What Is a Sabbatical?

ImageDear Readers:

I will be on sabbatical from June 8 through August 2, taking some much-appreciated time away for rest, travel, and study.  It’s the policy of Richmond’s First Baptist church to grant sabbatical leave to its ministers in the seventh year of their tenure.  I think it’s an excellent policy, and so does Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay Christian Resources and former Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Take a look at this article from his own blog:


The word “sabbatical” has different meanings depending on the context in which it is used. It has one meaning in the academic community, another meaning in its biblical usage, and still another in many secular settings.

For the purpose of this article, I define sabbatical in simple terms. It simply means time off for rest and/or study. The time can be a few days, a few weeks or, on rare occasions, a few months. The pastor is given paid leave for rest, rejuvenation and, perhaps, deeper study. I would love to see churches of all sizes provide this requirement of their pastor, even if it’s only for a few days.

I have the opportunity to work with lay leaders and pastors. I have a pretty good view of both perspectives. And I am convinced that more lay leaders need to insist their pastors take regular breaks even beyond vacations. Allow me to provide five reasons for my rationale.

1. A pastor has emotional highs and lows unlike most other vocations. In the course of a day, a pastor can deal with death, deep spiritual issues, great encouragement, petty criticisms, tragedies, illnesses, and celebrations of birth. The emotional roller coaster is draining. Your pastor needs a break—many times a break with no distractions.

2. A pastor is on 24-hour call. Most pastors don’t have an “off” switch. They go to sleep with the knowledge they could be awakened by a phone call at anytime of the day. Vacations are rarely uninterrupted. It can be an exhausting vocation, and a sabbatical can be a welcome time to slow down.

3. Pastors need time of uninterrupted study. It doesn’t usually happen in the study at church or home. There is always the crisis or need of the moment. Church members expect sermons that reflect much prayer and study. The pastor’s schedule often works against that ideal. The sabbatical can offer much needed, and uninterrupted, study time.

4. Pastors who have sabbaticals have longer tenure at churches. Though my information is anecdotal, I do see the trend. And while I cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship, I feel confident that pastors who have sabbaticals are much more likely to stay at a church because they are less likely to experience burnout.

5. Pastors who have sabbaticals view the time off as an affirmation from their churches. I have heard from many pastors who share with me a sentence similar to this one: “I know my church loves me because they give me a sabbatical.” Pastors need affirmation. Sabbaticals can accomplish that goal.

I estimate that only about five percent of churches offer sabbaticals. In almost every case where I am familiar, the relationship between pastor and congregation is very healthy. I do think at least one of the reasons is the sabbatical.


I hear you, Thom.  I know my church loves me because they give me a sabbatical.

Right back at you, church.  I love you, too.

See you August 3!



KOH2RVA: Day 301

FrontPorchFrontofHse 042Today we will commission five different mission teams at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. Two will go to South Africa, one will go to Arkansas, one will go to the Philippines and then on to Singapore for the Baptist World Alliance Youth Conference, and one person (Skyler Cumbia) will go to Ghana. It’s a good reminder that First Baptist is not only interested in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, but to the whole world. We focus on Richmond simply because this is the place where we live, and the place that we love more than any other place in the world.

Not that there aren’t some other wonderful places.

I’ll be leaving Richmond just after the 11:00 worship service today for two weeks’ vacation in the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Catskills of New York. I’m going to walk in the woods, sit on the front porch, read good books, eat good food, and rest, rest, rest. I won’t be blogging for the next two weeks, but it would be a great time to dig through the archives and be reminded of all we have accomplished together in the last 301 days.

I will be counting on those of you who are still in town to carry on the mission, and to surprise me with all the good ways you have brought heaven to earth when I get back. One of the things we’re going to do shortly after my return is gather at the river on July 21 for the Sixth Annual FBC River Baptism. Please be in prayer for those who are preparing to be baptized, and join us if you can for that very special event.

Know, as I go, that some part of my heart will remain here in Richmond, and that I will look forward to being back with you here and getting on with our mission. But for the next two weeks I’m going to do my best to rest, remembering that even Jesus withdrew from time to time. I think I understand now, more than ever, why he had to.

Bringing heaven to earth is hard work!

Thanks for your help.

KOH2RVA: Day 174

farm_workIt’s 5:39 on a Saturday morning, and I’m up having coffee and wondering why.

I woke up at 5:13 with these words in my head: “There is inner work, and there is outer work, and both are required for the life of the Kingdom.” A little later the next line came to me: “And there is inner rest, and there is outer rest, and both are equally necessary.”

I don’t think I’ve ever read or heard those lines before, but they struck me as true in the way Scripture is true, and since waking up I’ve been reflecting on them. Don’t expect too much. It’s only 5:44. But here’s what I’ve got so far:

There is a rhythm of work and rest that is both good and necessary. You get up in the morning groaning because you have to go to work, but you look at the clock late in the afternoon and grin because you get to go home. If it were all work and no rest you would soon die of exhaustion. If it were all rest and no work you would soon die of boredom.

In the life of the Kingdom, there also seems to be a rhythm of inner work and outer work that is both good and necessary. Since September 9, 2012, I’ve been busy trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. But I’ve also been learning that if that outer work is not balanced with inner work I can easily forget why I’m doing what I’m doing. I can become a tireless “doer of good deeds” without coming one step closer to the Kingdom. So I need to take time to pray, to read, to think, to listen, and to learn.

But the rhythm of rest and work also applies to the inner and outer life. In the same way my body can become worn out by work my heart, mind, and soul can become worn out. I need to have hours and sometimes even days at a time when I am not working to develop my inner life but simply resting in the grace of God. I need to give myself permission to go for a long walk in the woods, or watch an old movie on television, without feeling I have let go of the rope on which the Kingdom will come.

Today is not one of those days. I’ve got a whole sermon to write before this day is over. But the coffee is good and hot and strong and I’m feeling energized for the work ahead. I’m grinning, not groaning, but it’s partly because on Thursday I took the time I needed to rest. I gave not only my body the day off, I also gave my heart and soul and mind a break. Maybe that’s why I’m waking up this morning with fresh thoughts bubbling up inside my brain: maybe it’s rested and ready for what comes next, just as my heart and soul and strength are rested.

And maybe this is how life in the Kingdom is supposed to be.


KOH2RVA: Day 165

CommandmentsIt seems I’ve been breaking one of the Ten Commandments lately.

I didn’t mean to. Who does? But when I looked through them recently Commandment Number Four jumped right off the page:

Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it (Exodus 20:9-11).

For the Jews, the Sabbath day has always been Saturday. Christians adopted Sunday—the day of the Lord’s resurrection—as their Sabbath. But for me, for more than twenty years now, it’s been Thursday.


Yes, Thursday. I can’t very well take Sundays off, and Saturdays are when I write my sermons. That leaves the five other days of the week. When I went to my first full-time pastorate my new secretary, Glenda Spivey, asked, “When will you take your day off?” “My day off?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, firmly. Her husband was a pastor. He had suffered two heart attacks. She wasn’t going to let that happen to me if she could help it. “Um, Thursday?” I said.

And Thursday it was.

Glenda made sure I didn’t come to work on Thursday. If I stopped by the office, even to pick up a book I had left behind, she would glare at me and growl. She was a great secretary, and partly or perhaps mostly because of her I learned the discipline of Sabbath rest. I got to the point where, when I went home on Wednesday night, I would feel a load slip off my shoulders knowing that the next day was mine. I got into the rhythm of the Sabbath so completely that my body, my mind, my soul anticipated it, and shifted into it quickly and easily when the time came.

When I came to Richmond I kept up the practice. On my new calendar I wrote “Previous Commitment” on every Thursday, so that when someone called to ask if I could do something on that day I could look at my calendar and say, honestly, “I have a previous commitment.”

I kept the Sabbath religiously.

Until we started our year-long, every-member mission trip: KOH2RVA. Almost from the beginning there were opportunities to being the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, on Thursdays that I didn’t feel I could pass up. And so I broke the Fourth Commandment—just a little bit here and there—until there wasn’t much left of it, until Thursday was just another day on the calendar, wide open to whatever someone else wanted to schedule. It’s only been in the last few weeks that I’ve figured out what was missing from my life, and what was missing was the rhythm of Sabbath rest.

I’ve been feeling a weariness in my bones that won’t be healed by working harder and sleeping less. It will only be healed by remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy, that is—keeping it “different,” that is—keeping it.

I would recommend it to everyone, and if I were God, I would command it.

I write all this to let you know I won’t be posting anything on my blog today because it’s Thursday, my Sabbath day, and I’m keeping it. So, don’t even go to my blog today. Don’t even look for a post. You won’t find it…

Uh oh.

I did it again.

KOH2RVA: Day 13

Yesterday was my day off, and so I didn’t do much to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. But God must have known that, and so, while I rested on the twelfth day he rolled up his sleeves and went to work, making one of the most beautiful days he has ever made–78 degrees and sunshine.

While my own efforts often seem small and ineffective, what God did yesterday touched every part of Metropolitan Richmond. It blessed both rich and poor, both young and old. Yesterday the most ragged and miserable citizen of our great city could tilt his face toward the sky and feel God’s love, could stick out his tongue and get a taste of heaven.

As I say sometimes about the Lord’s prayer, it ends the way it does in case we begin to have some success, in case heaven does come a little closer to earth and we imagine it’s because of something we have done. That’s when we need to remember: “Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.”


The Calm after the Storm

In the last three months I’ve made 231 Facebook friends, written 43 blog entries, preached 28 times, told a half dozen holiday stories, and sung (once) at a ladies’ tea.  It’s been a whirlwind of activity, and although I enjoy that kind of thing—breezing from one big event to the next—I am also enjoying this little bit of calm after the storm.

People kept asking me last week, “Are you ready for Christmas?” and I kept saying, “Almost.”  I meant that I had almost finished shopping for gifts and almost finished preparing the manger of my heart, but until I finished preaching the Christmas Eve service there was always one more thing to get ready for.  So, when it was over, and I was walking back home with my family after midnight, with the air strangely warm and a light breeze stirring the dead leaves on Monument Avenue, I felt my whole body relax into the holiday.  There wasn’t one more thing I had to do except fall asleep that night and wake up on Christmas morning.

So, even though I’ve had to preach twice since then, I am holding onto that holiday feeling.  In fact this morning, instead of going into the office, I’m going to take my family up to DC for a couple of days, to knock around some of our old haunts and eat at some of our favorite restaurants.  I’m going to get some of that deep rest my body needs in order to go back to a job I love.  But, don’t worry.  I’m sure I’ll come back with some interesting stories to tell, and ready to post blog entry number 44.