PREP: how to plan a Sabbatical
Here's some reflection on the sabbatical that finished in the summer of 2021.
My hope is that it gives you a blueprint so that you can plan your pastoral sabbatical. It's a great time to rest and hear the word of the LORD.
Here's how my sabbatical went...
In the fall of 2019 I went to my board and I requested several weeks off during the summer of my daughters high school graduation. We have been at Victory Church 8 years now and I needed a sabbatical, I just needed some time to rest. I needed some time to reflect on our ministry and I needed to carve out some time to work on my Ph.D.
When I asked our board about it I was pleasantly surprised at how receptive they were about the whole idea. I asked my board if they knew what a sabbatical was? My one board member answered pretty quickly and I think summed it up so well -- he said, "Yeah, isn't a sabbatical where are you stop doing your main job and you go do another job that makes your main job better."
I was completely blown away because that's 100% right.
Sabbatical is not a multi-week vacation. It's a time to reflect, think, study and rest so you can get gear up for the next season of leadership.
Here's some real practical steps for planning a successful sabbatical:
1. Start Early & Get a Plan.
a.) Start Early. I worked with my board and leadership team a year before the proposed sabbatical. We mapped out every Sunday as to what guest or in-house communicator would be teaching that Sunday. We worked with the kids ministry and set up various summer events.
b.) Recruit a Leader. Now, in my case my co-lead pastor, my wife, Pastor Jennifer Bolds lead the church during the summer. I can hear the noise already, "OMG", "Your wife", "Such a cliché", and "Co-lead pastor", blah, blah, blah. Yah. So my wife, Jennifer Bolds is a Gordon-Conwell grad, a practicing marriage and family therapist, a leadership consultant who trains scientists and engineers how to use emotional intelligence as a practical skill set, and leads her own foundation plus she's a professional musician. So...if your wife can match that, great! If not, sit down. She did a great job and church grew by several families while I was gone.
Somebody else can lead while you're not there. Find a retired pastor, have one of your staff pastors, a denominational or network pastor to lead for the summer — it will be fine. Believe me they would love to pastor your church through a summer. They'll probably do it for free or really cheap. (For 8 weeks, I'd do it for like $250 a Sunday - It would be fun.)
c.) Get a Plan. I wrote up a schedule of every week and put everything in there. What I planned to produce, the church services I wanted to attend, family vacation and I even landed an office at a friends church across town.
2. Disappear. Here's the reality as a lead pastor you're important but you're not that important. Disappear and trust your sabbatical pastor to lead the church.
When I mean disappear, I mean literally disappear.
3. Get Paid. In all fairness, the reality is your church should continue to pay your salary and should probably give you a stipend for the summer. If your church is not going to fund your sabbatical you might wanna have a denominational official or a trusted pastor in the area come talk to your board. Also start fundraising, whatever you think you might need. Simply, go ask. It will come in...You can raise that money. There's more people out there that care about you than you think you know.
4. Plan for Outcomes. So at the end of a number of weeks what do you want to show for it? I personally don't think, and this just might be me, that sleeping in and some summer vacation pictures is a good stewardship of your churches finances. I mean heck, yeah I did all that... But not only that. You want to produce something.
5. Leadership Sessions. I've already contracted with the Jennings Leadership Group to have a 1 on 1 session with an organizational psychologist who did her PhD at Rutgers where the famed Daniel Goleman is a professor. Professor Goleman is the author of Primal Leadership, and godfather of emotional intelligence, and well that's a constant growth area for every executive leader.
6. Engage in "Fun" work. So I realize I'm kinda high strung. I totally get that, not every pastor is gonna be this ambitious but here's what I've planned in my sabbatical:
a.) Research and Write. I planned to finish chapter 3 in my Ph.D. dissertation which is about 35 to 40 pages in round numbers; this should give me a roadmap for the next phase of research. (I did accomplish this but it will take me until the end of September to clean and edit it.)
b.) Visit Other Churches. Since I'm not preaching at Victory; I went to see my friends churches. Every Sunday I would go to an 8:30am service at one church and then go to another church's service at 10 AM. All in all, I visited 14 Sunday morning services.
c.) Write a book. I know, I know I hear ya. But the popular book I'm writing flows out of the research for my Ph.D. so I'm killing two birds with one stone. I completed a book proposal and wrote 2 chapters.
d.) Go on Vacation. During my sabbatical I went to OBX with my wife for a couple days, we went on a family vacation to the islands, and we took a family trip to Boston to drop off my daughter at Gordon College. YIKES!
e.) Read. I read about 20-30 books in a 8 week time frame. That's a good mix of Ph.D. research books plus some leadership and some financial literacy save for retirement make money books.
f.) Crazy. If I could have gotten all that done, and that’s a big if, in the last 2 to 3 weeks, I planned to study for my certified business economist license. Why? Because I just think that would be cool to be a certified business economist and a practicing pastor. (What a nerd).
7. Have a “Re-entry” Plan. What do I mean by that? Your church people haven't seen you for a few weeks now and you just show up like everything's fine? Nope.
a.) Leaders. I'll connect face to face with my pastoral staff, board and leadership teams and communicate what I've learned and where we are going since I've come down from the mountain.
b.) Letter. I'm going to send a letter out letting people know that I'm back and inviting them to a new series called, "God Speaks!?" I'll outline some things that LORD told me and where the church needs to go.
c.) Coffee. On my first Sunday back we're going to have "Discover" at my house, which is time where visitors learn more about Victory. I'm also going to launch "Java with Jamé" where every Thursday morning from 7am-Noon I'm just going to camp at coffee shop and people can stop by.
All right well that was my sabbatical plan and the journey was amazing. The Lord really spoke to me and showed me so much. I'm forever grateful, thank you Victory Church.
A economic theologian, pastor, & ceo