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Are sabbaticals helping or hurting?

Thom Rainer

Are sabbaticals helping or hurting?iStock

Is there a sabbatical crisis in churches today?

I do not have answers. At best, I have hypotheses.

In 40 years of ministry, though, I have never seen anything like it.

We see more pastors who return from sabbaticals to a church in a mess. Members have left. Lay leaders are questioning pastors and staff. The members are unsettled and critical.

Why? Frankly, I don't know.

Clear caveats

I want to be clear. I am not anti-sabbatical. While I have cautioned pastors about preparing for sabbaticals, I never thought there was not a place for them.

I also want to be clear that my information and data at this time are limited. I could be wrong. I could be projecting the situation of several pastors in a "sabbatical crisis" to the rest of the church world. But I also have never seen more requests for help from pastors returning from sabbaticals. I know. We are working with several of them.

The hypotheses

The good thing about hypotheses is that you don't have to be right. But you at least need to make an educated guess. My challenge is that I am not sure how I will test these hypotheses as we move forward.

1. Hypothesis #1: It's the COVID effect.This hypothesis is at the forefront because of the number of similar situations we have seen in such a short period. We may never fully know the devastating impact of COVID and the accompanying quarantine, but it has not been good for most churches. Members are unsettled. Their uneasiness could be exacerbated if a pastor goes on a sabbatical so close to the relatively recent quarantine.

2. Hypothesis #2: The worship center is empty.It's another way of saying there aren't as many people as there have been. If the pastor becomes another one of the no-shows, at least during the sabbatical, the angst about the decline increases.

3. Hypothesis #3: Culture is crazy.Culture is polarized. Culture is less Christian. Values are no longer biblical. Politics are ugly. These are some of the cultural realities believers in churches face today, perhaps more so than at any point in our lifetimes. These church members look to the pastor for assurance and hope . . . unless the pastor is on sabbatical.

4. Hypothesis #4: Church doesn't work like it did in the past.Not only has the culture changed, but the way churches do ministry must also change. One church member recently asked me in a conversation about a possible church consultation, "COVID is over. Why can't we do things the way we've always done them?" If the pastor is not present to deal with this angst, the pastor can become a convenient target of discontent.

Of course, these four hypotheses are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Indeed, I suspect they are more related than not.

The path forward?

Did you notice I put a question mark at the end of the subheading? Indeed, I really would like to be able to answer the questions, "Is there a sabbatical crisis in the church? If so, why?"

We have more church and pastor clients related to sabbaticals than we've ever had at Church Answers. Indeed, we now have one consultant focusing exclusively on "sabbatical recovery" for both the pastor and the congregation.

Thom S. Rainer is the founder and CEO of Church Answers, and online community and resource for church leaders. Prior to founding Church Answers, Rainer served as president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. He is the author of more than two dozen books, including I Am a Church Member, Breakout Churches, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Simple Life, Simple Church, Raising Dad, The Millennials, Essential Church, and Who Moved My Pulpit? Rainer and his wife, Nellie Jo, have three grown sons: Sam, Art and Jess, who are married and have 10 grandchildren. 

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