Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A sabbatical and the small church pastor.

Dahlia of the day: Jack O Lantern.

My recent health challenges have caused some folks at my church to being talking about me having a sabbatical. (It appears as though my shortness of breath is not due to heart “issues.”) I have been at Evergreen for eleven years. Evergreen is a small church that averages about 100 in worship each week. It is a great church!

The first I ever heard of a sabbatical was when I was in seminary. When I was the Chaplain at a Presbyterian-related college the idea of a sabbatical resurfaced. In both of these cases the sabbatical was a time for college professors to study, write books and publish articles in scholarly journals. The professor had to have been at the institution for at least seven years before applying for sabbatical. Typically, the person on sabbatical would receive half of their salary during the sabbatical.

Pastors of large churches have been able to go on sabbatical for quite some time. Multiple pastors on staff made this possible. I have known pastors who traveled to Europe to study Calvin, Knox and other notable Presbyterians. Once again, study was the major component of the sabbatical.

A few years ago a friend of mine (a pastor in my Presbytery) was approached by his session about going on sabbatical. They like the pastor and want him to stay at the church for years and years to come. They also realize the many hours that the pastor put in (like me he worked WAY too many hours each week). What my friend needed was rest and relaxation—not study! As things developed they decided that they would not call his time away a “sabbatical.” I think they called it a “time for refreshment.” The church gave him a three month time of refreshment. Once again, church staff carried the preaching, teaching and visitation load while he was away.

That brings me back to the topic of a sabbatical for a small church pastor. Here is a list of issues that the small church will face if the pastor is given a two or three month sabbatical:

  • How will the church pay the pastor and the additional costs to fill the pulpit?
  • Church attendance normally drops then the pastor is gone on vacation, so will there be a drop in attendance/membership for the period of the sabbatical?
  • Most (if not all) of the members of the church don’t get a sabbatical or an extended time of refreshment at their work so why should the pastor get one?
  • Small church pastors have to wear many “hat,” who will wear those many “hats” while the pastor is away?
  • Who will do the funeral of that influential church member that dies when the pastor is on sabbatical? What if the pastor is on sabbatical and stays in the immediate area of the church?
  • Will the sabbatical be a time of “study” or “refreshment?”
  • Who will play first base on the church softball team? (Note: Evergreen doesn’t have a softball team.)

There are a whole different set of issues that the pastor faces:

  • Will the pastor receive their full salary during the time away?
  • For the married pastor—what are they to do when the spouse does not get two or three months off of work without losing pay.
  • How will the pastor cover the additional expense of having someone look after the house, lawn, garden, etc?
  • Can the pastor “go” to a funeral of a close friend and church member but not do the service? What would the family think? The church?

Evergreen’s session HAS NOT spoken with me about a sabbatical—an elder or two have talked to me about it. Those discussions have caused me to wrestle with the idea of a sabbatical (or whatever you want to call it) for the small church pastor. In a perfect world a small church pastor should be able to do the same things that a large church pastor does. The “real” world is very different from the “perfect” world.

Join me in the days to come as I wrestle with the idea of a sabbatical for the small church pastor.


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