By Shawn Hendricks
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
A well-known pastor in the Washington D.C. area stood before his congregation in December and told them he was tired and that he needed time away to rest and work on his relationship with God.
“I feel so distant from God,” Howard-John Wesley, pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church, Alexandria, Virginia, told his congregation of more than 4,500 attendees, The Washington Post reported. “One of the greatest mistakes of pastoring is to think because you work for God, you’re close to God.”
Wesley plans to step away from all duties at the church until April. He’s not burned out, he said, but needs an “intermission.”
Wesley is not alone in his desire or need for a sabbatical, some Alabama Baptist ministry leaders say. Taking a sabbatical or extended time away from the pulpit — in addition to regularly scheduled vacation time — can be a healthy way to recharge and develop a fresh vision moving a church forward. They note for some churches, sabbaticals may involve a few weeks, a month or even three months. But they rarely go beyond that.
Keeping ministry from becoming an idol can be a struggle for pastors, said Dewayne Rembert, church planting strategist with the Montgomery Baptist Association and pastor of Flatline Church at Chisholm in Montgomery.
Rembert acknowledged that stress and burnout fortunately haven’t been issues for him. He credits having “the best” associate pastor, developing leaders and a commitment to taking needed time away with family for helping him avoid those ministry hazards.
“Ministry can become an idol if you let it,” he wrote in a Facebook response to Wesley’s announcement.
“I prayed for divine balance before I said yes to this assignment,” Rembert wrote. “I don’t have to be the vessel preaching every Sunday, teaching every Bible study or solving every problem. That’s where equipping leaders comes into play. Love them well, serve them well, [and] they will love and serve others well. If me or [the associate pastor are] burnt out, then how can we watch out for the sheep? Work out of your rest; don’t rest out of your work.”
For Danny Wood, pastor of Shades Mountain Baptist Church, Birmingham, since 1997, taking a sabbatical every five years allows him to rest, refresh, set new goals and lead his congregation better.
Wood took a 6-week-long sabbatical in 2017. He noted his church also offers sabbaticals — in addition to regularly scheduled vacations — to other ministerial staff after they serve an initial 10 years, and then they can take one every five years after that.
What is Wood’s philosophy when it comes to sabbaticals?
“Don’t work on anything,” he said. “[My philosophy] is you just need a break. … For the sabbatical, the main purpose of that is to refresh and recharge your battery.
“We just really encourage the people to do something with your family,” he said. “Get some alone time for yourself and let it be a great time of recharging your battery and come back refreshed. That’s really the main purpose for that.”
The key is planning and preparing at least a year in advance, said Wood, noting sabbaticals can be implemented in any size church with proper preparation.
This allows time to develop a plan regarding who will cover the responsibilities while the leader is away and for the church to set a budget for travel and associated expenses.
For Wood, in addition to rest and spending time with family, he was able to set some personal challenges and goals, attend a ministry conference and come back with clearer vision on moving the church forward.
“There may be some things you’re looking down the road on as a church,” said Wood who is celebrating his 23rd anniversary with Shades Mountain Baptist in March. “This just gives you the opportunity to get away. You don’t have sermon preparation, you don’t have all these other things pulling at you and you clear your mind, and there’s that refreshing that takes place. You begin to think clearer.”
While pastors of all church sizes battle to maintain a life beyond their ministry duties, social media and cell phones have only compounded the demands for a pastor’s time, said Mike Jackson, director of LeaderCare and church health for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.
“Sadly, [pastors] are bombarded 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” he said. “And some ministers don’t know how to turn their devices off at a certain time.”
And many churches don’t make it easy for a pastor to take time away, he noted.
“Some churches are high maintenance,” he said. “They want their pastor at their beck and call 24/7 … Many times, the pastor is that go-to person, and he has to determine, am I going to be available 24/7, am I going to take some down time?”
But sabbaticals do not just benefit a pastor’s personal well-being and health, Jackson said, pointing out that sabbaticals are more than just another week off.
“I know the mindset of many of our churches: ‘Well, we already give him vacation,’” he said. “I understand that. But at the same time sabbatical is a little different.”
The key is educating churches on how sabbaticals can benefit the church, Jackson said — that a sabbatical is a break in addition to regular vacation.
Healthy pastors equal a healthy church, he said.
“If you’ve got a healthy minister, you’re going to have a healthy church,” he said. “Those two sort of go hand-in-hand.”