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I received a precious gift this summer. It wasn’t a million dollars or luxury car, but something even more precious, a sabbatical. I am blessed to serve a loving and caring congregation, St. John’s Lutheran. They gifted me with a three month summer sabbatical that has renewed my body, soul and spirit.

Our colleges and universities are really the only institutions that have offered sabbaticals on a regular basis. They have come to the realization that sabbaticals given to the teaching faculty renew their employees and enrich the whole educational institution in the long run.

I wonder what would happen if all companies and public institutions were to offer sabbaticals to its employees, if our workforce wouldn’t be happier, healthier and more productive over the long haul. We in America work too hard, too fast, and put in too many hours. The stress of working with the public and working to achieve ever increasing sales or production goals has taken a toll on the workforce and on our clergy as well.

Churches are beginning to discover that sabbaticals offered to clergy and staff contribute to the wholeness and wellness of the whole church. Pastors preach grace, but we often live under the law. In recent studies of ministry done by the Fuller Institute and George Barna, the following was revealed:

  • 72% of pastors report working between 55 to 75 hours per week
  • 80% believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families
  • 52% of pastors feel overworked and cannot meet their church’s unrealistic expectations
  • 45% of pastors spend 10-15 hours a week on sermon preparation
  • 65% of pastors feel they have not taken enough vacation with their family over the last 5 years
  • 35% of pastors battle depression or fear of inadequacy
  • 70% of pastors do not have someone they consider to be a close friend
  • 71% of churches have no plan for a pastor to receive a periodic sabbatical
  • 1 out of every 10 pastors who started ministry will actually retire as a pastor

There’s a common saying, “If mamma ain’t happy, nobody is happy.” If the shepherds of God’s flock aren’t healthy, fulfilled, or renewed, how can the sheep be wisely led and fed? Sabbaticals are one way a church says to its leader, “Pastor, we love you. You take care of us, we want to take care of you and renew you as well.” Even Jesus took time from the exhausting demands of ministry to retreat and pray.

My church body has recommended a sabbatical of three months be granted to ordained ministers every five years. This was my first. How is a sabbatical different from a vacation? Our sabbatical guidelines say “A sabbatical provides an opportunity for a minister to reflect on the call to ministry and his/her relationship with God and God’s people. A sabbatical provides not only rest from labor, but also opportunities for growth in learning and renewal. Such a leave should be holistic – in that it includes time for prayer, reflection and care of self- as well as offering a time to develop and enhance gifts for ministry. The renewal leave is expected to be beneficial to the congregation, to the wider church and the minister.”

My wonderful church, St. John’s Lutheran, gave me this precious gift and cared enough to plan in advance for it. They set aside money each year to go into a sabbatical fund, which would pay for clergy to lead worship, preach and do pastoral care in my absence. I’m am indebted to Pastors Wayne Olsen, Patricia Harant, Ken DuVall, Neal Ruedisili and Mr. John Mundinger who took turns preaching and doing pastoral care. I am thankful to our office administer, Gretchen Mundinger and our director of music ministry, Dodie Walsh, for coordinating the day to day and Sunday to Sunday ministry. Our church council endorsed my sabbatical and oversaw ministry needs in my absence. We have a visitation group, “Caring Friends” who visited and communed shut-ins.

I am proud of my church for doing innovative ministry while I was away. They organized and led our vacation Bible school with counselors from Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp. They partnered with Intermountain to do VBS on their campus. They conducted a blood drive and raised over $2,000 at a brunch fundraiser for Bob’s Pantry at Helena Middle School. A sabbatical builds up a church’s confidence and self-esteem as they find out they are quite capable of doing excellent ministry even when the pastor is not present. (I hope they still need me and want me be back. Ha!)

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My church paid my salary and benefits while I was on sabbatical. I paid my own expenses for education and travel. They allowed me to use part of my continuing education funds accumulated over the years to help pay expenses.

The highlight of my sabbatical was taking a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with my wife, Elaine, for 10 days with a church tour group. What an experience of renewal and inspiration it was to walk where Jesus walked, to see the land where our Lord’s ministry unfolded, to sail across the sea of Galilee, to be in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed and was betrayed, to kneel at his birthplace and be at Golgotha. Our pilgrimage opened our eyes and enriched our understanding of the Biblical narrative. It revealed the complexities and injustices of the current Palestinian- Israeli conflict.

My sabbatical also gave me a time not only “to do,” but “to be.” I am renewed by relationships, relationship with family, friends and God. What a joy to be a husband to my wife and do fun things with her on weekends, when I usually have to work. I appreciated the time to be a father to my grown up children and enjoy the amazing sites in the Helena area with them. I took a trip across Montana to see my aging uncles and aunts, to hear and record on my phone wonderful family stories from them.

What a blessing it is to be a worshiper instead of a leader on Sunday mornings, to worship at some of our sister churches in Helena, both within my denomination and outside of it. I had the time to be a friend and go with my widowed friend, Lyle, to a wonderful grief care support group at Life Covenant Church.

My sabbatical gave me an opportunity to be a student at a theological conference at Christikon Bible Camp, located south of Big Timber in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. My sabbatical allowed me to retreat and to be in awe of God and God’s creation here in Big Sky Country. I was reminded that behind the Big Sky is a Big God!

Sabbaticals give pastors a time to be, to be still before God and to be in nurturing relationships. Pastors and church members are so busy “doing” we can run ourselves ragged; but we can be like Mary, taking time to be in the presence of Christ and hear the still small voice of God in a loud world. In a way, every Sunday is God’s gift of a mini-sabbatical to us; where we stop our doing and cease our labors and rest in the presence of God at worship. This Labor Day holiday honors laborers, this coming Sabbath day God honors those who rest through a “holy-day.”

I want to encourage church leaders who care about the health of their pastors and church to consider offering a sabbatical to their pastors and church leaders. You may not be able to give a three month sabbatical, but perhaps a month, or a week, outside of the normal vacation time, where your pastor, like Jesus, can go away to pray, to study and to be.

Gather up your frequent flyer miles and give them to your pastor so he/she and their spouse and family can get away. Or pay for a week or weekend at Fairmont Hot Springs or Chico as a way of saying, “Thank you, pastor. Rest and be renewed.” I guarantee that this precious gift of “time away” will bless and refresh your pastor. It did me! In doing so you will give your Shepherd the rest and renewal that is needed. Thank you, people of St. John’s Lutheran, for giving me this precious gift of a sabbatical. I am so blessed today by your renewing gift and am excited to join with you in ministry again.

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Pastor Brad Ulgenes and his wife Elaine are blessed to have lived in the Helena community for almost eight years. He is a native Montanan and a native Lutheran and has enjoyed serving congregations in Big Sky Country for the past 33 years.

 

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