Thirty-five years ago, when I first became involved with church boards, the subject of pastoral sabbaticals rarely hit the agenda. Today, both in large and small congregations, such sabbaticals are a matter of course. If you chair a church board, then most probably it will be an agenda matter — one that has considerable importance for the pastoral leader. So it is incumbent upon church board members to treat the sabbatical question seriously. It forms a significant investment of congregational resources for leadership development and pastoral retention.
In my view, the best way to work with pastoral sabbaticals is through policy. Establishing policy, even if the outcome is negative (i.e. no sabbaticals), gives board members an opportunity to debate the pros and cons. In doing so they have to interact with the perspectives offered by the lead pastor. At some point the lead pastor will need to be excused from the discussion because of conflict of interest issues.
What should a “pastoral sabbatical policy” include?
1. An initial paragraph would outline the benefits to the congregation and the lead pastor and thus provide a rationale for establishing the policy. At some point the board will be communicating with the congregation why such a policy is necessary.
2. It would include standard features such as frequency, duration, salary and benefits questions, and application process. It is important for lead pastors to know that sabbaticals are not a right, but an employee benefit granted for reasons that to some degree benefit the congregation. The board has to evaluate whether the reasons for granting a sabbatical do in fact bring value to the congregation.
3. The board would be wise to indicate that no application for a sabbatical will be approved that does not include substantial professional development. It is wise to link this with discoveries made in the course of the annual performance evaluation. There should be sufficient detail in the application to enable the board members to evaluate clearly whether such is the case.
4. One of the tricky elements in such policy is the question of the lead pastor’s employment obligations after the sabbatical. It is the case that sabbaticals result occasionally in individuals discerning that their pastoral tenure with the congregation needs to end. So they think it is appropriate to conclude their pastoral leadership at the end of the sabbatical and not return. The policy should acknowledge that this may happen and stipulate what the implications are for the lead pastor. For example, is there obligation on the part of the lead pastor to return some portion of the costs associated with the salary and benefits provided during the sabbatical? Does the lead pastor have obligation to provide at least one year of service beyond the sabbatical without financial issues emerging? Whatever is determined, both parties should have clarity on this point.
5. The duration of sabbaticals will be another challenging point. personally I think shorter sabbaticals provided more frequently are probably more beneficial, i.e. three months every five years as an option. When lead pastors are away longer sometimes congregational development occurs which makes the transition back into the lead pastoral role difficult. Shorter sabbaticals, I think, also keep the focus on professional development.
6. When the lead pastor returns what kind of report does the board expect the employee to provide, indicating the degree to which the sabbatical’s purposes have been realized? Accountability is important so that the board can report to the congregation the value that the sabbatical has contributed to congregational life. There will always be folk in the congregation who consider sabbaticals a poor use of congregational resources. So some communication will be important to help the members process the rationale and understand their value.
It is important to treat sabbaticals differently from other kinds of leave, i.e. for health reasons, etc. If your congregation has several pastors on staff, then you will need to consider whether to include them in this policy.
From the standpoint of the chair, I think the key elements in developing and implementing such a policy would include frank conversations with the lead pastor, as well as clear direction to the board regarding the advisability of such a policy and the importance of investing in the vocational enhancement of your key employee. You will probably have to take a fairly strong stance on this last aspect. It is also wise to consult with local denominational leaders because you will find that already such policies exist in other associated congregations and you will find some great ideas already captured in their formulation. This might be something the lead pastor could initiate on your behalf.