Professors get sabbaticals. Some pastors are granted sabbaticals or study leaves. Why not also allow them for churches?
I think it is a great idea. It is even biblically based if you read the first dozen or so verses of Leviticus 25. Additionally, it fits what we know about the long-term life cycle pattern of churches.
One of my most fulfilling consultation experiences was leading the sabbatical process for a church. It was not a full year as suggested in the Leviticus passage; it was six months. But that was long enough for the people of the church to take a deep look at themselves.
The pastor was in his seventh year of service to the church and was taking a sabbatical to study a subject of great interest to him. The church had secured an interim preacher for six months. Otherwise, the ministry of the church was handled by lay leaders and a couple of part-time staff people.
As the time for the pastor’s leave approached, church leaders began to talk about the church taking its own sabbatical. They contacted me.
We developed a framework for the church sabbatical. It focused on doing an in-depth assessment of the signs of health and strength of the congregation, exploration of their hopes and dreams and identification of any barriers to realizing their hopes and dreams.
Once the pastor returned from sabbatical, they crafted a future story of missional ministry for the next seven years.
A key discovery for the church members early in the process was the realization they were fuzzy on who they were under God’s leadership and where they were headed. They were unclear about their identity as a Christian church and God’s empowering vision for their future.
An identity exercise
To gain some common understanding of their identity, I used a purpose statement exercise as part of a series of focus groups involving a large percentage of the active congregation.
I provided a paper containing three church purpose statements. One was the formal purpose statement in the documents of this particular church. A second was the purpose statement of the Baptist church of which I was a member.
The third I crafted after reading a half-dozen or so of the sermon manuscripts of their pastor. I did not identify the source of any of these purpose statements.
The church’s pastor was highly academic and printed his sermon manuscripts to hand out to the congregation a few weeks after each was delivered. The congregation really liked his sermons.
During the focus group interviews, I asked each person to identify two things. First, which one of the statements was the actual purpose statement for their church?
Second, which one do they wish was the purpose statement for their church? They were allowed to indicate the same or a different statement for their answer to the second question.
In naming the actual purpose statement for their church, they chose the composite statement I had composed from reading their pastor’s sermons. For their desired purpose statement, they chose the one from my church.
Only a few chose the actual written purpose statement for their church in answer to either question.
The results shocked the congregation. Despite the fact that they really loved their pastor’s sermons, they realized they no longer knew their own identity and vision.
This allowed for some serious, prayerful conversations during their sabbatical. It stimulated creative thinking about what type of congregation God was calling them to be.
It led to productive Kingdom conversations with the pastor when he returned from his sabbatical. It ultimately resulted in clarity for their identity and vision and a recommitment to living God’s vision for them.
Without renewal, churches wander
A lot of the tough work among a family of churches in renewal, revitalization and replanting happens because churches are not led to see the value of a spiritual and strategic sabbatical every seven years.
One proactive strategy is to boldly empower 15% of an association’s churches to engage in a sabbatical every year. If successful, each church could regularly enliven its identity and vision.
The ideal result would be that churches will be continually renewed and express vitality and vibrancy following a sabbatical every seven years.
Would your association accept the challenge to do this? Which are the first 15% of churches you would ask to accept this challenge?