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Published on Saturday, November 11, 2017

Q/A: Should clergy take a sabbatical?

Yes, clergy should take sabbaticals. Indeed, I think they should be required and not optional. Different kinds of spiritual leaders focus the purpose and design of sabbaticals in different ways.

This is an interesting question, and inspires me to reflect on coaching I have offered a number of spiritual leaders (clergy and lay). Many leaders feel some urgency about taking a sabbatical, but do not know what to do or how to do it. Perhaps this will help.


Constant Leaders like caregivers or enablers usually focus their sabbatical on personal healing, refreshment, and “decompression”. This makes sense, because their ministries are emotionally intense, and constantly demanding. So their sabbatical is often a “retreat”, and may take them away from people into nature. If they have families, their sabbatical will be designed to include them, so it may include fun and recreation. Sometimes they retreat into history, traveling to some historic spiritual site, which helps them gain perspective.


Not surprisingly they are usually designed to include summer months. It really needs to be a time completely away from home, because these leaders are always “on call” and need to place themselves (and their families) beyond the reach of pastoral care requests or committee meetings. The challenge (if you have a family) is that three months away is ideal.


Constant Leaders like CEO’s, and Organic Leaders focus sabbaticals very differently. Rather than retreat, they tend to immerse themselves in the culture and context of a particular public. They choose a lifestyle segment for whom their heart bursts, but with whom they have yet to develop relationships, and go wherever the population density is highest for those people. These people may travel more during sabbatical, but always stay in the thick of things where they can observe, converse, interact, and more deeply understand the anxieties and yearnings of that group.


These leaders do not take their sabbatical in summer months, precisely because it is a traditional holiday time. They do it in winter months because they want to interact with people in their normal daily lives. Their sabbatical can be broken up in segments during the year, or even include internet de-briefings with the board and staff back home.


What I find most intriguing is that Constant Leaders almost always feel guilty about taking a sabbatical, and their congregations often dismiss or resist the practice. I think that either reveals co-dependency, or workaholic patterns that are unhealthy. So, the more they feel guilty, the more urgent it becomes that they do it!


Sabbatical feels more natural for Organic and some Extreme Leaders, and their constituencies are more open to it. Life coaches (gurus) may imitate disciplers (faith tutors) and immerse themselves in a micro-culture. But life coaches are more likely to select a lifestyle segments outside western culture or among immigrants. Their sabbatical may also be longer than disciplers, perhaps a year or more. Organic leaders frequently take their sabbatical with a partner or companion, because shared experiences and shared perspectives are more powerful.


I think Extreme Leaders like visionaries immerse themselves closer to home, perhaps in the same city where they cast visions for social transformation. Immersion for them, however, is less observation and more participation. They may literally take a job in another sector (usually food, business, industrial or law; rather than health, education, or social service) in order to experience life in a completely different way. They labor in their sabbatical in order to identify with the people. They often learn a new language while they do it. This means their sabbatical may last six months to a year.


The Greek Interpreters (mentors) may take a sabbatical at any time, for any length of time, because they tend to be “free spirits”. Wherever they go, it is usually alone or with a small circle of very intimate friends; and it is often very active and risky. They may do extreme sports like mountain climbing, white water canoeing, and ocean kayaking, and so on. The organic leaders and many visionaries tend to focus their sabbatical “horizontally” building relationships with other people.  But the mentor is more likely to focus sabbatical “vertically” to bridge the gap between the finite and the infinite.


This “vertical” focus of sabbatical is common for pilgrim leaders as well.  But the truth is that for the pilgrim leader their entire life is a kind of sabbatical! They may stop for a while to serve someone in need, but not for long. They are always stepping away from the “artificial” world (in which most of us live) to quest for the “real” world where God is to be found. Their sabbatical lifestyle is often paradoxical because they deliberately place themselves at the “crossroads” of history (ancient and postmodern), or of culture (east and west), or intellect (theology and science).


So you see that there are many ways to focus and design a sabbatical. The key, however, is to match the sabbatical with the kind of spiritual leadership you provide … or take a sabbatical to help you transition from one kind of spiritual leadership to another. Otherwise, you will likely be disappointed. Your sabbatical won’t really be productive. One inevitable conclusion, however, is that sabbaticals are essential to your effectiveness and growth as a spiritual leaders. That’s why I say that they should be required by the church, rather than optional to the clergy.

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