In a church I served years ago, I was in a committee meeting where some members were bemoaning the fact that my senior pastor was taking “a sabbatical.” One man boldly proclaimed, “The devil does not take a day off; if we want to make a difference in this community, how can our pastor take weeks off at a time?” Another said, “It must be nice. I have worked my whole life and have never had one of those sabbaticals.”
My response to the first man was, “Well, I know the devil does not take a day off, but I am glad our senior pastor is not modeling his life and ministry after him.” My response to the second was, “I understand your feelings, but trust me, it’s different for a pastor. His calling before God is different.”
I could articulate some of the differences: the sleepless nights, the endless concern for the church, the internal pressure to stand before God’s people with a fresh word from Him, the sacred responsibility of knowing that you will give an account for the flock, and be judged more strictly. Even the passion that grows for the church in the heart of a pastor takes a great emotional toll. But in that moment, there was not one trump card verse that I was ready to throw down on the table as the “Boom—here it is; this is why pastors need focused times away for rest and renewal” passage.
Years later, while reading 2 Corinthians 11, I saw more clearly why it is critical that pastors retreat for times of recovery. In this chapter, Paul lists many of his sufferings for the Lord and the ministry that the Lord had given him. The list is intense, including five floggings, three beatings with rods, a stoning, and being shipwrecked. He continues…
On frequent journeys, [I faced] dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own people, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the open country, dangers on the sea, and dangers among false brothers; labor and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, cold, and lacking clothing (2 Corinthians 11:26-27).
But notice how Paul concludes the list of his struggles. It is as if he is saving the greatest burden he would face for an exclamation point type of ending, the crescendo to his list of concerns:
Not to mention other things, there is the daily pressure on me: my care for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? (2 Corinthians 11:28-29)
The burden Paul faced in his concern and love for the church was continual and intense. His constant longing for people to encounter the grace of God was coupled with the spiritual warfare and the natural disappointments he faced. And this burden was the conclusion to his list of burdens. It obviously weighed heavily upon him.
The pastor and staff in your church may not face beatings, stonings, and floggings, but they do face the daily pressures that Paul faced in their focused concern for the people of God. I know from experience, the ministry burden has physical, emotional, and spiritual ramifications. Because of this great burden, churches should generously give their pastors sabbaticals, a time away from ministry responsibilities to simply be still before God and be strengthened by Him. It is also of utmost importance that they have focused time to enjoy their families that minister alongside them.
Over the next few posts, I will give some practical suggestions to churches and pastors on making the most of sabbaticals.