A few years ago, Evergreen Ministries, the congregation I was pastoring, gave me a sabbatical. Over the summer, I enjoyed rest, reflection, and study. The reflection and study led to an in-depth study called “Kingdom Dreams: Building an Alternative Kingdom Community.” The sabbatical of that summer continues to shape and mold my work more than three years later.
Churches, like pastors, need a sabbatical. My sense is that every seven years, your church needs a sabbatical. A sabbatical during which you shut down all but the essentials of your congregation and gather that time for physical, spiritual, and congregational renewal.
Why take a congregational sabbatical every seven years?
Because congregations drift. We drift away from our vision, we drift away from our mission, and we can begin to forget our missionary calling. A conscious effort every seven years to ask questions about the why, what, and how of ministry and mission refocuses our life together as God’s sacred family.
Some may point to these last couple of years as a season of sabbatical. We were forced to shut down a lot of ministries and ways we engaged in mission. However, a true congregational sabbatical is not simply shutting things down, but also a strategic decision to ask about the fresh steps God is calling us to take in ministry and mission.
A congregational sabbatical is a time to map out the next five to six years of living as God’s sacred family.
We discern in this year the difference God desires to make in our congregation and the difference God wants us to make in our community and the world. Mapping out and discerning are the first steps. An ongoing challenge for congregations is that they work through a process, make goals and all the rest, and then a binder nicely sits on the shelf. Because so little happens with the work, the next time someone suggests such efforts, the response is, “We did that before, and nothing happened.”
Truly worthwhile sabbaticals lead to taking fresh steps in ministry and mission.
For most congregations, this means not only mapping out plans but having a coach from the outside who checks in with the pastor every month and the leadership quarterly to see how things are progressing. The coach can also help as new challenges arise in light of cultural changes, congregational changes, and more. The leadership, with the insight of the coach, can call any needed audibles.
Imagine if every church took a sabbatical every seven years. There would be so many churches listening to God, renewing their ministry and mission, and looking to God’s next thing for them in any given year. As a church engaged in this, they would know many other churches were on this journey with them. There would be opportunities to connect and learn from each other.
When was the last time your church took a sabbatical leading to following God’s call to be different as a congregation and hearing his call to make a difference in your community and the world?
Larry Doornbos serves as director of Vibrant Congregations, a partnership of the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America that helps congregations discern their next faithful step into fresh ministry.