Religious leaders need sabbaticals

by Bill Tammeus

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My Presbyterian congregation has a policy that says once a pastor has been with us at least five years, he or she is eligible for a sabbatical.

Which is why, if you show up to worship with us before Aug. 14 you won't get to hear our senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Paul T. Rock, preach. His sabbatical began earlier this month.

Although as a journalist I never got a sabbatical over more 40-plus years of full-time employment for newspapers, I not only don't begrudge Paul his time off, I celebrate the fact that he gets it and I hope other faith communities will find ways to provide refreshment and restoration for their own clergy.

The closest journalists get to a sabbatical is to become a Nieman fellow under the Nieman Foundation for Journalism program at Harvard University. In fact, my former Kansas City Star colleague Jeneé Osterheldt has just been selected as part of the Nieman class of 2017. Good for her.

Although journalists often have stressful jobs (I wrote a daily column -- well, five days a week -- for 27 years), it's a different kind of stress than that experienced by priests, rabbis, pastors, imams and other religious leaders. We journalists, after all, don't usually imagine that what we say and do may have an eternal effect on people.

By contrast, people ordained to parish ministry are required to interpret scripture to congregants. They must guide people spiritually and help them find the road back to faith when faith smashes up on the rocks of post-modernity. They are asked to be with the sick and dying, give courage to the newly confirmed and newly married and defend the theological positions on which their faith is grounded.

And I haven't even begun to mention committee meetings, which can be soul-crushing when they end in private parking lot conversations that mostly undermine a congregation's leadership.

I'm aware that there are some sabbatical opportunities for Catholic priests, too, including the sabbatical programs at the North American College in Rome and the Hesburgh Sabbatical Program.

But I also know that given the extraordinary shortage of priests, getting a sabbatical for any reason other than health or some other kind of trouble can be difficult.

In some ways I cannot imagine the unrelenting pressure that some priests must experience given current circumstances. I know a terrific young priest who not long ago was asked to serve not just one but two congregations. He tells me he loves it because it gives him a chance to have his mostly white original congregation become more deeply engaged with a congregation that is made up primarily of African-Americans and Hispanics.

And because such connections are his passion, for now he's running full tilt boogie and feeling good about the path both congregations are taking.

But he's an exception. And if his feverish current pace keeps up a few more years, I can imagine him feeling so drained emotionally and physically that he becomes drained spiritually. And then what good will he be to either congregation?

Yes, it's possible to create mini-sabbaticals -- a weekend here, three days fishing there. But to recharge the intellectual batteries, to build up a new store of ideas for how to be a 21st Century church in a post-Christian age requires more time than that.

I don't know all the details about Paul's sabbatical, but I do know that he had to lay out a plan for how to use the time for restoration. And I know that our church leaders had to sign off on his plan.

So he won't be playing video games for three months. Rather, he'll be filling up his reservoir so that when he returns he will be ready to challenge us in new and important ways to be, as our church motto says, "A people being transformed by Christ to help transform the world."

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's Web site and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. E-mail him at]

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