• Chris Smith

So your pastor is going on Sabbatical...

We've been planning this for over a year at this point, and we've been public with the plans since the annual reports were published last February, but I'm willing to bet that this past Sunday was the first time some of you heard that I was going to be taking a sabbatical for the first four months of 2020.

I see you. Take a deep breath. Relax. We're going to get you through this.

This past Sunday in the conclusion of our "How to be Christian" series, I spoke about the importance of the discipline of Sabbath, and how one possible application of that discipline was the practice of pastoral sabbatical. I also started to outline the ways in which my upcoming sabbatical was going to work and how it would affect the church. You can listen to that message here if you missed it, but I also promised in that message that there would be a longer, more detailed explanation coming on the blog, so as a man of my word, here is that explanation. I'll try to break it down into the major questions that I anticipate that you'll want to know, and if at the end of reading this you still have more questions, feel free to talk to me before the end of the year, or to any of your elders at any time.

Question 1: What are you going to be doing for 4 months?

Well beyond not working at the church, the primary goal of my sabbatical is going to be the completion of my Master of Divinity degree at Providence Seminary. Some of you may remember that I have been taking seminary courses on the side for a while now, what you may not realize is that I have been picking away at this degree part-time for almost 9 YEARS at this point and it is well past the time that I finished and graduated. During my semester-long sabbatical, I will be taking the final three courses of my degree and (God willing) graduate in April. Aside from a large sense of personal accomplishment and the theological enrichment that you have already benefited from as I have grown in this process, I am looking forward to a lightened personal burden as I have been carrying an average course-load of four classes per year most of the time I have been pastoring at The Bridge. Not having to deal with that in addition to all my other responsibilities will feel a bit like a Sabbath in itself!

In addition to the primary goal of finishing school, I will also be making this sabbatical a renewed focus on physical health. I have been battling obesity my whole life and those of you who have been at the church for a number of years have seen me make great gains in that time, but there is more work to do. I turn 40 during my sabbatical and I earnestly desire to be at my healthiest when I cross that milestone. The free time that I will have during this sabbatical will allow me to live an unhurried lifestyle of careful diet and exercise to get to a place that will help me have more energy for the season ahead, and will help me to be a more wholly integrated person body and spirit going forward.

Lastly, I will be taking the opportunity to be more involved in my kids lives. This is something that any parent should aspire to in every season of life, but I am not naïve to the fact that the busyness of the pastoral calling often diminishes my ability to be a present and active dad. During this season I want to focus on building intentional connections with my kids, in ways that I have always wanted to, but have not always been able to.

Question 2: What is the church going to do for 4 months when you are away?

In one word: Thrive. I am not the glue that holds this congregation together—Jesus is. And while I may be absent for a season, the real pastor of this congregation will not be. Your elders will be here to help guide you through my absence and to lead this congregation in the way that Jesus is calling her; Pastor Jenn has worked tirelessly over the past number of months to line up the arrangements for every single Sunday morning service during my sabbatical including guest speakers when needed and service logistics for every week. For years now, we have been training you and our elders to work within our flock elder system for congregational care, and in the past 18 months you seem to have really latched onto it—that will not change. All that will change is that we are going to need some of you to actually step-up into the roles that we have been calling you to for a long time now.

Without pastoral oversight, some ministries are going to need volunteers to do more, and some ministries will simply need more volunteers. The church has been here before, between Pastor Brian's departure and my arrival the church functioned (and thrived) for almost 17 months. We are asking you to do the same next year for only 17 weeks. I know that in some ways this has the potential to bring out the best of who I know you can be. So don't squander your opportunity to step-up and rise to the occasion. You might just find that you don't need me as much as you think you do!

Question 3: What guarantee do we have that you won't take this as a paid vacation and leave us?

Okay Sally Cynic, calm down and breathe deeply. I have been consistent and clear for a long time, I believe that God has called me to this congregation, and even though the job I have today bears little resemblance to the job I thought I was taking when you called me (that's a subject for a different blog post), I have not wavered in my conviction that this is where I am supposed to be. I love this church and one of the reasons that I am taking this sabbatical in the first place is so that I can go away and come back and be a better pastor to this congregation than I can be in my current state.

And for those of you for whom my good intentions are not enough, my sabbatical agreement contains certain assurances to the church as well. For example, I commit to returning to my role as Lead Pastor for a minimum of 1 year upon completion of my sabbatical, and during sabbatical I am committed to continue tithing to The Bridge Church as I always do. In addition to that, my family will continue to attend and serve at The Bridge Church during that 4 month period—this is their church too and it seems cruel to pull them out of their faith family just so I can have a little time off.

Question 4: So if your family is still attending, will we see you on Sundays?


While my family will continue to attend regularly, and I will occasionally attend with them, you won't see me as much. Not only am I planning to take this opportunity to visit other congregations in the city and learn how church is being done in different ways in different places, but when I do show up here, I'll be a little more inconspicuous than normal. And on those Sundays when I end up coming to The Bridge during my sabbatical, I am hopeful that you will treat me as you would treat any other non-pastoral member of the congregation. For while I am on sabbatical I am not your pastor.

And as someone who is not your pastor during this time I hope that you can respect the boundaries that come with that distinction without automatically cutting me out of your lives. I know that what I am asking here is nuanced and prone to error—and surely I hope that there can be grace offered on both sides as we figure this out—but I need you to think long and hard before you talk to me, call me, text me, or reach out to me during my sabbatical.

A good rule of thumb is to take a minute before you ask me for something and ask yourself a question first: "Would I be asking Chris this question if he wasn't my pastor?" If the answer is yes, then have at it. I do have relationships with many of you that transcend the pastor/parishioner relationship and it is perfectly appropriate to continue those relationships while I am on sabbatical. But if the answer is no, then I would encourage you to put down the phone, or walk away from the conversation and talk to your flock elder instead.

Question 5: So does that mean you won't respond to my dire spiritual emergency?

It's not because I don't care about you or what you are going through—quite the opposite in fact. I care too much about you as my flock and as such I need to make sure that appropriate boundaries are in place during the sabbatical. The elders are going to do their level best to keep me in the dark about things that I don't need to know about while I am away, otherwise I will not be able to disengage and pursue the things I am looking to accomplish during this season. Our elders are well-trained, and spiritually mature leaders in our congregation and I have absolute faith in their ability to make wise judgments during times of crisis—including, but not limited to, reaching out to other pastors for help. And if something happens that rises to the level of urgency that would require them to bring me back into the loop before my sabbatical ends, they will be the ones to make that call. I have trusted them with that power, and I am asking you to do the same.

Now I'm sure that you have more questions that you might want to ask, and I want you to feel free to come to me and ask them up until I leave. Or feel free to ask them of the elders at any time. I am really looking forward to this season, but I am looking forward even more to coming back at the end of it and pastoring out of the new knowledge, health, balance, and perspective that I anticipate gaining during it. So with that I'm going to wrap this up and let you know that even though I'm away—I love you all 3000.


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