Covid and sabbatical

by Jonathan Smith on April 20, 2021 in Church Health & Growth

It appears we have reached the 4th quarter of Covid. With almost two million Americans vaccinated in only two days, and with any Texan who wants to be vaccinated now being eligible, prayerfully, we will spike the ball for the final touchdown very soon. Game over....but still much to reflect upon and learn.

Let me tell you something about your pastor and ministerial staff. Your pastor is tired. I do not just mean physically tired either. He is most likely spiritually tired. If you have ever preached on a Sunday morning, you know what I mean. I always toss and turn on Saturday night before preaching and then crash hard on Sunday night, sometimes still sitting straight up on the couch, at 8:11pm (after three committee meetings Sunday afternoon too).

I recently heard Dr. Jim Henry, retired pastor at First Baptist Orlando, state that preaching a thirty-minute sermon is equivalent on the body to eight hours of post-hole digging. The body and soul are inexplicably intertwined. One affects the other. Imagine the effect if your pastor preaches multiple sermons each Sunday. And remember that, while he may look calm, cool, and collected as he stands before you and tries to interpret the scripture accurately, be engaging, try his hand at humor, and get tongue-tied a time or two, what you do not see is what is actually happening. While he is trying to persuade flesh and blood, he is also pushing against unseen powers, spiritual wickedness, all while the enemy wants to do him harm (John 10:10).

I remember a particular season of my ministry well. After twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, I still had never taken a sabbatical (a common occurrence in Baptist life). I had faithfully served my church as the senior pastor for a decade when my life got messy. A church member lost his arm in an industrial accident. Three days later, a teenager was removed with the jaws of life after a horrific auto accident. He spent months in rehab from a traumatic brain injury. My neighbor and close friend died. One of my best friends at church announced his mom had a tumor one day, and she died the next day. I was there with the family when she passed. Even my dog died. But it was my brother's death that broke me into several pieces. About two weeks after his death, Hurricane Harvey hit the town I pastored, and it was off to the ministry races again.

As difficult as that season of life was for me to experience, I want you to understand that in many ways, your pastor and ministry staff the last year have experienced their own form of trauma, unpredictable circumstances, change unparalleled in their lifetime, and private and public criticism like they never thought possible. Your pastor and ministry staff are tired, spiritually tired beyond what they can currently articulate. Your pastor has carried grief, buried people he would have expected to bury many years from now, and navigated becoming a "televangelist" practically overnight. He has replayed that mask policy “chewing-out” he received four minutes before preaching that Sunday in his mind over and over again. While playing the conversation in his mind once again, he received a text that chewed him out for a "no mask" policy he just released earlier in the day. He could not win. He did not win. Yet he loved and led as if the criticism did not hurt. But it did hurt. And truth be told…he is not a great actor.

Speaking of Hurricane Harvey, my pastor friend who lived in the same community as me when Harvey destroyed 25% of our town's homes told me something fascinating. He attended a seminar about pastors and natural disasters in which he was told that 75% of the pastors who lead through a natural disaster would move to a new church within two years. I paid attention to that statistic. Sure enough, of the pastors I knew in our community, almost all moved within a few years, including me. I honestly had no plan to move on, but the waves of Harvey crashed far beyond the days of rain and rising river.

Covid has been a hurricane. Probably less predictable than a hurricane. Your pastor and ministry staff need a break. They need spiritual refreshing. They need "re-creation" and time off, not just a tiring vacation at EPCOT (Every.Person.Comes.Out.Tired). It has always been fascinating to me, for some reason, we do not think twice when we hear about a professor who goes on sabbatical, but people tend to bristle when they hear of a pastor going on sabbatical.

Most Baptist churches I know do not have a sabbatical policy.

Lay leaders. Committee members. Elders. Congregation. Now is the time!

If you want your pastoral leaders to stay at your church....
If you desire your pastors to have a strong family....
If you care about the mental health of your staff....
If you long for your church to thrive....

The time has arrived to throw out your old sabbatical plan (if you are among the few churches that have one) or to gather the decision-makers together now and make a "Covid Sabbatical and time off plan." I am not suggesting the following Sabbatical plan takes the place of vacation time. Nor am I suggesting that the following proposal is a normal Sabbatical policy. But, written below might be a great starting point for a full Sabbatical policy later, as well as a much needed and deserved respite for your leaders near the end of Covid.

A sabbatical for professors is usually a semester, thirteen weeks. I recognize thirteen weeks is not practical in most pastoral situations, especially at the end of a pandemic when ministry is about to ramp up. Please allow me to make a few suggestions.

  • Offer your senior leaders time off ASAP. Who or what team was making the COVID decisions? Who was preaching and the prominent leader during COVID? Offer them a month-long, fully paid sabbatical in 2021. Why a month? I have read (and experienced) it takes seven to ten days for a senior leader to stop thinking about work and ministry and begin to rest.

    And what should the sabbatical look like? Vacation? Staycation? Study? Rest? Reflection?

    If I hire a strength and conditioning coach tomorrow, I am already the expert on my weaknesses and most significant needs. I do not need my bicep to be measured to tell you it needs work. Similarly, do not decide what should happen during the “Covid Sabbatical.” Instead, ask your senior leader(s) about their greatest Sabbatical need. I would not treat this circumstance like a regular Sabbatical with papers and reports to give the congregation at the end of the Sabbatical. Give your senior leaders paid time off, four Sundays off in a row. Let them decide the needed course of action or inaction if that is what is desired.

  • For other pastoral leaders, consider giving them two additional weeks of PTO before March 2022. Again, allow each minister to speak into their needs and make a plan.

  • A buddy of mine called the other day. He serves the Lord in a foreign country and sounded rather desperate on the phone. It broke my heart. Knowing I have walked through some difficult days of pastoral leadership, he asked me what he needed to do amid depression. I gave him three ideas, but the first one was professional counseling. As much as I lean on and admire the gift of pastors counseling other pastors (I just finished a phone call with a pastor buddy asking his input about this article), there are times a pastor needs to work directly with a professional counselor, and especially one who counsels pastors or other counselors.

    Please ask each staff member if they would currently benefit from professional counseling. They will be wonderfully shocked that you asked, and most will say no thanks, even if they feel it would be of benefit. So make sure to ask again! For those who say yes, pay for their counseling. After all, in the past your pastor has probably either counseled you for free OR referred you to someone he or she trusts.

Pandemics are not unprecedented for God's church. At some point, there will be another Covid like global experience. Pestilence is the result of the fall AND one of the signs of the end of the age (Matthew 24:4-8). However, unless your pastor is VERY old, or has served outside of the United States, he has likely not experienced anything like the last year, and hopefully, he never will again.

The time is now.

The needs are greater than you see.
The darkness does not relent.
The enemy comes to wound.
The time is now.

Your pastoral leaders have unspoken needs.
The light in your pastoral staff needs to continue to shine, especially in the soon coming post-Covid world.

The Lord, through the voice and hands of your pastoral leaders, binds up earthly and eternal wounds.

They have led strong. They have led well. They have given much.

…And if you still are not convinced, read Luke 5:16.

Dr. Jonathan L. Smith is the statewide Church Health Strategist for Texas Baptists. A twenty-nine-year veteran of preaching and pastoring, his calling is to equip pastors and lay leaders to grow God's Kingdom. Dr. Smith holds degrees in Christianity and Speech from Houston Baptist University, a Masters degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a D.Min from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

Texas Baptists is a movement of God’s people to share Christ and show love by strengthening churches and ministers, engaging culture and connecting the nations to Jesus.

The ministry of the convention is made possible by giving through the Texas Baptists Cooperative Program, Mary Hill Davis Offering® for Texas Missions, Texas Baptists Worldwide and Texas Baptist Missions Foundation. Thank you for your faithful and generous support.

Subscribe to receive stories like this one directly to your inbox.

We are more together.

Read more articles in: Church Health & Growth