What to know if you’re considering a sabbatical this year

By Merrie Eizenga

As the directors of Focus on the Family Canada’s Kerith Retreats, my husband, Marshall, and I have the immense privilege of spending a week every month with pastors, missionaries and para church leaders. No one would deny that the last two years have been filled with unprecedented challenges for leaders as they navigated a global pandemic and the ensuing fallout. Many of them felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the losses they had to face. Some of those losses were ministry related, others were deeply personal. So, we were bracing ourselves for what many were saying was just around the corner: The Great Resignation. Or as others called it, The Big Quit or The Great Reshuffle. There were anxious discussions among denominational leaders about how they were going to fill the gaps that were predicted.

And while our observations are anecdotal in nature, not as many pastors have stepped away from the pulpit as had been first expected. What we have found, though, is a number of those who have decided to stay have plans to take a sabbatical in the next year. If you are one of those it’s likely you have already approached your board and tentative sabbatical dates are on the calendar.

That’s how it happened for us. We were serving a multi-staff, multi-service congregation for five years as the lead pastor and were blessed with a forward-thinking board who had a three-month sabbatical already written into our contract. It was a gift I didn’t realize I needed – until I did.

But let’s be honest, I don’t think that’s the norm. And unfortunately statistics say one of the main reasons pastors aren’t taking sabbaticals is the angst around presenting the idea to a board or congregation. Pastors are concerned about comments like, “Well, I work hard too and I don’t get a sabbatical” or “You already get sufficient holidays to rest” or “You really only work a couple of days a week anyway.” And my personal favourite: “Pastor So-and-so was here for 25 years and he never asked for a sabbatical!”

If that’s the situation you find yourself in, Dr. Hal Seed in his article “How to Plan the Perfect Pastor’s Sabbatical” offers some helpful advice. He says when approaching your board, do your homework and present a detailed, well-researched document to them on the benefits of a sabbatical both for you and for the church. Then he lists these helpful suggestions:

  1. Approach your board six to eight months ahead of the time you have in mind. (So, if you’re hoping for a 2023 sabbatical, there’s still time!)
  2. Show them the plan for your time away. Explain how you see the church covering for you and covering the extra expenses. Then give them a month or two to think, pray and talk about it.
  3. They may say, “We’re supportive, but give it another year.” If so, hold steady. You’re in it for the long haul, and you now have a year to look forward to this special time away.
  4. If they say, “Yes!” assure them that they will get their money’s worth. In fact, one of the non-negotiables in our sabbatical policy is that we had to commit to another two years of ministry at our church in order to qualify for this leave time. Some churches are afraid that if they give their pastor a sabbatical, he will resign at the end of it, but a Lifeway study of 1,576 pastors says that pastors are 2.5 times more likely to stay in ministry when there is a sabbatical plan in place.
  5. Once your board approves your sabbatical, there may be a few non-board stakeholders who have concerns. Your document will help bring them up to speed quickly.

However, he does add that if you haven’t been there at least five years, or the church is really struggling, it’s not the time for you to request a sabbatical.

In your board presentation you may want to add the following insight from Thom Rainer taken from his article, “Five Reasons Why Your Pastor Should Take a Sabbatical”:

  1. A pastor has emotional highs and lows unlike most other vocations. In the course of a day, a pastor can deal with death, deep spiritual issues, great encouragement, petty criticisms, tragedies, illnesses and celebrations of birth. The emotional roller coaster is draining. Your pastor needs a break.
  2. A pastor is on 24-hour call. Most pastors don’t have an “off” switch. They go to sleep with the knowledge they could be awakened by a phone call at any time. Vacations are rarely uninterrupted. It can be an exhausting vocation, and a sabbatical can be a welcome time to slow down.
  3. Pastors need time of uninterrupted study. It doesn’t usually happen in the study at church or home. There is always the crisis or need of the moment. Church members expect sermons that reflect much prayer and study. The pastor’s schedule often works against that ideal. The sabbatical can offer much-needed, and uninterrupted, study time.
  4. Pastors who have sabbaticals view the time off as an affirmation from their churches. I have heard from many pastors who say, “I know my church loves me because they gave me a sabbatical.” Pastors need affirmation. Sabbaticals can accomplish that goal.

Jay Fowler agrees: “It’s undeniable that pastoral ministry takes a toll on a person. But God in his love and wisdom, has offered the sabbatical as a way of refreshing those who shepherd his flock. Congregations should encourage their pastor to take sabbaticals at least once every seven years. Pastors should model the importance of taking time away from ministry and drawing near to God. It shows the congregation that the pastor is not the Messiah, and that he/she needs times to receive from the Lord.”

It’s been rewarding for us to see that many leaders are now incorporating a Kerith Retreat into their sabbaticals.  Our prayer is that the year ahead will provide places for you to step away and catch your breath, we’d love it if one of those places was spending a week with us.

For additional ideas, check out our free PDF, Sabbaticals for Ministers: The Benefits for Pastors and Congregations. In this free 25-page booklet, you will understand why sabbaticals are essential for those in ministry, how they benefit not only the pastors but the entire congregation, and how to make a proper plan by creating a sabbatical policy.


Merrie Eizenga is one of the program directors at the Alberta Kerith Retreats location with her husband, Marshall. For more information about our retreats, visit KerithRetreats.ca.

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