And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Mark 2:27
As we come now to the end of Lent and enter Holy Week, with the busy seasons of Advent and Christmas none too far behind us, it’s been a probably-exhausting four or five months for clergy. And while shepherding their flocks through these seasons is work our priests no doubt love, it’s work that can also wear them down. Year after year of this work – and taking on the burdens of ministry without proper refreshment – can lead to a burned-out priest ready to move on from his parish.
Fr. Jack King, Dean of Tennessee and Rector at Apostles Anglican in Knoxville, says that even with a regular Sabbath and proper church/family boundaries, the cumulative effects of ten years of ministry weighed heavily on him.
“I didn’t realize just how tired I was until I slowed down and stopped… Accumulated weariness was greater than I realized,” says Fr. Jack. “It would not be an exaggeration to say that my three-month sabbatical was one of my most important experiences in ministry.”
Susan Ridgell was serving as Senior Warden on the Apostles Vestry when they approved Fr. Jack’s sabbatical. “When Jack initially shared his request for a sabbatical, we were struck with how we didn’t realize how much Jack needed the sabbatical until he requested it,” says Ridgell. “As a Vestry, we also realized that we had very little experience walking alongside someone entering a sabbatical. We were glad that he requested it, we supported him, and we prayed we could help him have the best possible time away.”
“Jack is the type of person that is fully committed. As you know, the job is very stressful emotionally and physically,” says Apostles Junior Warden Lee Gamble. “The biggest benefit to his sabbatical was a chance to rest and recharge.”
Fr. Jack says he couldn’t find a paradigm in his research for “30-something-year-old priests” taking a sabbatical, so ultimately he knew he had to let the Spirit guide him. “I came to believe that if churches are serious about preventing burnout and pastors leaving the ministry, then it will require a major step of faith to give sabbaticals for their shepherds, even their younger pastors,” says Fr. Jack.
Ridgell says Fr. Jack’s organizational skills also served him well in his preparation.
“He established a three-person advisory committee who guided him wisely, and he shared his ideas and sabbatical objectives with the Vestry. Jack entered his 12-week sabbatical on solid ground with a well-developed plan that also allowed flexibility,” says Ridgell.
But the time wasn’t just crucial for Fr. Jack and his family. Apostles members say it strengthened them as a church to take on additional responsibilities, the Assistant Rector taking on all Rector duties and staff pitching in as needed. Leadership helped educate the congregation about the sabbatical through multiple channels, including announcements during services and publishing an FAQ-style communique about how the parish would operate in Fr. Jack’s absence.
One vestry member noted, “It’s important for any institution, including a church, to be able to flourish even when its leader is absent. Jack’s sabbatical was good practice for us… We now know that we are not relying solely on a charismatic leader. Instead, the sabbatical gave us an opportunity to make sure that we have a variety of people who can lead in ways that are consistent with our vision and identity.”
Upon Fr. Jack’s return from sabbatical, the difference made by a time away from the demands of ministry was profoundly noticeable to parish members.
“I have observed a sense of calm with Jack since his sabbatical,” says David LaRose, Senior Warden during and following the sabbatical. “He seems to be more focused and thoughtful, and less prone to give a quick answer when faced with a difficult situation. I believe his ministry has experienced spiritual growth that he could not have obtained when faced with the day-to-day demands of Rector.”
Vestry member Mark Hedrick: “Following his sabbatical, Jack had a vision for our church that infused new energy in our mission and worship.”
And Ridgell comments, “He visibly looked happier and more peaceful, and he seemed more energetic. He expressed how pleased he was that life went on well without him, and he thanked us for that. The sabbatical seemed to genuinely fill the need Jack had for a bit of space and time.”
Fr. Jack now commonly speaks of his ministry as pre- or post-sabbatical. “More than anything else, the Holy Spirit began teaching me the art of letting go – that I don’t have to take total responsibility for all that happens in my parish,” says Fr. Jack. “Sabbatical taught me how to better find my place as an under-shepherd of the Great Shepherd.”
To help your vestry contemplate offering clergy sabbaticals and work toward sabbatical policies and practices in your parish, please take a look at our Sabbatical Resource Guide. The guide provides multiple sources regarding the foundation, preparation, and many benefits of requiring or planning a sabbatical for priests.