It is well known that many a pastor suffers from stress, burnout, or depression. This article gives insight into how pastors can be spared from this. A sabbatical is something that churches have to think about as a gift to their pastor.

Source: The Messenger, 2012. 3 pages.

"My Pastor, A Sabbatical?"

During the spring of 2011, I had the privilege of a semester off from teaching at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, which I had been doing for twelve years. A semester or more off from teaching is commonly known as a sabbatical in the academic world of colleges and universities. Usually, it is understood to be a break in teaching in order to focus on publishing projects, new research venues, teaching or researching at other institutions, and the like.

For me, my sabbatical meant no teaching (other than a week’s module, which had been rescheduled), minimal student advising, minimal faculty meetings, etc. I still continued to preach semi-regularly. Mainly, I worked on a number of publishing projects. For myself, I need to say that I did not work less during my sabbatical, but differently. And after it was all done, I discovered that it had been very refreshing to have been out of the harness of teaching, advising, and meeting for a number of months. When I returned to teaching in the fall, I was surprised how refreshed I felt, and excited to be teaching again.

Having now talked to several ministers concerning this, I have been encouraged to share my experience with churches in the hope of helping us think through how we can help our pastors feel refreshed in their ministerial duties.

Fainting Fits🔗

In chapter 11 of his Lectures to My Students, entitled, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits,” Charles H. Spurgeon asks why it is that “the heralds of the daybreak find themselves at times in tenfold night.” He explains: “Fits of depression come over the most of us. Usually cheerful as we may be, we must at intervals be cast down ... There may be here and there men of iron, to whom wear and tear work no perceptible detriment, but surely the rust frets even these; and as for ordinary men, the Lord knows, and makes them to know, that they are but dust.”1

There are numerous causes for “fainting fits,” ranging from physical and mental illnesses to simple aspects of the work of a minister. For example, Spurgeon notes, a minister is often sedentary, which opens him up to mental and physical fatigue. Also, there is a measure of physical, psychological, and spiritual solitude. Spurgeon remarks: “In their weaker moments (they) feel the lack of human sympathy. Like their Lord in Gethsemane, they look in vain for comfort to the disciples sleeping around them; they are shocked at the apathy of their little band of brethren, and return to their secret agony with all the heavier burden pressing upon them, because they have found their dearest companions slumbering.”2

Ministers can feel great disappointments in men, converts, officers, or even betrayal by them, adding to a sense of discouragement and weariness. Moreover, contrary to what many might expect, even “success” can bring with it “melancholy.” Spurgeon writes:

See Elias after the fire has fallen from heaven, after Baal’s priests have been slaughtered and the rain has deluged the barren land. For him no notes of self-complacent music, no strutting like a conqueror in robes of triumph; he flees from Jezebel, and feeling the revulsion of his intense excitement, he prays that he may die. He who must never see death, yearns after the rest of the grave, even as Caesar, the world’s monarch, in his moments of pain cried like a sick girl. Poor human nature cannot bear such strains as heavenly triumphs bring to it; there must come a reaction. Excess of joy or excitement must be paid for by subsequent depressions.3

Unbroken Labour🔗

All of this gathers more weight when we remember that the Sabbath day, when most of us rest from our labours, is often one of the most intense days of the week for a pastor. Spurgeon highlights the toll that “the long stretch of unbroken labor” takes on a minister. He explains:

The bow cannot be always bent without fear of breaking. Repose is as needful to the mind as sleep to the body. Our Sabbaths are our days of toil, and if we do not rest upon some other day we shall break down. Even the earth must lie fallow and have her Sabbaths, and so must we. Hence the wisdom and compassion of our Lord, when he said to his disciples, “Let us go into the desert and rest awhile.” ... The Master knows better than to exhaust his servants and quench the light of Israel. Rest time is not waste time. It is economy to gather fresh strength ... Fishermen must mend their nets, and we must every now and then repair our mental waste and set our machinery in order for future service.4

Certainly, the Sabbath can provide ministers with a certain measure of spiritual rest, as they both prepare to and do preach. They are able to pluck some early fruits of spiritual food during the week as they prepare to preach. However, they will still need to find regular times to rest their bodies. Since no man is the same, it is good for a consistory or session to ask their pastor how he is best able to do this, and then find ways to respect this, and help him to “keep the fourth commandment.”

The minister then, must have a routine of bodily rest, not only weekly, but also yearly – vacations, in which the minister goes away. If he does not he will have plenty on his plate to keep him occupied and prevent rest.

What is a Sabbatical For?🔗

Beyond a weekly and yearly rest, however, there is great value in the practice of a sustained break from the normal duties of ministry by way of a sabbatical. In a helpful piece, Dr. David Van Drunen of Westminster Seminary  California addresses a number of issues relating specifically to the idea of a sabbatical.5 He addresses the question: “Why should a congregation consider giving its pastor a sabbatical when the other hard-working people in the church would never dream of receiving one from their employers?” Van Drunen’s response is that sabbaticals are not vacations but times with “a different kind of work from the usual. Sabbaticals are periods in which a person interrupts his ordinary routine in order to engage in focused study and learning, for the purpose of gaining knowledge and skill that will make him better at his labor and will benefit the people for whom he works.” He does acknowledge that there may be “the side benefit of alleviating stress and avoiding burnout, since often a change of pace itself can be rejuvenating. But that is not a sabbatical’s primary purpose.”

A sabbatical may involve extensive reading and study to help prepare for a series of sermons. It may involve taking a course or two at a seminary. It may involve writing a book to address a pressing topic. It may involve an educational trip to Israel or Asia Minor.

Van Drunen helpfully notes that it may not always be wise for a congregation to grant a pastor a sabbatical:

If a pastor is struggling with time management issues, for example, then granting him a sabbatical is probably not wise or responsible: a pastor who is unaccustomed to using his time well in his ordinary labors will most likely not use his time well on sabbatical. If he is spending hours every day reading and posting blogs, it may be that he has the time for necessary reading and reflection but is simply using it poorly. In such circumstances, the elders would probably serve the church better by helping the pastor to become more disciplined in his use of time than by giving him more time to squander. Congregations may also be unwise to grant a sabbatical to a pastor who has no plan about how to use it or who is unwilling to be held accountable for how he spends it.

Practically Speaking🔗

A sabbatical for ministers will also mean a change of pace for congregations and elders. Like yearly rest, a sabbatical rest means more than physical distance from a congregation; it also means digital distance. While the minister is away, the elders will need to have a published plan to aid the congregation in case there is a death of a congregant, marriage problems within the congregation, or other basic needs. If your minister is on vacation or on a sabbatical, he cannot be expected to carry out his normal duties. When the minister returns, the elders will have to give him a written report detailing congregational issues while he was away.

For the congregation, this may be a challenging, but Lord willing, a growing time. They will have to rely on ministers from surrounding areas, retired ministers, or men in training for the ministry to fill the pulpit while the minister is away. They will also be expected to bring their issues or concerns to the elders. This change of pace ought to solidify in the minds of the congregation that Christ’s church is not built on the shoulders of one man. And as they have the privilege of sitting under others’ preaching, the word ought to be confirmed all the more in their hearts.

Rest From the Rest-Giver🔗

It is not easy for anyone, not even ministers, to rest in the Rest-Giver, Christ Jesus. On one occasion Jesus told a parable that pointed to the propriety of rest for those who sow the seed of the Word:

And he said, So is the kingdom of God as if a man should cast seed into the ground; and should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how.Mark 4:26-27

Though not every detail of parables should be invested with significance, I believe this particular one relates to the main message of the parable: the growth of the kingdom should not deprive the human vessels of appropriate and regular times of sleep – symbolizing the fact that its growth does not depend on the farmer’s constant and unslumbering watchfulness, intensity, and labour. He needs to do what he is called to do, but he need not seek to do more than that; neither should he be expected to do so.

This message of the Lord is confirmed in the end of the chapter. After telling the disciples to get into a boat, Jesus went down into the stern of the boat, and fell asleep, and stayed asleep, remarkably even in a fierce storm (Mark 4:37-38). He was resting after having taught the multitudes all day; and after a rigorous day of work, a good sleep is a gift. But it is more than that. Having just told this parable about the sower who went to sleep, Jesus shows this very thing. He had spent the day sowing the seed of God’s Word. And now, He too, like the farmer in that parable, could sleep. God’s purpose with the seed that was faithfully planted would be accomplished. Psalm 127:2 says that it is vain to stay up late and deprive your body of sleep: “For so he giveth his beloved sleep.” And here God the Father was giving His beloved Son, after a full day of work, some sleep, some rest.

Rest in the Storm🔗

Christ, while resting from His work in the storm, did more than enjoy sleep for Himself. He was teaching His disciples, who were fretful in this storm a lesson they deeply needed to learn, and a lesson ministers of God’s Word and congregations need to learn. The rest of the Lord is not a matter of outward circumstances only, but of inward peace. That is, our ultimate rest does not come from our circumstances, but from God’s grace working in our hearts.

In the final analysis, rest is not a matter of vacations or sabbaticals – as important and necessary as these are. Rather, true rest, lasting rest, even in the midst of the storms of ministry and life, comes through gracious rest the Rest-Giver Himself pours out from heaven on a daily basis. The Lord Jesus has entered within the veil, into His rest, and He can apportion His rest to His servants in the midst of laboured work: “And to you who are troubled rest with us” (2 Thess. 1:7).


  1. ^ C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to my Students: A Selection from Addresses Delivered to the Students of the Pastor’s College, Metropolitan Tabernacle (1894; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1995), 167.
  2. ^ Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 170-71.
  3. ^ Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 172-73.
  4. ^ Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, 174.
  5. ^ All the following quotes from Van Drunen are taken from, David Van Drunen, “Sabbaticals for Pastors,” Ordained Servant, May (2009), (accessed February 13, 2012).

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