Does Your Church Have a Sabbatical Policy?

The Biblical concept of Sabbath begins in Genesis 1 with God resting on the seventh day and ends in Revelation 22 with Jesus declaring all things have been and are being made new.  Throughout Scripture, commitment to rest is an expectation of God’s people, their land, and even of their finances.  Sabbath was to be a marker setting them apart from other nations.

Sabbath is at the heart of God’s design for creation.  Every faith-based organization—especially churches—should place a sabbatical policy at the heart of its organization’s employee policy.

Above all, sabbatical policies remind us that Jesus is the sustainer of our efforts, not an individual, team, program, or strategic plan.  If an organization claims to follow Jesus’ call, then it must also follow Jesus’ call to rest (Matthew 11:28).  Sabbath, and sabbaticals in particular, remind us that God can and does provide when we are uncomfortably still in God’s presence for longer than a few moments. 

Sabbatical is an individual experience; it is also a community experience with our co-workers.  Sabbaticals require stillness for the individual while teaching a sense of calm to the short-handed team.  They require peace of mind that some tasks that are usually completed may go unfinished.  Honoring Sabbath teaches us to rest from our worry, our dependency on achievement, and from our self-inflicted sense of obligation to our constituents. 

Therefore, Sabbath also has something to say to our constituents—our donors and the recipients of our care or services. The practice of Sabbath in the First Testament became two things – a marker differentiating the people of God from their neighboring tribes and a rhythm that valued people over production.   More than a principled countercultural act, though, it was a statement about the true nature of humanity.  We are made for rest as much as we are made for work.   Taking Sabbath – including sabbaticals – declares that God knows what God is talking about when it comes to our need to rest from activity.

God remains at work, even (and perhaps especially) as we rest.  Humbly we anticipate the fruit of the generative Spirit of God.   Sabbath is designed by God as a time of stillness that carries the hope of new life.  It is a glimpse into the eternal Kingdom of God where rest and joy are the norm rather than work and stress.  For the individual, the soul lies fallow for a period, anticipating that something new will be re-born from that rested soil.  For the organization, team members returning from Sabbath will have sat with and heard from the God of creation and the Firstborn over all creation. 

Sabbath’s slow rhythm may feel uncomfortable or even treasonous, but to call it wasteful or lazy is an idolatrous betrayal of the One in whose image we are created.

Where Do We Start?

  1. Document and model Sabbath.  Write it into the employee policy.  Ensure that leadership participates and holds the entire team accountable to its sabbatical policies. Establish the rhythm immediately upon hire of a new employee. 
  • Be clear about eligibility.  Often, eligibility is nothing more than a hand raised with a request for time off.  By that time, burnout is well underway.  Seven years between sabbaticals is likely too long.  Three may feel too soon.  Do not go any longer than five years between sabbaticals.
  • Practice wise timing with your sabbatical policies; space the sabbaticals so that your organization isn’t crippled by having more than one employee from the same team out at the same time. 
  • Be clear about how the employee will invest his or her time.  Sabbatical plans should be written no less than six months in advance and need to be included in the organization’s annual budget that is approved by the board of directors. 
  • Don’t just depart on a sabbatical; prepare.  Ask your employee to write or video how s/he is doing when they leave.  Having a baseline allows you and the employee to see how God was at work during the sabbatical. 

What Could a Sabbatical Include?

  1. Solitude at a retreat center
  2. Family vacations
  3. Marriage enrichment activities, including a week or weekend away
  4. Therapy or spiritual direction.  (Resist coaching because it is almost always skill-related)
  5. Cross-cultural experiences, including a short-term mission experience.
  6. Journaling
  7. Visiting family members, mentors, or former colleagues
  8. HAVE. FUN.  Enjoy life.  Do something you’ve never done before.  Try new things.  Be adventurous.

Part 2 coming next week will help us understand how we can help our teammate on sabbatical rest and return effectively.

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