Tips for healthy sabbaticals

I am asked reasonable frequently how ministers can make best use of a sabbatical. A second question that almost always follows quickly on is how can they justify it to church members who never have a similar opportunity. The implication being that it is a luxury, a guilty pleasure that shouldn’t really be considered by those who work hard. Perhaps even an indication of laziness. “People in the church will tell me they don’t have that kind of paid leave so why should I?”  

It isn’t uncommon for those who voice this concern to also indicate that they rarely have genuine sabbath in any form. There is a common temptation to use a time of sabbatical to try to compensate for not having had holy margins of leisure, rest, hope and joy in God for a number of previous years. Needless to say such sabbaticals rarely work well for encouraging the soul, marriage and family or for energising the next period of leadership. They are more commonly unstructured, used for col

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Bible Reading in a Digital World

What percentage of people in your church have their own Bible? Most, I guess. Many own more than one. What percentage are reading them at home? Regularly - once a week, twice a week, every day? I guess a much lower percentage.

Living in a digital age is clearly having an effect on Bible reading. I don’t just mean having new devices on which it is possible to access and read the scriptures. I mean new devices that distract from reading them. Our new generation have never not had computers, gaming, multiple channels of distraction. They have so many inputs. They don’t need to retain any information because they can google it at any time. 

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8 Principles to Help You Lead Through Change

In times of change godly leaders are the key factor in leading for the positive and minimising the negative impact on the flock. Therefore the key question is: what do leaders need to bring to the table to build trust and confidence in new direction or a new initiative?

Here are a few principles:

  • Leaders help the flock with their core motivations - aligning them to Christ and Christ's purposes through teaching, encouragement and godly role modelling
  • Leaders clarify future challenges and needs with gospel vision
  • Leaders care for the flock when uncertainty comes. We need to be able to express how change will affect people positively and negatively so they know we will help them when they feel weak and afraid
  • Leaders communicate clearly in order to help the flock embrace godly opportunity. People respond to concrete vision not vague vision
  • Leaders build team and gather resources for the task ahead, focusing people with our enthusiasm and joy in God
  • Leaders smooth transition with wisdom and the affection of Christ
  • Leaders expect to absorb angst with prayerfulness, compassion and kindness. In doing so we minimise future distress and disturbance
  • Leaders help the flock celebrate successes and mourn failures constructively

Leaders are always sensitive to the people they have and what goals and timescales for future change are realistic. We cannot change what we do not have the level of trust to change. In addition we cannot change things in Christ-centred ways unless the church shares a Christ-centred, disciple-making view of its purpose. We lead change in order that he is better magnified through the church making disciples. If that purpose is not central we will simply default to running everyone's favourite things.

Ministry and Healthy Spiritual Life

Everyone in the church would like a relationship with the pastor. And that’s a good thing, right? Leading the flock is inherently relational. Its hard to speak the gospel into people’s lives where you have no personal connection.

How many people do you think a pastor can have a meaningful relational connection with? 10? 50? 100? At what point does a church grow beyond the ability of its pastor to maintain those relationships at a meaningful depth? If they or the church continue to expect the same level of connection after that point as they enjoyed before surely that is a recipe for destructive patterns sooner or later?

The difficulty is that many pastors don’t know how or when to say “no”. And many churches expect them to work right up to capacity all the time (while not actually knowing where the line of realistic maximum capacity is). The point at which church growth means the pastor can no longer have meaningful contact with everyone is not only the point where those pastors are at their most stretched it is also the point where criticism starts to rise. Previously people enjoyed and valued having a piece of you. Now they clamour for a piece of you they can’t have but feel they have a right to.

Criticism - real or perceived (”don’t they know how much I am doing for them?” (no, they really don’t!)) - has a nasty habit of coming when we have least emotional resources to deal with it constructively. It’s easy to cave in and continue to try to satisfy all the demands. It feels easier than renegotiating expectations. However over a period our sense of who we are starts to be determined not by relationship to God but by multiply, competing, unfulfillable demands from everyone in the church. Our sense of achievement - so difficult to define in Christian ministry at the best of times - starts to be defined by how well people tell us we are doing at satisfying their requests rather than our enjoyment of being in Christ.

Add to this the collapse of clear boundaries and ministering always at the edge of capacity has the potential to seriously disrupt a healthy sense of identity. As one assistant minister put it to me recently “nobody at my training college told me that when you work for a church your work, non-work, church life, family life and leisure-time which were previously distinct now all become blurred.” The identity markers that function for most people - work, accomplishments, life-boundaries, family - can simply stop working for pastors and their families.

But we live from our identity. We pastor from our identity. We minister out of the overflow of a healthy spiritual life with God. It is ironic that church life and growth can itself be the thing that damages the spiritual life of leaders. But it is remarkably common - perhaps inevitable - where there are no healthy mutual expectations of what leaders should and should not do, that we need to receive as well as give, rest as well as work. It is critical for churches to find ways to help their pastors live in Christ.

Whenever I visit another church as a guest speaker I like to ask whether they know who feeds the people who feed them. I don’t need to know the answer - I know what it will be before I ask (”no”). The church assumes it pastors are themselves being fed, but they don’t know that they are. The assumption is almost always wrong. The result is that pastors and their spouses can easily be the least spiritually fed people in the church. Their spiritual outgoings constantly outweigh their spiritual incomings. They feed others, nobody feeds them. They are the focus of the hopes of a large number of people. When they fail to deliver they can become the sole focus of all the criticism of a large number of people. On the occasions when it all goes wrong they can become isolated, often without mechanisms for negotiation or redress at the point where they are also spiritually running on empty.

Hence the Hebrews 13:17 command to churches is critical for the health of pastors and of their churches:

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority because they keep watch over you as those who must give account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you

Make pastors’ work a joy because pastors who have lost their joy in God and in the church through unfulfillable demands, criticism and perpetual overwork no longer pastor well. The Bible says their job is to work for people’s progress and joy in the Lord. It is a wise church that finds ways to work with them for their own progress and joy because it is out of that centre that all good pastoring flows.

6 Factors in Bringing Christ-Centred Change

Over time churches can become quite change-averse communities. There are some positives to that of course - stability is important in any family. But sooner or later an aversion to change will prevent any community carrying out its purpose. People will join because they like it as it is at present not in order to join themselves to a vision for the future. They invest a large part of themselves in creating something they like and enjoy. Structures, activities and expectations build up over time until you get a mismatch between the church’s purpose - reaching its area with the gospel - and the structures that are meant to assist it. Maybe they were good 25 years, but they aren’t now and they aren’t easy to change.

Churches can suffer from inertia in the following ways:

  • Individual inertia: Individual self-interest, and self-perception about why I am here
  • Structural inertia: Activities are perceived to be the essence that makes church attractive rather than gospel vision; outdated but unchangeable structures and strategies from a previous age
  • Vision inertia: Lack of clarity of purpose
  • Leader inertia: Factors that make leaders unwilling or unable to lead

All of which are likely to demotivate change and to paralyze. 

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