Scott Elliott, minister for the 120-member La Grange Church of Christ in Texas, watched as friends and acquaintances left full-time ministry nearly every week.
Seeking to help others, Elliott did what many others had during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He turned to social media.
On Facebook, he shared resources about burnout and sabbaticals. While not typical in Churches of Christ, sabbaticals are customary in several Christian denominations.
Elliott didn’t expect his elders to give him a sabbatical, but they encouraged him to take one after reading the resources he posted online.
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He welcomed his first extended break in 18 years of ministry.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand that in ministry if you have a week off, you never really stop,” Elliott said. “You may have that one Sunday off, but you’re always thinking about the next Sunday when you have to preach or the next class or having to preach or whatever’s going on in the congregation.”
The pandemic amplified existing ministerial stress. Congregations looked to their ministers to launch remote pulpits, decide how and when to gather and navigate political tensions.
When Allen Carr transformed his guest bedroom into the remote pulpit for his congregation’s virtual Sunday services, the thin line between work and life became nonexistent, he said.
For 16 years, Carr had navigated a career in ministry that went beyond the boundaries of a 9-to-5 job.
Calls came in the night from members of the congregation. Funerals interrupted time off. And the weekly sermons weren’t going to write themselves.
Carr, former minister for the Oakcrest Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, recalled one of the elders asking his wife during the job interview, “Are you going to be OK about all the other times, all the extraneous times, that he’s going to have to be away — whether that’s because he’s in a hospital room or because of a meeting?”
Carr knew his time in ministry would eventually end. However, the stress from the pandemic accelerated his decision to leave this past May.
“This isn’t what I want to do,” Carr said he eventually realized. “I was not happy on the basic level. … I realized that this was untenable.”
An October poll by the Barna Group found that 38% of U.S. ministers had considered leaving full-time ministry within the past year — a 9% increase from a poll in January.
A similar study released by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found that 67% of the ministers across 38 Christian groups thought this past year was the most difficult in their ministry, with 37% seriously considering leaving ministry at least once.
Further research conducted by Barna in 2021 found only 60% of ministers reported their emotional well-being as good or excellent. That self-reported number was 85% five years ago.
But it is not just a state of unhappiness causing ministers to leave.
Bobby Kern spent a decade in family ministry and works as an associate professor of family science at Oklahoma Christian University. He spoke at the KERYGMA Preaching Conference about secondary traumatic stress — a condition ministers are predisposed to as caregivers of their congregations.
Kern believes that stress is contributing to ministerial burnout.
“You’ve got church members who are struggling with the pandemic itself,” Kern said. “You’ve got church members who are contracting the virus. You’ve got church members who have died from the virus. You’ve got church members that are split down the middle on things like masks and vaccines in relation to the pandemic.
“And ministers are taking on all of that from all of their members, and they don’t necessarily have the outlet to decompress that themselves. That’s all on top of the individual ministers themselves and their families living through a pandemic, trying to figure out this virus, and make their own decisions about things. The list goes on and on.”
An investment in the future
The Episcopal Church provides guidelines for sabbaticals under provisions for clergy wellness and care. The Episcopal Diocese of Texas requires that agreements between clergy and their congregations include provisions for sabbatical leave, stating that it is vital for clergy wellness.
While the length of sabbatical leave varies with each Christian group, many offer three months away from ministerial duties every seven years. The period of rest after six days and seven years is associated with the biblical concepts found in Genesis 2:2-3 and Leviticus 25:4-5, author Dan Wolyniak wrote in an installment of “The Pastor’s Advocate Series,” published by Focus on the Family.
With frameworks for taking sabbaticals scarce among the Churches of Christ, some church leaders have turned to resources created by other groups. Others — like the 2,300-member Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City — created their own sabbatical handbook.
Former elder Bailey McBride and Josh Kingcade, Memorial Road’s minister of adult education, began creating a sabbatical handbook in 2017 after realizing the majority of their ministerial staff had served in full-time ministry for several years.
“We started to think, ‘If long-tenured staff is a good thing and something a church desires, then what could we do to support that long tenure?’” Kingcade said. “I might say it a different way, which is, ‘How do you keep people from burning out?’”
Their efforts resulted in a document that defined the eligibility and requirements for a sabbatical, including a year of preparation with a sabbatical committee composed of elders, church members and fellow ministerial staff. The reason for the long-term planning, Kingcade said, was to foster intentionality in how ministers spent their time away from the congregation.
“A sabbatical is not just a reward for hard work,” Kingcade said. “It is an investment in the future of that minister and his or her ministry to that church. In other words, it’s a way to keep your ministers performing well, and it’s a benefit to your own church.”
The handbook noted three areas for ministers to focus on while planning their sabbatical: themselves, their family and their church.
Sabbaticals, unlike vacations, are an extended period of time for ministers to study, connect with other believers and focus on spiritual growth so they return to their congregations renewed.
Kingcade shared the handbook with Elliott, the Texas minister, before his four-week sabbatical in June and July 2021.
However, the sabbatical, which Elliott planned rather quickly, coincided with his family’s preexisting plans. Elliott spent the first day of his sabbatical behind the wheel, driving his wife, Laura, and eldest son to scout camp.
The following week, when his family reunited, he remained behind the wheel as they drove across the country visiting with other ministers and congregations — a privilege rarely afforded a full-time minister, Elliott said.
He found the communion with other ministers uplifting.
“It was encouraging to hear from guys who hadn’t left ministry and who were still committed,” Elliott told The Christian Chronicle. “This is a unique time. Not only are there challenges, but there are opportunities. … But I also heard a lot of the ministers who are staying are feeling the same pressures as the ones who walked away from church.”
His family also benefited from the sabbatical, Laura Elliott said.
“Minister burnout is a real problem,” she said. “Ministers and their families give and give and give. If they don’t have the opportunity to fill up, all kinds of problems tend to ensue. Many ministry families struggle. It’s often just hidden until it boils over or erupts.
“If the family is struggling, the minister isn’t going to be able to place the focus needed on the congregation. Then the job becomes more stressful, and that, in turn, is projected on the family. It can be a vicious cycle.”
‘Don’t quit. Just take a break.’
One limitation to sabbaticals is congregation size.
Smaller congregations, common in Churches of Christ, present challenges when ministers seek to take an extended absence. While larger congregations can delegate responsibilities to elders and church members, smaller congregations may experience difficulty fulfilling ministerial duties while their minister is away on sabbatical.
Asheley Hepburn, minister for the Magnolia Park Church of Christ in Miami Gardens, Florida, initially believed taking a sabbatical would be burdensome on his congregation. His congregation of about 75 members had dwindled during the pandemic to an average of 25 members attending in-person worship, with others gathering virtually.
“The cost would be too high a burden,” Hepburn replied to a survey by the Chronicle. “I am afforded vacation time, which I take.
“Sabbaticals are needed, but you’ve got to be able to have the backup to take them,” he said. “Somebody’s got to be able to preach on Sunday.”
However, the concept of sabbaticals remained in the back of Hepburn’s mind, and he began to question his original response. When he later mentioned it to his wife, she advised him to take time off.
“She said, ‘Yeah, you need to take a break. You’re going to burn yourself out if you keep on going that way,’” Hepburn recalled.
Ultimately, Hepburn agreed. While he was unable to take a full sabbatical, he needed a break from the pulpit. Ministers in the surrounding area agreed to cover his sermon responsibilities for the first three weeks of December.
“There’s a saying out there, and I don’t know who said it,” Hepburn said, “but I live by it these days: ‘When you get tired, don’t quit. Just take a break.’
“Even our savior, Christ, found time to get away. … I guess that’s the bottom line. You have to find a way to get away.”
This article originally appeared at The Christian Chronicle.
Audrey Jackson, a 2021 journalism graduate of Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, is The Christian Chronicle’s associate editor for print and digital.