Growing Up: Continuing Education and Sabbatical Leave

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Recently, I was the beneficiary of a sabbatical leave.  I could speak for a long time about its benefits for me in ministry and in life, and my conviction that, over the long term, my congregation will be beneficiaries of it as well.  Flourishing for both of us will be the result, and I think God smiles at that.  But how do we get there?

Each year I celebrate the grace of God in the recovery of a family member.  If I can’t be there in person, I write a letter that is read in the 12-step recovery group meeting marking the anniversary of their clean date (‘cake’).  I know several of the people there, since some of them have been part of my family member’s group for 22+ years and those relationships branch out beyond meetings. 

As you may know, when called upon to speak at a meeting, most addicts/alcoholics will introduce themselves by saying, “Hi, I’m so-and-so and I’m an addict/alcoholic.”  To which the group responds, “Hi so-and-so.”

Given my familiarity with the group, and they with me, my most recent letter began:  “My name is Joel.  I’m a recovering people pleaser. Is that ok?”

I heard that joke years ago, but it still has a ring of truth.  I suspect that I’m not the only pastor who could introduce themselves as a recovering people pleaser.  So, what does that have to do with Continuing Education and Sabbatical Leave?  In my experience as a pastor and Regional Pastor, there can be many pressures – both internal and external – for a pastor to take a deferential posture when it comes to Continuing Education and Sabbatical Leave.  It may even seem humble or spiritual to NOT advocate for this when there are other pressing needs.  What I want to underline, however, is the need for everyone to advocate and act for the well-being of the pastor.  Failure to take this seriously can result in spiritually unhealthy pastors AND spiritually unhealthy congregations.

Pete Scazzero’s The Emotionally Healthy Church includes the following refrain: “As go the leaders, so goes the church.”  In the context of Continuing Education and Sabbatical leave, it is imperative that pastors have a plan for their own discipleship and education, spiritual growth, sabbath rest and self-love (in its healthiest Biblical sense).  In a church where a pastor does not pursue this, possibly because of worry about being perceived as self-centered, there are missed opportunities.  An opportunity for the pastor to flourish is missed – as is the opportunity to model flourishing to the congregation.  But maybe most importantly, lowering the flourishing bar means that both opportunity and expectation for the congregation to flourish is missed.

I am convinced that my sabbatical will reap benefits for me AND the congregation(s) I serve.  I really do think the God of Sabbath rest smiles when we emulate that rest in the church and in our lives.

So, if I could say anything to pastors, I would say:  Grow up!  Grow in the knowledge and grace of Jesus Christ by being honest about your needs and your growing edges in ministry so that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, you can form a plan for lifelong learning which includes sabbath rest.  Despite the fact that sometimes I still behave like a recovering people-pleaser, it is imperative that I attend to my spiritual well-being and do the work of learning and growing.  If I expect my congregants to grow, I should also model being grown by the Holy Spirit.

If I could say anything to church councils, I would say:  Grow up!  In order to meet one of your most significant goals in leading a church, namely to help the congregation grow in the knowledge and grace of Jesus Christ, encourage and support and insist and help your pastor with a plan for Continuing Education and Sabbatical Leave.  It will have a trickle-up effect on your congregation:  “As go the leaders, so goes the church.”

If I could say anything to church members, I would say:  Grow up!  If one of your goals in participating in the life of the church is to grow in the knowledge and grace of Jesus Christ, then surely it will mean insisting that your pastor is also on a similar trajectory.  If your pastor has a plan for Continuing Education or Sabbatical Leave, don’t resent them the opportunity.  Instead, ask your pastor about their plan, encourage them in it, and – especially - pray for their growth in it, just as you expect your pastor to be invested in your growth and transformation.  “As go the leaders, so goes the church.”

And I would say to all of us what Paul says in Ephesians 4:15:  Grow up … in every way into him who is the head, into Christ!

 

See More: samples of Continuing Education and Sabbatical Leave policies

See More: Options to consider when developing a Sabbatical Policy

See More: Continuing Education resources at the CE for Pastors site

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As a member of various church councils over the years, and as one who has been a witness to sending off pastors for various forms of study leaves and sabbaticals, it just recently occurred to me that every congregation could also benefit from a sabbatical.

While pastors are away on study leaves or sabbaticals, the congregations continue to sit in their same pews, have the same daily routines in business or the professions, but live in the expectation that their pastor will return to the pulpit as a newly transformed, excellent preacher ... filled with energy and enthusiasm and the gifts of the Apostle Paul.

What would a congregation's sabbatical look like?  Well, it could take place upon the return of the sabbaticalled pastor where he/she would lead a four-week Sunday instructional/lecture series on what was just learned.  That would certainly bring congregation and pastor onto the same proverbial page.

Or it could consist of three or four consecutive weekend retreats ... not at all connected to the pastor's study leave ... where the congregation could look in depth at specific topic or need.

There is an assumption that pastors are the only ones who need regular exposure to continuing education. Meanwhile the congregation gets left further and further behind.

And to your point: if a pastor has a plan for his continuing education or sabbatical studies, then most certainly the congregation needs to have a similar or simultaneous plan.

I like your idea, Keith!  As you might gather from the article itself, I want to see every Christian 'grow up'.  Your idea might be one way to open up the conversation between pastors and their congregations.  I love to see 'lay persons' eagerly seeking growth and transformation - for their pastor, their fellow parishioners and for themselves.  I want to discourage any trend of merely downloading onto 'the church' the responsibility for 'growing up' and encourage each of us (pastor, elder, member, guest) in the church to advocate and act for our own learning and growth. I think pastors can be healthy examples of this:  If pastors have a humble, earnest, Christ-imitating approach to 'Continuing Education and Sabbatical Leave' and the congregation properly owns their role in their own growth and facilitating the growth of the pastor, then I'm convinced both personal and corporate benefits will follow.