Monday, March 31, 2008

The Pastor Goes on Sabbatical

After 17 years of ministry at our church, our Pastor Ken is going on his first sabbatical coming up this month. I have gotten the impression that this is not fully understood by everyone; people haven't been saying anything particular that I've heard, but one person expressed that she had wanted to hear what the speaker from our denomination came to say (though he barely touched on the matter of sabbaticals--their purpose and what we were to expect to have happen through them). I asked Pastor whether people had supported or opposed it. He said they hadn't said much either way, which I think he supposed meant they didn't know what to think of it. I am supporting it entirely, because I've had the benefit of reading one of Eugene Peterson's books, The Contemplative Pastor, where he described the healing and focus and restoration that came from his church sending him on sabbatical. His lasted a year; Pastor Ken will be gone three months.
I think that people tend to think that such an amount of time "off work" is automatically time that is expected to be filled with travel and entertainment to whatever extent a person can afford it. However, that is not the general goal of a sabbatical, and Pastor Ken has resisted the idea of a trip when it was suggested--he is staying fairly closeby and intentionally not traveling during the time. It is a foreign idea to most of us, but a travel time would add its share of strain and distraction, disallowing the intended time to be spent in reflection, study, and prayer.
Pastor will have just returned from a missions trip that was productive but in all ways strenuous, and he was sick and tired even before he left. I don't expect that he will come back at all rested--probably all the more exhausted. He really needed the sabbatical for months before the missions trip happened. He is the one worker who is almost always physically present at our little church, and though we have another pastor (who works in construction part-time), and we also have capable elders, I get the impression that the bulk of the ministry falls on Pastor Ken--he does most of the sermons and pretty much sees about the running of the church, ministering to the people, and I think he tries to do more than he should be called upon to do because at times there aren't others doing all that needs to be done.
Because the church is small, I think people suppose that the pastor's job is small. If you contrast a small church with a large one, though, a large one has a staff of workers all through the week along with many volunteers and probably more funds for those things that the congregation can't do. Our small church has one full-time pastor, a part-time pastor and an elder board, and then a small congregation. There isn't the staff and there aren't so many people to do or fund the surrounding work. There aren't as many observers who notice the details of the things that need to be done. By the time you subtract the older and crippled folk, the moms who have lots of children that they homeschool, the men who work full-time, and the young people who are overwhelmed with just starting out in life, there are few left who have the time and focus to do the remaining work. The pastor walks in and out of his study and the things to do stare him in the face week after week unless someone does them. A person calls and the pastor answers the phone, rather than a receptionist. No one screens the calls. Someone knocks on the door, and the pastor goes to answer it. His job is probably enormously bigger than that of the pastor in a large church. I think the reason I notice this is because I've been a member of many larger churches, this is the first smaller church I've seen, and I know that the contrast would be staggering to the person experiencing it. It's ironic that the small-church pastor with so much on his shoulders realizes less recognition than the one with the huge support system around him.
Pastor says he needs to get away to re-evaluate, to hear what God has to say, to line his ministry up with God's priorities. I think that he gets pulled in a variety of directions, more than any person should. I am amazed that his temperament stays as calm and quiet and gentle as it does. I think mine would go ballistic in short order with all the daily demands that he faces!
Not only will a sabbatical be good for Pastor Ken, but it will be good for the church. If nothing else, it will help us just to see how big a hole is left when he leaves. I don't think it will be like the picture of removing a boat from the water, where the space the boat took is immediately displaced by water such that it leaves no impact. It will be more like having a huge tractor remove a tree from its soil--it will leave a gaping hole where all the roots, big and small, had become accustomed to the tunnels they had made in their surroundings, winding around rocks and clinging to anything stable. We will keep expecting the tree to be there, and keep falling into the hole. After a little while, we'll learn to bring a bucket of dirt to help fill in the hole. Perhaps by the time Pastor returns, the hole will be filled--there won't be another tree there, but the gap will be such that we're no longer getting hurt by falling into the hole he left. He'll be welcome back, of course, but perhaps in part because of our filling that hole, he'll be able to stand a little taller, digging his roots into some fresh soil. And we'll see him in the new light that comes with the refreshment of his time away and new perspective.
In pondering the matter of the sabbatical, today I googled "pastor sabbatical" and came up first with an article from Christianity Today called Give 'Em a Break--and I think it does a good job at presenting from a first-person description what the benefits are. It also adds some compiled suggestions for providing the money to pay for a sabbatical. Believe me, if our little church can do it, probably any church can!
A Review of the Video: Why You Should Give Your Pastor a Sabbatical, Roy Oswald, Senior Consultant with the Alban Institute quotes its presenter, Oswald, as saying, “90% of what a pastor does is invisible to 90% of the people 90% of the time.” For those who doubt the necessity of this sabbatical, I think perhaps this explains why they would wonder--the work isn't like building a visible brick wall; it's spiritual work. Eugene Peterson describes pastoral work as being like the angles of a triangle: time in prayer, time studying the Scriptures, and time working among the flock; he says that these aren't things that observers can evaluate as to whether they are being done or not. The time these things consume depends on the conscientiousness of the pastor. It's not much wonder that we might not appreciate this work fully, when we can't really see or evaluate the actuality of it.
Not only does the pastor need to do those three main things, but you can imagine how the natural earthly demands of a church, such as the maintenance of the building, might tend to worm their way into this triangle of responsibility and weaken the structure and focus of the pastor's work; every member of the congregation might have their unique opinions, requests, confusions, demands...and if (considering Oswald's quote) they don't see that the pastor has much work to do, they might be surprised and disappointed if he doesn't respond according to their expectations. This video review article is good also, in that it presents what a sabbatical requires of the congregation, and a list of its benefits.
Nine Marks (a website for equipping pastors) has an article about it too, Caring for the Pastor: The Sabbatical. This has good advice for the church, recommending constraints that make the most of the sabbatical time.
I hope that our church will discover all the benefits that comes from this sabbatical. I hope that they will consider providing one every few years from this point on. I hope and expect also that this sabbatical is just what is needed to restore Pastor Ken to a new energy and enthusiasm. I've never seen a pastor who deserved it more.
Today (4/6) Pastor was talking to us about his upcoming sabbatical. I thought of my closing sentence here when in reference to the sabbatical he said something to this effect: "I don't deserve anything. I don't deserve this sabbatical. I have never really felt right taking a paycheck from you." I've never heard this kind of talk from a pastor before--and he receives less pay even now for all he does than any other pastor of ours ever did, even the one 20 years ago who was having dinner at our house and complaining about his low pay--which wasn't all that low, to be quite honest; and that one didn't even really preach from the Bible, and he had a secretary besides.

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