I’ve been thinking about sabbaticals recently. Not because I’m angling for one. Though, now I think about it, I am not far off my seventh year and some paid leave would be particularly welcome because, well, let’s be honest, when isn’t it? But more because I’ve been trying to get my head around the principle.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for making sure your minister is taking rest. There are plenty who don’t take their weekly day off because various things crop up (as they always do and will) and then work themselves into the ground. Whilst my wife and I generally take a day off together, we have a setup that means if there is any change to our schedule – even if minor – it can often throw out an entire week, including the day off, and it may be two or three weeks before we get back on track with it again.
Most other people in your church will get a weekend off. But just because we call it ‘the Lord’s Day’ and tell everyone how much we should love doing ‘the Lord’s work’ doesn’t make Sunday all that restful. I think we ought to recognise that Sunday can be a busy, full-on day for people. No matter how much we call it ‘a day of rest’ (if that is your inclination), filling it up with meetings and encouraging people to use the time for hospitality, Sunday schools and other things will not feel all that restful to a lot of people. And that’s OK, but we ought to recognise most of people – despite their two-day weekend – only really get one proper day off just like the minister. The minister’s one day of rest mirrors what most people get in reality. We are not special or hard done by in that regard.
So, rest is important and – like most people get – I see the sense of one day in seven to do so. But I’m not sold on the idea of sabbaticals. In no particular order, here are some thoughts.
Under the New Covenant, other than the sabbath rest enjoyed in Christ, sabbaths (and sabbaticals) don’t seem to feature, except in the notable repeal in Colossians 2:16 and the sabbath rest in Christ (cf. Hebrews 4). As we look at the Old Covenant, there are the obvious references to weekly sabbath enshrined in the 10 commandments, which is not the evidence for sabbaticals we are seeking. Otherwise, every seventh year the land was given rest, debts were remitted and those who gave themselves as slaves in lieu of debt were set free. But nowhere do we find a principle or example of people having a few months off from all their hard work every seven years.
Of course, biblically speaking, there is nothing wrong of itself with offering somebody a few months off every seven years if you think they and/or the church would benefit. We are clearly free to give people whatever holidays, breaks or paid leave to do other projects we like. I just don’t see any biblical evidence that suggests we ought.
At heart, I suppose my biggest concern with sabbaticals is giving to ministers what – with a handful of exceptions – nobody else really gets. Now, of itself, that isn’t necessarily a problem. All sorts of jobs offer things that others don’t get. Such is life. My concern is more what we communicate through this.
For all those who don’t get a sabbatical, what are we saying to them about their work when we give one to the minister? My job is much harder than yours so I need some time off that you don’t need? My job is more valuable than yours so I need to be better rested so as to do it in a way that you don’t need to do yours? I’m not saying we intend to convey these sorts of things, but it is hard not to take them (or something like them) as the implicit suggestion.
Linked to that, I am also pushed to wonder why we only offer it to pastors and not to others. What about the Sunday School teachers, the evangelists, the musicians, the people doing tea and coffee every week? I mean, as Baptists, we don’t have a theology of ordination at all. We land hard on the priesthood of all believers. And we push that priesthood of all believers idea right through the church as we insist on every member ministry. A frequent refrain in our church is that the ministers of the church are all its members. If all the members of the church are its ministers, and ministers get sabbaticals, ought we not to be giving everyone a break every seven years?
Again, I can’t help but feel we communicate something to the church in this. The job of minister is vital, needs refreshment, etc. All the other jobs everyone else is doing, not so much. It does rather devalue important work being done elsewhere and diminishes the time and energy people have to expend in doing it.
Then there are just a bunch of practical concerns. I can see, in a church of several hundred, with a bunch of paid staff members and a few full-time, paid elders, giving a pastor some time off every seven years is easy enough. There is enough in place for the ministry to be maintained and balls not to be dropped. But in a small church with one paid elder and no other staff, realistically, what is that going to do to the ministry? It seems to be something that larger churches, with strength in depth, could credibly do while smaller churches just aren’t in any position to do it without seriously denting the work of the gospel for the length of time the pastor is away.
But I think it impedes the gospel more widely. How is a few months off for the pastor after seven years going to be interpreted by the average working class care worker, shop assistant, call-centre staff, warehouse worker, plumber, brickie or spark? How are they going to see it? I fear it would come across as yet another thing the church does that seems to lack any contextual awareness for the lives of ordinary people who have to continue working hard to pay the bills and put food on the table, seven years or no. Many of them would view it as yet another middle class soft lad who can’t cope with the realities of working life having to take a few months off because ‘self-care is important’. Imagine sitting in the local whilst trying to defend that.
Let’s be honest, if the minister doesn’t grasp the realities of local life because he’s too busy taking (what will be viewed as) a few months on a jolly because his work is so hard, are working class people going to see the church as somewhere they are likely to fit in? If the minister doesn’t have a clue, what hope is there that the church he leads will understand the realities of the lives any better than he does? And if that’s the case, our sabbatical might have given us a nice rest but it won’t have served the gospel particularly well in our community.