Planning Sabbaticals (Robert Saler) - A Review

PLANNING SABBATICALS: A Guide for Congregations and Their Pastors. By Robert C. Saler. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2019. Viii + 69 pages.

                Why would pastors take a sabbatical? Isn’t that something that professors do so they can do research and pursue writing projects? The idea that clergy might take a sabbatical, and by sabbatical, I don’t mean a two-week vacation, is a rather new idea. I’ve had the opportunity to take two sabbaticals during my time as pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church. The first came after my fifth year with the church, and the second after my eleventh. I will say that I am grateful to the church for allowing me to step away from my responsibilities for three months. I found both sabbaticals to be enriching and renewing and recommend them to my colleagues and the congregations they serve.

               So, what might a sabbatical entail? Is it a study leave? It could be? Is it a time to go off in the woods or to a monastery for an extended period? Perhaps. Could it involve travel? Yes. Does there have to be a theme? No, but sometimes a theme can help coordinate what takes place? What about the congregation? What should it be doing? That’s a good question because a clergy sabbatical isn’t just about the pastor, it’s also a time of renewal for the congregation. Again, every renewal experience will be different. You might wonder, how do you pay for this? Well, there are grants out there, and they can be quite valuable. I know, because my congregation and I received a very generous one, but we had to mostly finance the first one through congregational funds (though I did receive a grant that paid for a research trip to England).

                Since the idea of a clergy sabbatical is rather new, it might be helpful to have a guide for both clergy and congregations. Robert Saler’s book Planning Sabbaticals is just what the doctor ordered. Interestingly, the review copy of Saler’s book arrived just as I was returning from my three-month sabbatical. So, the idea of a sabbatical was fresh in my mind. We didn’t have the book in front of us as we planned the sabbatical as a congregation. It would have been helpful, though, for the most part, we followed similar pathways as he recommends. 

                Saler wrote this book from the context of being the director of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs that are administered by Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. He is also an associate dean and research professor at Christian Theological Seminary. While he brings experience with the Lilly grants, of which we were recent recipients—these grants are very generous (up to $50,000) —this isn’t just a book about these generous grants. After all, not every congregation will receive this grant. Thus, he offers guidance as to how they can be financed even if you don’t receive a Lilly grant (but if you’re planning on a sabbatical, be sure to apply).

Regarding the book itself, while it’s brief, I believe it will be very useful for clergy and congregations to formulate plans for sabbaticals. It deals with many of the dos and don’ts of planning and implementing them. It is also intended to serve as a word of encouragement to congregations, so as to help them see the value of pastoral renewal leaves for both congregations and pastors. There is a caveat, however. Sabbaticals are beneficial only when congregations and pastors are healthy. Clergy can be tired (I was tired), but this is not the cure for burned-out pastors or conflicted congregations. Those are concerns, Saler notes, that need to be taken care of in other ways. But, if both are healthy, they can be beneficial (and I agree).

While he begins with discussions of the "why" and sets out a path for having a conversation within the congregation, once you get past those concerns, congregations, and pastors need to focus on what will transpire before, during, and after the sabbatical. The answer to these questions will depend on the pastor and the congregation involved. After all, the point of the sabbatical is renewal. Sabbaticals should involve engaging in things that bring joy. For clergy, it might involve a time of intense study or it might involve time away in spiritual retreat. It could involve travel or spending time with family. It probably will involve a variety of things, both for congregation and pastor. Again, the point is choosing things that bring joy and renewal. During my most recent sabbatical, which had the benefit of the Lilly grant, my wife and got to go on a river cruise in Europe, I visited family and friends in Oregon and spent a week in San Diego doing some sight-seeing with my wife and participating in the AAR-SBL convention with my son. I did some writing and simply rested, among other things. One thing that Saler recommends, especially for clergy, is to make sure you include some downtime. Don't run yourself ragged. That means you need to take an extended time off. You can’t do this in a month. Three months, in my mind, is the minimum (that’s what I did).

When it comes to what congregations will do during this time of separation, that may depend on the congregation and its resources. In small congregations, like the one I serve, lay members will likely be called upon to take up responsibilities normally undertaken by the pastor. If this is a multi-staff congregation, then perhaps they will take on more responsibility during the interim. It can also be a time of learning for the congregation. That might include special workshops and seminars, retreats, and perhaps the input of guest preachers. What congregations shouldn't do, though is to engage in conversations that are best had when the pastor is present—like making plans for the future of the congregation. A bit of dreaming is one thing, embarking on a plan for the future that doesn't include the pastor is not going to be very fruitful. The point in all of this, as Saler notes, is that this is a shared journey that should benefit both parties.

Although we didn't have the book in front of us, for the most part, our plans reflected much of the guidance offered here. In part that may be due to earlier experience, and the fact that in both cases we structured the plan to fit the Lilly Grant guidelines. The first time around, we didn’t get the grant so we had to be a bit more circumspect with what we did, but the application process helped guide us toward a good plan. One thing we’ve learned, and something affirmed by the book, is that planning is essential. So, start early and consult this book—bit only if clergy and congregation are in a healthy place. The book is brief and structured in a way so that it can be used by congregations as they consider and make plans for a clergy renewal experience that can lead to blessings for the congregation and renewed mission. 

Once again, my recommendation to clergy, if you have the opportunity to take a sabbatical, don’t let it pass you by. It can strengthen your ministry. If you're negotiating a new call, include sabbaticals and funding for them in your negotiations. If you are currently in a position, advocate for one. You might even put it in your employee manuals. Of course, timing is everything. As you engage in these conversations, you might want to share this book with the congregation so that they might see the value in a clergy sabbatical. In one of his concluding points, Saler notes that “no time gaining congregational buy-in is wasted; it’s one of the most valuable parts of the renewal itself, whether it takes three months or three years” (p. 67). I would agree!


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