Saturday, July 4, 2009

Why Sabbatical?

The privilege of taking a sabbatical is not a common practice in the work force of our world. Generally it has been a practice only in those professions where there is the high stress of intense people involvement, like the medical field, education and pastoral ministry. In recent years, it has become rather common place in ministry settings, and for good reason.

I shared with the Ministry and Evangelism Commission how over the years, even when pastors were not granted sabbaticals, they took them by changing churches every, on the average, 5 to 7 years. (There is something about the sequence of 7, give or take a year or so one way or the other.) There is a reason for this fairly short tenure. It is not the work load that a pastor carries. Most people in the work force, at least those with jobs of a managerial or leadership nature, work just as many hours and carry just as many responsibilities. The work load of a pastor is heavy, but it is more the nature of the work that takes its toll so quickly on a pastor. The nature of pastoral work has no comparison in the secular work force. I have worked in both the business world and the church, and know first hand the difference. This difference is often forgotten by lay people who oppose pastoral sabbaticals with the comment, "I've worked (you add the number of years) and have never had a sabbatical!"

So let me try to explain what my journey has been and why I am at a place where a sabbatical seems like the best thing to do. First off let me say that I am not complaining. I chose to follow God's call into this kind of ministry, and (on most days) I do not desire to do anything else.

The Stress of Transitional Leadership

My experience at ECOB has been great, though there have been some really tough times. I am blessed to work with dedicated lay leadership and very committed and competent staff. For this I am very grateful. But let me outline some significant aspects of my experience that have led me to this place that I have called "spiritual burnout."

Before coming to ECOB I had my struggles with pastoral ministry. I have talked openly about this with the congregation on a number of occasions. My family and I went to Nigeria in 1989 with me thinking I would never return to pastoral work again. God had a different idea, and after taking me through a period where I reassessed what it meant to be Christian and what pastoral leadership involved, he reissued to me a call back to the pastorate. I came to realize, among many other things, that God's call on me and the skill set he gave me, was for leadership more than pastoral care. I was called to help build healthily congregations that truly embodied God's purposes for his church. I came back from Africa as American society was plummeting headlong into its most significant cultural transformation ever, along with Western society in general. These changes were raging havoc with the church, especially traditional denominational congregations. I am called to help the traditional church survive the transition into vibrant life in a new kind of world.

A few months into my calling here at ECOB, God clearly whispered to me these words. He said, "The church I am building at Ephrata is different from the one that was there before." The word "different" does not suggest "better" or "bigger" or "not Brethren." But "different" does suggest "different." How will it be different? God didn't say, but we have already begun seeing some differences. The perceived "differences" needed for vibrant Christianity to thrive in the age before us has been widely written about via many venues, but most everyone is just guessing. None of us knows for sure what the church will look like when the current social transformation has run its course. Some of us are committed to following God into and through this spiritual "wormhole" so that a faithful church will emerge on the other side. I am one of those leaders. (See "The Changing Shape of the Church" under Some Other Good Stuff on the right side of this blog.)

The stress of this kind of transitional leadership is intense. The level of stress of both a spiritual nature and a practical one is such that most pastors with this calling and skill set do not survive long in traditional congregations. We see it all the time, and it is one reason the pool of transitional pastors is so small--nearly non-existent--in the Church of the Brethren. I believe I am committed to staying for the long haul. This is my home, my church, my calling. There have been times (most recently just last fall) when I came close to "throwing in the towel" and hanging up whatever it is Brethren pastors hang up when they quit. (I guess it is the basin and the towel?) But God was faithful in bringing me through that time and giving me a sense of vision for the future. There is much more God desires for ECOB and I would love to be a part of it. Sabbatical will give me an uninterrupted time to pray through some things related to the ministry of ECOB.

The Stress of Spiritual Leadership

The single most significant aspect of leadership in the church is the spiritual nature of it. This makes pastoral ministry unique among the workforce in today's world. It is one thing to face a decision that might mean the difference between your company making a profit this year or losing money; or to carry responsibility for the financial well being of your employees; or to deal daily with people who have developmental challenges; or to give counsel to a string of clients seeking help; or to prepare a technical presentation for an audience.

Those kind of responsibilities and decisions are difficult. However, the decisions facing pastors, the relationships in which we engage, the advice we offer, the "speeches" we make all have spiritual ramifications. The spiritual well-being of people hangs in the balance. I often wonder what a heart surgeon feels as he holds a person's heart in his hands and realizes one slip of the knife will send this person to eternity. That is stress. Well, imagine what a pastor feels when the truth he or she dispenses will make a difference in where a person spends eternity, and how they live in the mean time, rendering either a judgment of "well done" from God, or some other verdict. That's stress of an immense magnitude.

I cannot begin to explain what the stress of the spiritual realities pastors face is like. It is beyond words. Added to the normal spiritual stress of pastoral work is a high level of spiritual warfare that a transformational leader faces. Whenever a pastor commits him or her self to taking a church deeper into the will and work of God, leading it to a healthier place of focused ministry, a whole host of demonic attacks occur. That is just the way it is and we know it and are willing to endure it. But it takes its toll. ECOB has been through its share of spiritual attack, and it is not over yet, nor will it ever be. We have all been impacted by this, but none of us as much as me, as the Senior pastor. I'm not complaining or bragging; it's just the facts. The spiritual nature of my calling here at ECOB has been more intense than at any other time in my ministry.


Pastoral ministry has great joy involved with it. We walk with people through weddings and baby dedications and family joys, and a host of other things. We get to meet new people and make new friends, as people connect with the church. But there are also losses, and each loss takes its toll on us. This is true of all of us. We lose a loved one through death, and we grieve. A marriage goes south, and we grieve. A relationship with a friend turns sour, and we grieve. Most of the time, experiences like these do not happen in multiples in our lives, but are spread out through a lifetime, and thus are usually manageable. When they do bunch up, we often need some help walking through them to healing on the other side. Our GriefShare team knows this well.

But pastors are dealing with these things weekly. A funeral, a couple seeking help with their marriage, a disgruntled church member are the normal and regular parts of our lives. Most of the time, we can move through these things by keeping a certain emotional distance. Of course the struggle is between our own care, and our compassion for our people. The difference between us and many other professional caregivers is the fact that the people we deal with are people that we have a week-by-week relationship with. That is usually not so for other caregivers. So how do we really care about others and yet keep our emotions healthy?

So pastors also feel loss. Again, I am not complaining, but in recent years I have had some losses that have hit me on a personal level much more closely than usual. ECOB has had--and given its size this is not unusual--a number of deaths.Just in the last 5 years I have done 50 funerals. (I did not have the earlier years at my fingertips.) Each one of them touches my heart. A few of them were people who were very active in the congregation and with whom I had closer relationships than might be true of many in the congregation. I have felt the pain of this. Of course, I have also lost my own dad, which undoubtedly has taken its toll.

Then there have been the people who have left our congregation, either to drift away from the Lord or to worship elsewhere. Though we have seen many new people connect with the church, there also have been those who have left. Some leave for very understandable reasons; others because of broken relationships or because they struggle to feel at home in this new church that is emerging. It may seem strange to some, but I feel every loss, even when the situation is the best thing for all concerned. It is just the way it is for pastors, and the years take their toll.

And a third loss I have felt keenly is the loss of Tim as part of our pastoral staff team. Tim and I related well to each other and complemented each other's leadership abilities. And though Tim is still around, and we still connect, his departure has left a void in my life and in that of the congregation.

Again, let me state that I am not complaining or whining; but these are the facts of my journey and constitute the things that I have been feeling in my life.

Final thoughts

I shared with the Ministry and Evangelism Commission that I am at the kind of place where pastors do one of three things: they quit and go work at Home Depot; they take another church because a new place seems like it might bring a fresh energy, and often does for 5 to 7 years; or they sort of kick it in neutral and disconnect and coast until their congregation takes notice and confronts them. I've seen all these happen before.

For me, I do not feel called to another church. And though working at Home Depot looks fun, it would mean running from what God has called me to do. And I will not coast; I am not that kind of person.

Fortunately, there is a fourth option. There is the option of giving the pastor some time to disengage from the congregation and to recharge the spiritual batteries and seek some emotional healing. Ministry and Evangelism was wise enough to see this fourth option as a possibility. For the past year or so they have been working on a Sabbatical policy for ECOB and will begin to implement that policy with my Sabbatical this Fall. I thank them, and the congregation for the gift, and will do my best to make the best use of my time. My Sabbatical plan follows in another post.