Taking Time

Today’s blog is written by the Rev. Elizabeth Dilley, Minister for Ministerial Support and Accountability on the national staff’s Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) ministry team.

Nine hundred and fifty-seven.

That’s the number of emails that greeted me in my inbox on August 7 when I returned from a two-month sabbatical in the national setting. Honestly, I was a little surprised. I was expecting well over a thousand. I had deleted my work email from my phone, and had assiduously avoided even turning on my computer unless it was necessary. I only accessed my work email once when I genuinely needed access to information in a particular email I had forgotten to forward to my personal account – and even then, I found the email and exited before I gave in to temptation to “just do a quick sort” of my emails.

Our team’s practice of informing our key partners of impending sabbaticals or other long-term leaves in advance, coupled with a detailed auto-response directing folk to other team members who could help them, no doubt contributes to the Church respecting sabbatical leave as well as ensuring the ministry needs are met during an extended time away. These practices, adapted from a MESA resource on sabbatical leave that is part of A Sure Foundation, help set expectations for minister, ministry setting, and ministry partners.

After deleting emails from various organizations selling something or promoting their mission and in-house “reply all” emails to news of promotions or retirements, and after filing all the great articles from Congregational Consulting Group, Alban Weekly, and Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, I had about 45 emails remaining. In more than half of those cases, my query “Did you get the answer you needed?” was met with, “Yep. Hope you had a great sabbatical!”

Ministry is a taxing and challenging profession that demands intellectual, spiritual, mental, and physical presence in a way that few other professions do. Although like vacations, sabbaticals provide needed rest and rejuvenation, a sabbatical is NOT a long-term vacation. It is a time to step away from the ordinary and extraordinary stresses of ministry to prevent burnout, clarify priorities, refocus one’s time and energy towards restorative practices, and to recommit to one’s vocation. Sabbaticals may include travel, reading or writing projects, educational development (such as a language study), or some combination of these.

A recent article from the Harvard Business Review points to one additional surprising gift of the sabbatical:

….At the very least, having people rotate out for an extended period of time allows organizations to stress test their organizational chart. Ideally, no team should be so dependent on any one person that productivity grinds to a halt during an extended vacation. And while it may look good on paper, the only way to know for sure is to test it.

In a profession that entices people to think, “I and only I can do this particular work with this particular people,” a sabbatical challenges such assumptions. It provides humility to the pastor (who is less needed than they thought) and strength to the congregation or community (who is more capable than they thought).


All of this talk about sabbatical points to the need for adequate vacation and rest in between sabbatical periods – specifically, vacation. Research from Project Time Off indicates that while Americans take an average of 17.2 days of vacation every year, 52% of working Americans still have unused vacation days, to the tune of 705 million unused vacation days per year. The UCC Sample Call Agreement indicates that four weeks of vacation, including Sundays, is standard for clergy (with more Sundays off if one is serving in a part-time capacity).

All of this as a reminder:

  • If you’re a minister serving in any context: take your vacation days! Encourage the people in your care to do so also, and advocate for paid vacation for all employees in your community.
  • If you’re member of a congregation: encourage your pastor to take all their vacation days! Speak up in support of your pastor if others grumble about “all the time away.”
  • If you’re an employer: give generous vacation packages and build a culture of using all of one’s vacation leave each year. That means taking vacation yourself.
  • If you’re an employee: take all your vacation, even if you spend it watching Netflix.
  • If you’re self-employed: build vacation into the cost of your consulting practice; your clients deserve someone who knows the importance of the rhythm of rest and work.

I scheduled two full days of “re-entry” upon my return, anticipating the need to respond to emails and voicemail, attend to timely matters that had arisen in my absence, and check in with colleagues. A pre-sabbatical list of projects needing attention in August (#1 was completing the edits for the new Manual on Ministry, which will be out this October!) also helped me return to work in a relaxed and focused way.

Those 957 emails? I processed them before lunch on the first day. It was a beautiful post-sabbatical gift to myself.


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