Sabbaticals can help combat burnout, depression for pastors, ministry workers
By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — For Pete Tackett, the importance of taking a day off is as clear as the stubble on his face.
Tackett, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Johnson City, admits that he often finds himself caught up in the treadmill-style work patterns that so many pastors and staff members encounter. But he said one of the keys to escaping the cycle is to set boundaries — and stick to them.
“My definition of a true Sabbath is a day when I get to decide whether I have to shave or not,” said Tackett. “That might seem like a funny thing to say, but in the church world, when you are always on the clock, it’s necessary to have a day where you say, ‘I’m going to be free to decide what I want to do.’ ”
The importance of such days — and more specifically, the concept of taking sabbaticals — has become a prominent topic for many ministry workers in recent years.
With the dangers of exhaustion, burnout and depression being so prevalent among pastors and staff members, the need for “down time” has become a point of emphasis.
Sabbaticals can range from something as simple as getting away from the office and turning off the phone for a few hours to spending several days in a cabin in the mountains. Either way, the importance of “silencing the noise” and focusing on time with the Lord is paramount.
“I would estimate that nine out of 10 pastors that I encounter are in need of taking a sabbatical,” said Willie McLaurin, special assistant to the executive director at the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. “I always encourage pastors to take one day off a week, one week off a month and one month off a year. Each pastor needs to have at least one day a week where they unplug — mentally, spiritually and emotionally.”
While many members of the working world look forward to the weekend, those involved in ministry have to take a different approach.
“There is nothing Sabbath about Sunday for pastors and church leaders,” Tackett said. “That’s why you have to zealously guard your other days off.”
Jim Baker, a prominent church organizational leadership consultant and former executive pastor at Brentwood Baptist Church, Brentwood, believes sabbaticals are a vital part of ministry. He feels they are the most effective way to avoid burnout for those who spend their lives serving Christ.
Baker was one of the featured speakers at the TBMB’s Focus Week retreat last month at Carson Springs. He spoke extensively about the importance of pastors and church staff getting away from the relentless demands of the job.
McLaurin said Baker’s seminar on sabbaticals underscored many of the principles that McLaurin constantly promotes.
“I have encouraged leaders for over 14 years to plan intentional time to unplug and unwind,” said McLaurin. “The spiritual discipline of pulling away from the norm provides a framework for ministry leaders to reflect, relax, and rejuvenate.”
There are numerous options for potential “get-away” sabbaticals in Tennessee. The list includes spending a day or two at one of the Tennessee Baptist conference centers, which offer special rates for pastors and ministry workers. Several other retreat areas in the state are also ideal for sabbaticals, including Whitestone Inn in Kingston, which offers special rates for full-time ministers and international missionaries.
For the hard-core relaxer — if there can be such a thing — Baker said to explore the possibility of staying at a monastery. Baker himself spent several days at a monastery during one of his sabbaticals, and stayed in a room that had no electricity or running water. He said he found the monks’ chanting and mediation rituals to be inspirational and soothing.
Making it happen
There has been a recent increase in stories about depression, and even suicides, among ministry personnel. These stories have opened the eyes of many churchgoers to the pressures and demands that pastors and ministry leaders are facing, and many congregations have embraced the idea of the pastor and staff breaking away.
“At our church, they recognize that I need it,” said Tackett. “And we kind of have a rhythm to it. About every three months, I try to unplug for three or four days, and I try to make sure I am not preaching that week. And on those weeks, I may or may not stay for the Wednesday night functions. Either way, on those weeks, I am almost always gone from Thursday through Saturday, and sometimes even on into Sunday, when I will visit another church and hear someone else preach.”
McLaurin said he has seen, firsthand, the numerous benefits of down time.
“When ministry leaders engage in regular sabbatical practice it has a direct impact on decreasing fatigue, depression and other related conditions,” he said. “I have also noticed in my own life that when I am spiritually healthy it has a direct impact upon how I love my family, how I interact with friends, and how I lead a local fellowship of believers. Early in my ministry I was blessed to have great mentors who challenged me in taking regular times of rest.”
At Antioch Baptist Church, Tackett has developed some concepts that help ensure that his staff is able to maintain a healthy work/life balance. For example, the church office is closed on Fridays, and Tackett encourages his staff to take that day as a true day off. (The church does have a staff member “on call” each Friday — an assignment that rotates among the staff members so that each person has “on-call” duties only once every seven weeks.)
“From Thursday night through Saturday at noon, that’s a chance for the staff to punch off the clock,” said Tackett. “With many jobs, people have the ability to clock out on Friday afternoon, and clock back in on Monday morning, and they have a day or two to decompress. So, for us, to have that Thursday night until Saturday at noon — even though it’s only one full day — it allows some time to relax and refocus.”
Tackett has taken it a step further when it comes to vacations for himself and the staff.
“Personally, because of my own struggles with anxiety, I try to make sure that everybody on our team has some freedom,” he said. “Our vacation policy is a little unusual. We tell our people, ‘we trust that you are invested in the church, so we’re not going to tell you how many vacation days to take and when to take them.’ If possible, we’d like for them to let us know, schedule-wise, so we can plan for it. But aside from that, we leave it up to them in terms of when, and how many days, they take.”
“They know when they are burning out,” Tackett added. “My philosophy is, I’d rather have you on the job, fully engaged, then to force them to be on the job when they’re not engaged. Our policy is, when you need a day off, you take it. When you need a weekend off, you take it. And that way, you are at your best.”
Down time is not wasted time
Like most anyone in the working world, it is easy for pastors and staff members to fall into the trap of feeling guilty for taking time off. But in reality, they might unknowingly be doing themselves — and the church — a disservice by not breaking away.
“I preached a sermon (recently) on the need for rest and taking a weekly Sabbath, not just for pastors but for everyone,” said Tackett. “I told the congregation that we have a tendency to make bad decisions — financially, spiritually, and career-wise — when we are not rested. The Scriptures are very clear about the need to get away and rest.”
McLaurin underscored that sentiment, saying, “It is interesting to note that the concept of resting is saturated in Scripture,” he said, citing Genesis 2:2-3 as just one example. “It is so important for ministers to have time to decompress from the pressures, demands, and expectations of ministry. Sabbaticals allow ministers to grow into a deeper relationship with God, and develop a new self-awareness in their life.”
In many instances, the “success” of the sabbatical doesn’t depend on the pastor or staff member themselves. It depends instead on the willingness of others to allow the ministry workers to truly unplug.
Said Tackett: “Sometimes, on my day off, I will have people who call me and say, ‘hey, pastor, I know it’s your day off, but I just need you for a quick minute.’ And sure, it might only be a small thing. But the truth is, if four or five people do that, it has canceled your day off. Your mind can’t turn off.”
McLaurin said having a system of support is one of the most important factors in regard to pastors and staff being able to enjoy their time off and be refreshed.
“In my book, Which Race Are you Running, I mention that, ‘Every person who leads needs a team of people around them who support them in their adventures,’ ” said McLaurin. “Leadership is a journey of going where you’ve never gone before. And to be successful in that journey you need to have people who are on your side and in your corner. You need to have a support team of family, friends, and fellow ministry leaders.”
Tackett said he can feel the renewed energy that he and his staff have after they’ve had some time off — even if it’s only a short time.
“It’s not just the physical rest, but also the ability to say I don’t want anyone to demand anything of me today for this 24 hours,” he said. “It makes a huge difference.”
‘Come to me … and I will give REST.’
TBMB CONFERENCE CENTERS
Name: Carson Springs and Linden Valley Baptist Conference Centers
Details: Carson Springs Conference Center is located in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in Newport. It features 36 hotel rooms (with double beds and private baths), 400 bunk beds, the 400-seat Stokely Chapel, a 200-seat modern dining room and multiple meeting spaces. Linden Valley Baptist Conference Center, in Linden, features 40 hotel rooms, 400 bunk beds, a 500-seat flexible seating worship space and multiple meeting spaces.
Background: Funded by giving through the Cooperative Program and the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions, the TBMB’s conference centers — Carson Springs and Linden Valley — have served as respites for ministry personnel and gathering places for small and large groups for decades. The TBMB has operated camps and conference centers since 1948, and, today, more than 10,000 adults, youth and children visit these sites each year. The last five years have seen the construction of a new worship center at Linden Valley, the addition of paint ball courses at both locations and new roofs at both sites.
Deals and discounts: The Conference Centers offer a “ministers get-away rate” — which is available to anyone who serves, or has served, in a paid staff position at a Tennessee Baptist church — of $34 per night (per room) in the conference center.
Why go there: Tim Bearden, senior manager of the Tennessee Baptist Conference Centers, said the two sites are perfect for ministry workers who are looking to relax and recharge. “The reason we do what we do is because we understand the importance of getting away. We talk to ministers and staff all the time who say, ‘I just need to get away from the phones, and the e-mails, and all those things’ — and we provide a place for them to do that. And they can bring their families. In fact, we love for them to bring their families, and use our facility for great quality time together. We have so many different options — whether they are looking to get away and relax or to get away and play.” Available activities at Carson Springs include a Carolina climbing wall, low ropes course, two paint ball courses, “close-to” white water rafting, connections to Pigeon Forge attractions, swimming pool and miles of mountain hiking trails. Available activities at Linden Valley include a 620-foot zip line, an Odyssey high ropes adventure course, low ropes course, paint ball courses, kayaking and tubing on the Buffalo River and swimming.
On the record: Steve Tiebout, the lead pastor at The River Community Church in Cookeville, routinely takes sabbaticals at Carson Springs. He normally plans his trip for late in the fall. “I’ve gone four or five times, and I usually go for a three-day get away. For me, it’s mostly about hearing from God and getting His direction for me for the new year. I love the fact that there is no TV in the room and (limited) internet. It really pushes me to spend time with the Lord. I really spend more of the time going on hikes, praying and listening to God speak instead of trying to get ‘work done.’ I would encourage every pastor to get away from the busy-ness of work. And the great thing about the (Conference Centers) is that they provide a good, clean, economical place to go. The deal they offer for pastors is really encouraging, and it caters to the church budget. It’s a great way to replug and refresh.”
Contact info: Call 423-623-2764 for reservations at Carson Springs, and 931-589-2622 for reservations at Linden Valley.
Name: Whitestone Inn
Details: Whitestone Inn is a AAA Four Diamond property on Watts Bar Lake in Kingston. The sprawling property has 23 available rooms and an on-campus restaurant.
Background: Whitestone Inn opened in 1997, and is now operated by Lee and Denise Boggs. The Inn was founded by Paul and Jean Cowell, who bought the property that would become Whitestone in the early 1990s. The Farmhouse, built in 1995, was the first building on the property. Paul Cowell, who passed away in 2016, was a pastor for more than 30 years and designed Whitestone with the hopes that it could serve as a get-away for pastors and missionaries. Current owners Lee and Denise Boggs — the founders of Living Waters Ministry, a nonprofit that supports pastors and their families with retreats — have maintained the Inn’s reputation as a special place of relaxation and peace for those who work in the ministry.
Deals and discounts: Pastors and full-time ministry workers can stay at Whitestone Inn for discounts that range from 35 percent to 50 percent (depending on the season). International missionaries, who are deployed for nine or more months during the year, can stay at Whitestone for $50 per night.
Why go there: Whitestone Inn offers almost every form of relaxation possible. “If you want to come and curl up on a couch and read a book and relax and do nothing, you can do that here. Or if you want to go lay in a hammock or lay in the swing, you can do that. Or if you want to find an activity, we’ve got plenty of those, too,” said Whitestone’s director of operations Gabe Collier. The available activities include: 12 miles of walking trails, swimming pool, tennis courts, kayaks, paddle boats, canoes, shuffle board, horseshoes, volleyball, a spa and a rec room (with pool table and ping pong). Golf carts are available for rent by the hour and by the day for exploring the campus.
On the record: Steve Porter, a full-time missionary to Magyar, Nigeria, stays at Whitestone Inn on a routine basis whenever he is in the states. “This place is absolutely wonderful. We first came in 2001, I believe. At first, we came every three years when we were on home assignment. But then, for the last two or three years, they’ve been sending us home yearly for a brief period of time, and we always make it a point to stay here. (At some places), missionaries get treated like hobos. But here, instead of feeling like a leech, you feel like an honored guest. (The late Paul Cowell, the founder of Whitestone) would always say these people (missionaries) are my heroes. And that attitude pervades the place, and it makes it where we can’t wait to come back again. It’s just a wonderful situation. We have never felt anything but honored here. And it is a place where — from the moment you drive through that barn (at the entrance) — there is a sense of the Lord here that is just incredible. It is a wonderful blessing to all who come.”
Contact info: Call 865-376-0113 for reservations.
Background: Jim Baker, a prominent church organizational leadership consultant and former executive pastor at Brentwood Baptist Church, is a strong believer in the benefits of “stay-cations” — the concept of taking time off without ever leaving home — for pastors and ministry workers. While serving as one of the keynote speakers at last month’s TBMB Focus Week, Baker said he often gets away by staying home. He said he unwinds by spending the whole day inside his house, not even going outside to the get the mail or the newspaper. On those days, he puts all of his electronic equipment — cell phone, iPad, etc. — into a small box, and keeps it stashed away throughout his day(s) off.
Deals and discounts: No charge.
Why go there: Spending time at home can be relaxing and enjoyable, Baker said, if the person is willing to block out the everyday noise. Something as simple as sitting on the couch, cutting off all the electronic devices, and looking out the window — watching the sun rise (or set) or watching rain fall — can be therapeutic and soothing. Also, catching up on much-needed rest, via a long nap or just lying quietly in a comfortable chair, can help the recharging process. Some might find simple chores — such as raking leaves, painting a cabinet or cleaning out a closet — to be relaxing. Crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, journaling, walking the dog, reading a book or visiting a nearby park or stream can also be great “unwinding” activities.
On the record: Joe Sorah, the Compassions Ministry specialist at the TBMB and a former pastor, said he enjoys staycations. Sorah mentioned several ways in which he unwinds, for free, without leaving town: “I believe every pastor needs a hobby or an outlet in order to get away from the stress of ministry. And for me, I have several places where I can go when I need to just get away for an hour or two. I will go to the park or to the creek near my house, and after a couple of hours, I will feel totally refreshed. For some pastors and staff members, it might be playing golf or fishing. For my dad, it was gardening. So, there are really all kinds of things someone can do that are completely free and don’t require loading up the car.”