A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview Dave Rimoldi, one of our ministry partners, from Soul Shepherding on the importance of sabbaticals in for pastors to rest, recharge, and reflect on their ministry, so that when they return they are ready to dive back into God’s kingdom work in their contexts.
Here is the transcript.
Stu: Welcome, I just want to introduce to you our speaker today. First I want to say my name is Stu Strachan and I am the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop, which is an online worship resource site for pastors. Folks who are looking for resources around worship planning, sermon planning, that’s what we do and we hope to actually be able to provide a little bit of rest as well. The subject we’re here to talk about today is sabbatical.
There is so much that goes into questioning what that is and when is the right time and why would someone consider doing a sabbatical. So we have with us today Dave Rimoldi, who is a senior spiritual director with Soul Shepherding as well as an adjunct professor at Talbot Seminary – the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Talbot Seminary in Southern California. Dave thanks for being with us.
Dave: Great to be here Stu. Thanks for having me on. I’m excited to be able to share a little bit with your audience today.
Stu: Can you share a little bit about your story and about how that connects both to spiritual formation and maybe also a little bit about sabbatical as well?
Dave: Yeah, so I feel like my journey with spiritual formation really came about when I was a young pastor in the early 2000s at a time for me when I was leaving the corporate world while working in the medical field and felt the call to pastoral ministry. And you know with that call there’s a part of me, in the back of my mind I was saying, “What am I really doing here?” I remember as I started out as a groups discipleship pastor at a church in Long Beach, I really thought I was going through a period of spiritual dryness and staleness in my relationship with God.
I really felt a bit of some inadequacy, “How do I really care for souls? How do I really help people on this journey of discipleship to Jesus?” So that kind of led me on to my own little soul-searching which led me to a conference in Southern California. Believe it or not, a spiritual formation conference with some big names like Dallas Willard and Eugene Peterson and a host of others and they were really seeking to help equip the church in the area of discipleship.
I think for many of us we were feeling a little bit disillusioned with some of the discipleship programming that had been around at the time so that really impacted me, not only on a personal level, where I was discovering and hearing things that really drew my heart back to this longing for intimacy with Jesus, but also then gave me some tools that helped me in my journey as a young pastor. The issue of sabbatical wasn’t really part of my vocabulary back then. That came a little bit later, maybe around 6-7 years ago when I actually had to take a sabbatical as a result of leaving a church that was going through a lot of turmoil. So I don’t know if I could talk a little bit about that. Would it be helpful just to get into that?
Dave: So it came at a point where I was at a church that was really in an unhealthy place. I was on the lead team at the time and we were going through a split, not only with the congregation but also on the staff level and I remember driving into the church parking lot one day just feeling a sense of dread, just feeling overwhelmed, feeling powerless, feeling burned out, and feeling helpless. During that same time I had been associated with Bill Gaultiere at Soul Shepherding, it is part of who I work with now.
He really created a place for me and other pastors to really be encouraged, to be able to process really tough stuff that I was going through and he helped me discern whether this was a season where I needed to take a break or maybe step out of church ministry. I had been at the church for 11 years on staff and 21 years as a congregant, so I had a lot of history there. It was a very significant transition in my life and not just for me but for my entire family as well. So Bill and Soul Shepherding helped me with that transition. I left pretty beat up and went right into a sabbatical season, which was huge for me. If I didn’t have that time away I think I probably would never have gone back to the church. I don’t say that loosely or lightly but it was significant for me.
Stu: Well you touched on something I think is really important and I think it’s part of Soul Shepherding’s larger ministry and I think it has to do with pastors who are finding themselves in really uncomfortable situations. Maybe it’s a personal conflict either at home or at work and it’s like, “Where do you turn?” I think pastors often have always been that person that others go to, of course, to get some counseling and even for Spiritual Direction. Then for pastors it’s like, “Who’s there for you?” So I’m so glad that you had that experience with Bill, that someone that you could turn to as a pastor who can help you discern this need for a sabbatical. I think there is something about these situations that almost require a break. Some situations can get so toxic that staying is almost like a form of abuse
Stu: So I am glad you felt that. Could you share a little bit more. What do you think are some of the reasons why sabbaticals are so important for pastors? And maybe even in the answering of that, what was it that was so important to you? What was it about your experience that you found so valuable that you’d want other pastors to experience?
Dave: Yeah. I think with that question Stu the first thing that came to my mind is kind of what you touched on. That the pastor is kind of a stopgap for everybody else’s needs, cares, problems, issues and yet where does the pastor go to receive care? Well, maybe the expectation is that they are already getting their needs met from Jesus and are reading their Bibles and God is meeting them there. But often pastors, myself included in that, find themselves feeling alone, feeling like, “Who do we turn to?”
We carry unique burdens, responsibilities and opportunities that are very different from any other kinds of ministries. That’s not to diminish any other ministries but when you’re a pastor you’re carrying things that many people don’t carry. And so for me that’s why Soul Shepherding was so huge for me because here is a place where, Wow!, Bill was a pastor and he was providing a safe place for me. This is a person who can empathize with me, this is a person who understands church conflict. He worked at a very large church that went through a large conflict in Southern California. This is a guy who got me! I didn’t feel like I had to explain things or qualify things and that was huge. I just felt safe to be able to process some of the hurt, disappointment and anger I was feeling. I found out that his type of ministry was to pastors.
Wow! Here is a ministry that cares for pastors! I was a recipient of that care and now I am one who, hopefully, can bring this same care to other pastors. I think it was huge for me in the sense that it has helped me to process some of that hurt, some of that regret, some of those places where I was feeling disillusioned like, “What just happened here?” “How did we get here?” To have somebody like that was so important for me. If I am going to be honest, I have had friends who are pastors who didn’t have this and now they’re not even in ministry any more or have just gotten so disillusioned that they have left the church, left ministry all together. That’s tragic, if you think about it. That’s really tragic.
Stu: Real quick, because we will get to the sabbatical stuff here in a minute because it’s all integrated. A part of me sees the challenges as a pastor, you’re almost seen in your community sort of like at the apex of the spiritual food chain. You’re the one that has all the answers, you’re the one who’s considered the closest to Jesus and the reality is we’re all on this journey and we’re all broken and also sanctified and all in the sanctification process, at least hopefully. It’s just so important because we are all human and at the same time we need to have someone to talk to. I think it sounds like a part of what this sabbatical training is is a chance not just to get a break but actually to use the break as an opportunity for some soul care, for some refreshment but also maybe even to process, as you said, some of the hurts and the pains that inevitably come with being in ministry.
Dave: You summarized that well Stu.
Stu: Thanks. So why do you think it’s important, aside from what you’ve already shared, why do you think it’s important for pastors and leaders to take a sabbatical? You can go to theology or to a scripture mandate or even from your own experience. What do you think is so important about a sabbatical?
Dave: Yeah, well can I share a few stats? And there are a lot of different stats. There’s been a lot of studies done on pastors in recent years that shed a lot of light on the condition of pastors in the field in which they work. Some of this is on our website and Bill and Kristi both have done a lot of research as well. When you think about the amount of hours that pastors give themselves to the work that they do they’re essentially like doctors that are on call 24/7. Somebody dies, there’s an emergency, somebody’s kid gets admitted in the hospital, who are they going to call? They call the pastor.
Some statistics show that pastor’s work up to 60 to 75 hours a week on average. That’s a lot of hours! That’s a lot of work that pastors give themselves to. This is one of the most staggering statistics, 75% of pastors report being extremely or highly stressed out. Seventy-five percent! Now I can say I was in that category. I can attest to that. And 80% of the spouses of pastors would say that they wished their husband or wife wasn’t in pastoral ministry. Wow! That stress, that overwork and that stress oftentimes makes its way into the family.
Now that’s not unique, there are other job’s where that can happen too. But when that stress comes home, when I was working in the corporate world, in the medical field, that stress didn’t come home with me. I was able to leave it there. In pastoral ministry it’s with you, it’s in your head. They call it “pastor head.” Spouses will say, “When I’m talking to my husband or I’m talking to my wife, it just seems like they’re somewhere else.” They’re caught up with a problem, they’re caught up in their sermon prep. These are real things that I think really warrant why we need to consider a sabbatical as an important rhythm in the life of a pastor. Because you’re overwhelmed and carrying this weight and over time it can lead to burn out or worse, blowout.
Some people call it a blowout which, if you look at what’s been in the news recently about pastors and leaders, like Ravi Zacharias or other pastors, it doesn’t take long to realize there’s a lot of moral failure, a lot of hiding going on to deal with this stress and this overload. An escapist mentality that eventually can really undermine their ministry. So a sabbatical is a way of helping to prevent that from happening.
If we can get ahead of that, then we can have a pastor reassess the amount of work they do, maybe reassess the stress in their life. A sabbatical is such an incredible way to do that. To help them find out that maybe a lot of what they’re doing, and I know that I fell into this, is that they are doing a lot of this important work in their own strength and not with Jesus. What we call the “easy yoke of Jesus.” And that’s what can unfortunately derail pastors. Gets them overworking and into people pleasing and difficulty setting boundaries.
A sabbatical can be a place to really begin to narrow in on that, to tune in on that and begin to set some new rhythms that are going to allow that pastor to finish well. The statistics show that pastors generally don’t finish well, they don’t end their careers in pastoral ministry. They’re selling insurance unfortunately. Now that is not a bad thing for those that are selling insurance. So those are some of the practical reasons why we try to speak into the need for a sabbatical.
Stu: So you know some of the resistance of course to taking a sabbatical is, “Well, no one else does this? Who else gets to go on sabbatical? Maybe some professors at some highfalutin universities get to go on sabbatical but why do pastors get to?” You know what I mean. “I don’t get a sabbatical as a doctor, lawyer or other people working in other sorts of industries?”
But you just shared how pastors are there on a different sort of schedule than everyone else and there is also, I think you know this with pastors, sometimes there is a bit of a Messiah complex that needs to be dealt with. Pastors want to help people and usually that starts from a place of health but over time it can easily turn into, “The church needs me, the church relies on me alone.”
As opposed to, like you mentioned, the church really needs Jesus and a shepherd who points people to Jesus but it doesn’t really need you. You mentioned Eugene Peterson. He has a pretty good book with Marva Dawn called The Unnecessary Pastor. It’s a hard message a lot of times for pastors to see, not that they don’t have value – of course they have value, of course they have a place. They are needed in some sense. But sometimes, as you said, this could be a possible chance for people to take a step back and to deal with their own pain.
Maybe even some of the ways that they cope with pain, which often have to do with that workaholism, perfectionism, having to be at every hospital visit, having to be at every committee meeting, having to be at every event at the church and to recognize that baggage and that burden that gets heaped on top of the pastor. You have to have wide, broad shoulders no matter what to be in ministry but then we take on more and more and that becomes you becoming Atlas. You’re just trying to hold that boulder in place and sabbatical maybe is the chance to try to put that down for just a minute and do something else. I’m talking too much. If you want to respond to that, that would be great too. What do you think?
Dave: You know pastors, you have been a pastor, so you understand the DNA of this and so what you’re just saying here I think speaks right on to that idea of that Messiah complex, which is born out of this real sense of wanting to care and to help. But we can tend to do it in our own strength. And Jesus never invites us to do anything in our own strength and that’s the beauty of the easy yoke. Being yoked to Jesus is realizing, “Wow!, there is somebody side by side with me helping me carry this weight.” I think as pastors we can miss that in the over-working, in the over-caring to the point that we neglect our own intimacy with Jesus, our own need for solitude and silence and communion and rest. I mean, even Jesus, he wasn’t doing work 24/7.
He wasn’t like the 7-Eleven of healing. He didn’t say, “I’m going to pull all-nighters.” Jesus had to sleep. Jesus pulled away to solitary places to pray, away from crowds. Jesus had to set boundaries, he stopped healing, he stopped doing miracles at certain times. He just wasn’t this machine. And I think sometimes we miss that. Even Jesus, he was a good Jew. He practiced Sabbath. The way we define a sabbatical is it’s a string of Sabbath days. A string of rest days. Of days where we stop from our ordinary work. Where we abandon those outcomes to God and we rest from our labor.
Stu: And that’s so hard sometimes. I know this is something I’ve really been taking seriously in my own life in the last few years. You know vacations were really hard for me. I would look forward to them a ton but then I’d get on them and all the sudden I would wonder, “Where’s my identity?” Because my identity, I wouldn’t want to admit this but if I was being honest, was in all the stuff I was doing. It was in all the hopeful achievements and the successes, the great sermons or the great visits and the great ministry that I was doing and then all of a sudden it was stripped away.
So I really kind of struggled with that for a while and I think that even just recognizing that is a part of the healing too. There’s a call to prayer and repentance and a call to just acknowledge, “Oh God, I’ve made it about me” or “I need to put my identity on you and not on what I do.” I think there’s so much value in that. I like that idea, a string of days of Sabbath. That’s a really great idea. Could you share a little bit of some of the biblical warrants for why a sabbatical is necessary? You know we always have to couch everything, especially in the Protestant tradition like, “What does scripture say?” We do think of course it’s God’s word and there’s no other source really to turn in some ways, or at least not uniquely, so what does scripture say about Sabbath?
Dave: Scripture has a lot to say about Sabbath. I like what Jesus did in Mark 2 when you know his disciples were picking the grain heads off as they were passing by a field to get some nourishment as they were going their way. We remember that story when the Pharisees say, “Hey you’re not supposed to be doing that! It’s against the rules!” Then Jesus goes, like he does so well, he gives a little correction to the Pharisees and reminds them that Sabbath is meant to be a blessing for humans. It’s not supposed to be a burden filled with regulations and rules. I love that. I love that Jesus here is reminding us that that Sabbath is meant for mankind as a blessing to them. A time for us to trust God, to enjoy God, to commune with God and his people.
So we don’t see in the scripture so much of a sabbatical, which is more of an extended period of Sabbaths, but it’s the same concept. Like you were saying earlier, it’s a little bit different than a vacation. Some people think, “Oh you’re just going to go on a vacation to Tahiti.” or “You’re going away to write a book or plan a job transition.” When we think of sabbatical, at least here at Soul Shepherding, we are thinking more in line with that string of Sabbath days, which is a time of rest, a time of communion, a time of renewal, a time of reconnecting with God. It’s a time of grounding our identity not in what we do but who we are as children of God. A sabbatical is a way to help reset that. Because you said it so well that we can get our sense of who we are from all that we are doing. That’s easy to do. That’s not hard.
Stu: I love that great line from the great prophet Kurt Vonnegut, “I am a human being not a human doing.” I think often times we in the church we get those mixed up because we always want to be the great leader, the great pastor, the great shepherd and this is a chance for us to refocus a bit on not just what we do for God but who we are and who God is calling us to be. It also helps to remind us that it’s not my ministry, it’s Christ’s ministry that I get to participate in. So there’s that opportunity to reframe it in some ways. So here’s a question, “Why do you think having a coach as you’re going through the sabbatical process is helpful?”
Dave: That’s a good question. One of the things we do offer at Soul Shepherding is we have a sabbatical package. I’m not going to plug that necessarily, but in that Bill & Kristi Gaultiere have put together videos, we have a sabbatical guide to help people prepare and they also can meet with a sabbatical coach like me. What that does is it really helps them prayerfully process and plan. I know I just did some alliteration there like what all great pastors do. But there is a lot of prep work that goes into a sabbatical. The goal is to plan. We don’t want pastors crash landing into a sabbatical. So if we can help them prepare themselves and prepare their congregation, that’s part of what the coaching is about. We talk about on-ramping into a sabbatical and off-ramping. There’s things that you do for yourself or your family and for your church to help prepare them, to help give them a vision of what a Sabbath and sabbatical is.
There’s a pastor in Oregon that I am working with right now and we’ve met before and we went through just a timeline of what he needs to say to his congregation, who are some of the people in his leadership that can step in and take over areas while he’s gone. Who can be the point person that he can give prayer updates to. These are all things that a coach like me can help them process and help them walk through. I even have them talk to me about what they are hoping for, what they are afraid of, what they are concerned about.
They need to process that too because there’s a lot of things that emotionally can go on as you’re preparing for your sabbatical. There are a lot of questions that may come up. One pastor who was talking to me said, “I want to make sure I do this right.” So we had to talk about that. We talked about his expectations and what it is to let go of some of those expectations and to be open and surprised by what the Spirit might do in his time of rest or the things that might come up. Underlying that was some anxiety that we wanted to work through and talk through. So meeting with someone like me, a Spiritual Director and a coach, can really help them process that and prepare.
Stu: Awesome. That makes a lot of sense. Could you share a few potential pitfalls, struggles that may come up and how having a coach could help mitigate those potential risks?
Dave: The overarching theme that we’re trying to remind a pastor of when they go on sabbatical is the importance of rest and renewal. A pastor can be tempted to get into work mode while on sabbatical and so some of the things that can happen is they’ll ask me questions like, “What if I get this great vision for this and this and this? What should I do with that for my church? I will encourage them and say, “write it down and put it aside.”
Now I’m telling this because I want them to resist that temptation to get into, “Okay I’m going to rewrite the vision for the church” or “I’m going to plan out my sermon series for next year.” Those are good things, those are important things but when we’re talking about Sabbath with Jesus sometimes they need to process what those things that could be detrimental and get me back into that work mode or that pastor head mode and take them right out of rest. Those are some of the temptations that pastors can have. I tell them, “If things come to mind, jot them down and say ‘Lord, I am going to come back to them after the sabbatical.’”
So that way you’re not just trying to ignore that stuff but you are addressing it and putting it aside for another time. Another thing sometimes pastors will ask me is, “Is it OK to work on my house? I have all these house projects.” So I ask them, “Will that take you out of rest? Will that be restful for you? And after we explore that a lot of times pastors will say, “Yeah that probably won’t be that restful” So I’m always going to try to bring them back to, “Is that going to be restful for you?” Because if your whole sabbatical is working on home projects, it can be really hard to enjoy that time with Jesus and be in his easy yoke. I am not trying to be legalistic about it. I’m just trying to help them recognize if this is taking them back into work mode. If checking your email once a week is going to put you back into work mode or like, “Oh my gosh this is going on there” then you need to avoid that.
Or if going on social media and checking out what’s going on with everyone in the church, you probably need to set a boundary there too. I had a pastor who said, “I’m just going to meet with a couple of people in the congregation during sabbatical, what do you think about that?” I said, “Well, how do you feel about that?” and he said, “I think I will be OK.” Then when we did a check-in he said, “Yeah I met with these two couples from our church and all they wanted to do was talk about church and I just felt like I couldn’t do that.” So for the rest of the sabbatical he realized, I’m not going to that. I am not going to meet with people in my church because I get pulled right back into the things of the church and I’m starting to worry and I’m starting to feel like I need to intervene here.” He realized it took him right out of rest. I don’t know if that was helpful?
Stu: No, that’s great! You sort of already answered the flip side of the question, “What are some of the pitfalls or struggles?” What to you looks like a really successful sabbatical? Not successful in the sense of, “I’ve achieved greatness” right? We’re trying to get away from achievements but you know what’s going to make a sabbatical really feel like, “Oh this was worth my time, this was a great investment in both my life and in the life of the church?” There are huge investments on both sides. To say, “I’m going to give up some serious time, a couple months or up to six months?” or whatever it happens to be. What would it look like to come out the other side and be like, “Oh, I’m so glad I did that?” What do you think needs to take place?
Dave: Yeah, before I answer that part there’s actually been research done on what the post-sabbatical impact has been for the pastor and the church. They’ve done surveys at various churches with pastors that have been on sabbatical and it’s in the 90% range that people in the congregation perceive that when their pastors come back from a sabbatical that they seem refreshed, renewed, re-energized.
They notice a difference. What I think they’re noticing is that this person has really spent time with Jesus and they have been refreshed and renewed. It’s coming out of that overflow you know and the people in the congregation really pick it up. In another study, this is one that Bill and Kristi did some research on, that 87% had a renewed commitment to their ministry. They did a follow up study 14 years later and found that more than half of those pastors we’re still pastoring after they took a sabbatical, which is pretty significant.
So there’s some tangible benefits that a congregation, as well as a pastor, will experience. Now there are some that discern that maybe it’s time to step out of ministry or do something different. That happens too. But in most cases pastors are renewed. Some of the successful things, some of the things that I’ve heard that have really helped pastors is when they really found space for solitude and silence. They got away from the noise, the distractions of email, social media, even their own phone for periods of time and spent time either in nature or with family – that has really helped them. It has helped re-ground them and recenter them. It has helped them detach from all of the noise and really be able to pay attention to Jesus as well as their own soul. So integrating solitude and silence and then carrying that rhythm out of a sabbatical I’ve found has really been a significant one for pastors.
Another thing that I found working with pastors on sabbatical is what you said earlier Stu about some of that identity stuff or some of that stuff where they start feeling that they’ve been kind of hiding behind work. There might be some pain or woundedness or hurt that they may have been avoiding and now that they don’t have all that work, all that scaffolding to keep it all back, it comes up. So when they meet with me during their sabbatical and they begin to process those feelings, those regrets, those fears, those places of pain, I have heard from pastors that this has been so helpful.
Many of them will continue to work on that instead of avoiding or hiding. They will work on that either in spiritual direction, in counseling, or other coaching. They have felt that this was such a significant thing for them – facing things that come to the surface that they may have been avoiding. I think the third one that I found that was really important, especially pastors that have families, is when they brought their families on sabbatical with them.
They kind of almost rediscover this sense of play, this sense of connection with their family. Sometimes, a lot of times, the pastor’s kids can feel overlooked, “Daddy’s busy, mommy’s busy all the time.” They just rediscover this joy of their first ministry, which is their family. They’re rediscovering that and begin making a priority for that. As they are coming out of a sabbatical they say, “I’m going to set boundaries for this because my family is my primary ministry.” Those are some things that I have noticed that I think come out of pastors who go on sabbatical. I don’t know if the word I would use is successful but those who have come out are refreshed and renewed.
Stu: Well that is wonderful! Dave I want to thank you so much for your time and for sharing. You clearly put a lot of thought and time into wanting to support pastors in this pivotal time. That if they take this time it will set them up for a future of great balance and health. And like you said, living out of the abundance in the light yoke of Christ versus out of the obligation and the duty that often leads to moral failure and leads to burnout and in all these other sorts of things we hear so often. So thank you for doing that. Thank you for helping pastors.
That’s what we are really all about here at the Pastor’s Workshop. We just want to serve pastors and to help however we can. Thank you and you have a wonderful day. Why don’t we close in a word of prayer:
Lord Jesus, I give you thanks for Dave and for his story. It’s a story that, like most of ours, is filled with joy and also some pain but also, most importantly perhaps, the transformation that happens when we turn to you and when we can unload some of the burdens that we place on ourselves and on others when things get out of alignment. Lord, we just pray for pastors who also are maybe out of alignment a little bit. Maybe they’re feeling the burden of ministry and not the light yoke. Lord for them that they would have the courage and the boldness to ask for a Sabbath, ask for a prolonged Sabbath into a sabbatical and Lord that they would have the guidance that they need for it to be a time that they’re really grateful for. They can return refreshed into the most important thing of all – ministry to you and your kingdom. To bring your kingdom into larger and larger corners of this world that are often dark and need your light and so we give you thanks in your name, Amen.
If you want to learn more about healthy sabbaticals, click on this link.
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