Over the next two months, I will be taking a sabbatical. Some may wonder what this is and why churches do this for their pastors. First, a sabbatical, broadly defined, is a time when a pastor draws back from his regular responsibilities for the purpose of rest and renewal. There are no commands in Scripture that tell churches and pastors to do this. Sabbaticals are thus a matter of prudence, not obedience.
Despite no clear commands in Scripture for pastors to take a sabbatical, I’d like to offer four reasons why it’s a good idea for churches to consider. First, the main purpose of a sabbatical is to rest. The word “sabbatical” itself indicates this. In the Old Testament, the sabbath (from which we get the word “sabbatical”) was a unique gift to God’s unique people. No other culture had anything like it. God wanted His people to rest, so He commanded them to rest one day out of seven.
The commands to Israel about the Sabbath may no longer be binding for Christians, but they still have a lot to teach us. Primarily, they tell us that God cares about His people’s rest. This is true for all His people, pastors or otherwise.
Why then should pastors receive extended periods of rest? The reason lies in the nature of the work of pastoring. Hebrews 13:17 says that pastors keep watch over people’s souls. This means that a pastor is concerned about the ultimate and most important issues in people’s lives. He doesn’t just manage a congregation. He helps people know and follow God.
In the OT, the sabbath was a unique gift to God’s unique people. No other culture had anything like it
This is a unique kind of work. It is, at times, agonising work because pastors lead people to water but they cannot make anyone drink. It is also thrilling work because pastors have a front-row seat to the work of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives.
The work of shepherding people’s souls, in all its joys and sorrows, is a beautiful work. But it’s also all-consuming work. It touches the deepest parts of a man, so it requires a spiritual, emotional, psychological, and physical health that can only be sustained through regular rest. Sometimes, that rest should take the form of a sabbatical.
It’s good for a shepherd to go to the pasture without any sheep for a while so that he can be nourished as a sheep — which, after all, he most fundamentally is. Or, as Mark Dever says, “Your car will last longer if it’s regularly serviced, and your pastor will last longer if he’s regularly rested!”
Along with rest, research is the second reason why churches should give their pastors a sabbatical. Colleges and universities give professors sabbaticals in order to relieve them from their regular teaching duties so that they can advance research in a specific area.
Since the primary job of a pastor is the regular teaching of God’s Word, they function a lot like professors. Giving them a break from their normal teaching duties allows them to spend time studying specific areas that they would not otherwise be able to study.
Pastors need time and space to read, think, research, write, and advance their learning in a specific area, or in multiple areas. This is a benefit to the church because it gives them a pastor whose preaching is sharpened and energised by deep thinking.
The third reason why churches should give their pastors a sabbatical is to bless the pastor’s wife. Being married to a pastor brings with it special opportunities and burdens. Sunday morning church, for example, is a different experience for my wife and children than it is for most Christians.
The work of shepherding people’s souls, in all its joys and sorrows, is a beautiful work. But it’s also all-consuming
A pastor’s wife is often right in the middle of the shepherding work her husband is doing. She’s married to a man who constantly bears the burdens of everyone else. She often feels like she doesn’t have her husband to herself. Therefore, she also needs a break from the weight of ministry that she helps her husband carry.
A sabbatical allows a church’s pastor to pour into the people who matter the most to him. This is another way the church blesses itself. Pastors with strong marriages usually have strong ministries.
The fourth and final reason why churches should give their pastors a sabbatical is for the health of the church. Sabbaticals teach the church that the church is not built on the pastor, but on the Word of God.
Allowing the pastor to step aside for a season says to the church that the ministry of the gospel is not built on any one man. During a pastor’s sabbatical, churches remember what foundation their house is built on, and they rejoice in the gifts and faithfulness of other men God has raised up to lead the church.
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