Last week, Faith & Leadership published an article  by Mark Miller-McLemore about clergy sabbaticals. The writer identifies a number of downsides for the congregation and staff who must hold down the fort while the senior pastor is away. The purpose of the article is not to urge against sabbaticals, but to point out some pitfalls that should be kept in mind when a pastor plans for a sabbatical.
Most United Methodist churches in North Carolina are of modest size and lean budget, especially in our present economic climate. So I assume that for the majority of our pastors (UMs in NC), a sabbatical is not a realistic possibility. *
Despite that, Dr. Miller-McLemore makes some observations that are broadly relevant to all congregational leaders and particularly to the Duke Clergy Health Initiative. One is that the priestly role has real symbolic power, and members of a Christian community feel the absence of the pastor deeply, even fearfully. (This blog will have something more to say about pastoral presence in a couple of days.) Let us acknowledge that it is a different thing for a pastor to be away from the church for an extended time than for the head of a business or secular organization to be away from the office.
In discussing a pastor's laying the groundwork for a planned sabbatical, Miller-McLemore writes:
The increasing prevalence of pastoral sabbatical in an era that stresses “clergy self-care” may have led some new pastors to think of it as something all pastors deserve and should expect. But it must have a larger purpose. To be worthwhile of congregational support, a sabbatical ought to connect explicitly with the ministry to which the pastor will return. Otherwise, sabbatical risks seeming like an extended paid vacation.
For those of you enrolled in Spirited Life and assigned to Group 1, we are currently asking you to commit to a three-day retreat in early 2011. We realize this is not an easy or simple request. We understand that your calendars are crowded, your people covet your presence, and that for many of you, the normal mode of life involves a high degree of flexibility in your schedule. To step away from your parish for three solid days and to turn your mobile phone off (at least for part of the time) is a tall order. And Spirited Life will make other claims on your time: there will be other retreats, meetings with your Wellness Advocate, participation in planned wellness activities.
Self-care, in the view of some at least , is a buzzword that has permeated the church, crossing over from the business world. Mutual care or covenant care might be better terms for our work. But leave aside for a moment that semantic difference, or whether you choose to join Spirited Life or follow some other plan for improving your health and wellness. If you feel the need (as most clergy do) to do some work on yourself away and apart from the local church, you should feel free and empowered to assert that need. But to varying degrees depending on your congregation, you will be called on to narrate that need and even persuade your people of its urgency.
For Spirited Life participants signing up for a retreat: At the risk of stating the obvious, consider an appropriate way to offer a sincere "thank you" to the congregation for the gift of time and space. (In the sabbaticals article, Miller-McLemore describes ways the pastor's path of personal renewal can be celebrated during a worship service.) Also, be prepared to articulate ways in which your enhanced health or better life balance will lead to more fruitful ministry and an deeper life of faith for you and the community you lead.
* I do know of United Methodist pastors in our conferences who have received sabbaticals. So it is not unheard of, and there is a growing list of resources available for clergy sabbaticals, notably a program of sabbatical grants offered by the Louisville Institute . If you have questions or thoughts on the topic of sabbaticals, let us hear from you.
John James, M.A.
Clergy Health Initiative