited break.
I found myself in this exact scenario seven years ago. My husband was preparing for a four-month sabbatical. This would require him to step away from all responsibilities as lead pastor in our church. No preaching, teaching, meetings, weddings, funerals, counselling sessions or the like. Aside from that, there was a significant amount of freedom to decide on a plan. He had several conversations with his leadership team on who would take on his responsibilities in his absence. They talked about meeting a few times during the four-month period to see how things were going. This was all new to our church so they were figuring things out together.
As my husband and I talked about it, our conversations often centred on what he would do during that time. I was working outside the home so, for the most part, I saw this sabbatical as primarily for him. I hadn’t really considered my part in it. In fact, since I would still be working at my job outside the home, I didn’t think that the benefits of a sabbatical were an option for me. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that they were. Not only that, but it was to become an incredible season of growing and maturing which was, in many ways, quite unexpected.
We had made the decision that I would take a pause from my areas of responsibility in the church for the four months as well. Take a break, get some rest, attend church somewhere else and come back refreshed. It all sounded so good; so easy. The reality, though, was different.
At first, I welcomed it as a much-needed change and break. It was through this time that I believe I started to understand a very, very small part of what God wants from me and for me. When you take away all the things that you do for God, what is left? I began trying to figure out who I really was. And now that I didn't have the expectation of to do anything, I began to question my value.
I decided to use this time to read Scripture for my own soul’s sake. I didn’t need to study to prepare for anything and I was seeing something that I hadn't before: God loved me. He not only loved me, but He loved me without me “doing” anything for Him. Somewhere over the years I had forgotten that. I had bought into the lie that I had to earn God’s love by serving in ministry. The problem with that, besides the fact that it is a lie, is that I had begun to resent being in ministry. I only saw the needs of others, the shortage of workers and things I should be doing more, and it felt like I couldn’t take time and space to address my own needs.
Embracing a time of sabbatical provided space for my Heavenly Father to meet my need to be loved and valued without having to work for it – such a simple truth with a profound impact.
The other area of growth that took place for me was realizing how tightly I held onto the ministry I was involved in and how I used it to define me. Having to step away and allow someone else to take my place revealed a fear in me that was rooted deeply. I really don’t think that this fear would have come to light so clearly had I not taken that pause from my responsibilities.
Some of the questions that began to surface were:
- What if they did a better job?
- What if I am not missed?
- What if I am not wanted when I come back?
- Do I need that title of being “the pastor’s wife” in order to feel valued?
These were some very painful questions to ask myself, but as God revealed them to me, I was able to admit them and release them to Him. It changed me.
I find it quite amazing that these two areas of growth occurred simultaneously. It’s like the realization of one was comforted by the truth of the other.
It has been freeing to return to ministry with my hands held open. My value as God’s child allows me to be more transparent and authentic than I had ever been. I am convinced that I could only have learned this by stepping away from serving for those four months. There is something profound that takes place as we pause to rest in the presence of the One who has called us.
May I encourage all you pastors’ wives out there? If your husband has the opportunity to take a sabbatical, take it with him! Your time may look very different from his due to your season of life, but you may be pleasantly surprised at how your Heavenly Father wants to care for you.
I have talked with other pastors’ wives about this and have found that they too struggled during their husbands’ sabbaticals. Some of the questions they had were very similar to mine:
- What was expected of them?
- Did they have to take a time off from serving as well? What if they didn’t want to?
- What about attending church; do they have to go somewhere else?
- What about their children? How will it affect them if we go somewhere else for a while?
All of these questions are valid and taking the time to work through them can be difficult. I have found this especially true for those who were initially very resistant to pausing and resting. Some have absolutely refused to even entertain the idea. They felt that they didn’t “need” it. They were managing quite fine on their own. I get that. I was at that place for many years as well.
May I simply challenge you to be willing to be fully honest with yourself? What is it about taking a time of sabbatical that frightens you? I say “frightens” intentionally. At the very root of your resistance, is there something that you are afraid of?
- Will God be disappointed in you?
- Are you failing at fulfilling your calling?
- Is it a sign of weakness?
- Do you have something to prove?
I stated at the beginning of this article that I wasn’t going to defend the benefits of a sabbatical and here I am doing exactly that. I find myself in a bit of a quandary. On the one side I don’t want to be pushy and on the other side I desire for pastors’ wives to experience the tender touch of their Heavenly Father that can only come as they pause and rest in Him.
If I was to summarize what I experienced during my “husband’s” sabbatical, I would say this:
- It helped me to rest
- It helped me to release
- It changed the way I re-engaged
What an unexpected blessing. God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.
O God, you are my God; I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you; my whole body longs for you
in this parched and weary land where there is no water.
I have seen you in your sanctuary and gazed upon your power and glory.
Your unfailing love is better than life itself; how I praise you!
I will praise you as long as I live, lifting up my hands to you in prayer.
You satisfy me more than the richest feast.
will praise you with songs of joy.
I lie awake thinking of you, meditating on you through the night.
Because you are my helper, I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you; your strong right hand holds me securely.
If you’re looking for something to read during your own time of sabbatical, here are some books I’d recommend:
Pauline Doerksen and her husband, Sam, are the program directors at our Manitoba Kerith Retreats location. For more information about our retreats, visit Kerithretreats.ca
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