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!