The Matriarch Mailbag brought us this question about sabbatical leave.

Hello, Matriarchs!

I am PCUSA serving in North Carolina. I have been in my present call 9 1/2 years. I am taking my first sabbatical in May for 3 months. For those of you who have done this: What were the boundaries you set and how did that work? I am really excited for this opportunity but also struggling with the thought of one of my flock dying and I am not there for the family. That is really hard! Any words of wisdom? Thanks!

Our matriarchs are excited to send you on your way with some ideas, some questions, and — of course! — some excellent advice.

Heidi Rodrick-Schnaath
Dear Colleague,

I must admit to coveting other people’s sabbaticals. I don’t have any experienced advice to offer but I am reminded of something that happened the first time I left town for Continuing Ed. I was checking for messages and a friend said something to the effect of “they wouldn’t make you come back for a funeral would they?” In that moment I realized that it wasn’t that they would force me to come home. The reality is that I wanted to be with the congregation in a moment of grief. Not everyone feels that way. I don’t always feel that way, but the boundaries are yours- your particular set of rules. Best wishes for your time away!

Julia Seymour

Congratulations on reaching this ministry milestone and having loved a congregation into understanding that you’ve earned this break.

I took a sabbatical after completing 8 years of ministry, which is currently my only sabbatical experience. I think there are boundaries for the congregation and boundaries for yourself.

For them:

– Do the leaders have the contact information for other clergy (or whomever) if they have an emergency or need help? Do they have a relationship with the people on whom they would be calling?

– Is there a plan for each Sunday or worship event and is that plan in the hands of more than one person/group of people? The more people know what to expect, the less anxious they may be. The less anxious, the less likely to misbehave (one hopes).

– Do the leaders of the church know all the odds and ends of what you do that someone else will need to do (facilities, grounds, emails, social media posts, etc.)? None of that should be on your plate. None of it.

– What do your leaders expect of you if there is a death or an emergency in the congregation? When this is decided, there should be a clear plan of who will contact you and how.

For you:

– What are the boundaries you can maintain without shaming or guilting yourself? Can you put your pastoral email on forward for the 3 months or discipline yourself to check it once a week? Will you send all potential church calls to voicemail? How will you manage your social media?

– What are situations you would regret missing in terms of funerals or emergencies?

– What kind of plan can you make that is empowering to your leaders and relieving for you?

– What are the parameters under which you wish to be called for something happening at the church or with the congregation?

– Are there any potential underground grumblings that could erupt in your absence about which you should warn your executive committee or your adjudicatory leader (as applies to your situation)?

As with all things in ministry, the best practices for sabbatical are the ones that work for you and your congregation. I encourage you to set the boundaries that will give you rest- a real and genuine time away.

In this time of COVID, I hope that it has not fallen to you to be the enforcer of pandemic protocols. Be certain that the church leaders and any supply clergy are all on the same page about the best practices for the WHOLE time you’re gone. Things may change, but no one should feel pressured to alter things because people are acting up in your absence. (Which I pray will not happen.)

Mary Austin
Woot! A sabbatical! Congratulationsto you. In addition to the wise advice above, I would suggest spending a chunk of time in thought and prayer, to become clear in your own mind about what you want to know, and what you want to be blissfully ignorant about, until you return. Do you want to know about deaths? Dramatic changes for members of the church? Definitely not the leak in the roof or the big plumbing crisis. Then communicate that, in writing, to everyone you can think of: session, other staff, people covering for you, in the church emails, so everyone knows what to expect.

You might also give whoever is covering for you a quick tour through any current congregational controversies. I once had lunch with a friend who was covering for a pastor on sabbatical, and he said, “A woman came to me and suggested that we put in a columbarium while Pastor X is away. Wouldn’t that be a great surprise for him when he gets back?” I could only wonder how many times the sabbatical pastor had already said a firm no to this idea.

Thank you Heidi, Julia, and Mary! Your thoughtful guidance will help her make plans with good boundaries in mind.

How about you, dear reader? Have you managed to establish good boundaries for your own sabbatical leave? Are there things you wish you had done differently when setting boundaries before you left or while you were away? Let us know in the comments below.

Do you have an important decision coming up? The matriarch are here to help. Send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com

If you are struggling with church life or pastor life in the age of COVID, send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com

Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.

RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back to the specific post. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.

2 thoughts on “Ask the Matriarch: Setting Sabbatical Boundaries

  1. I was the point person at the congregation during my colleague’s sabbatical this fall.
    She got a second phone to use during Sabbatical and subsequently on her Sabbath days. I had the number and maybe 2 other people in the congregation. She also created a new email account and about 3 of us had that address. We agreed that I would call her if I thought she needed to know something (she definitely wanted to know about any deaths, but I’ll address funerals below), but that if I had any questions about whether I should let her know about something, there were two people I would consult with.
    As far as funerals, we decided up front that she would not return for any. We did not want to be in the position of her coming back for one person but not for another. We would invite people to either have me officiate or to wait until she returned and hold a memorial service then. I ended up doing two interments: one for the father of a regular attender, and one for one of our matriarchs. She was pretty heartbroken about not doing that service (and the adult grandchildren really didn’t understand why she wasn’t coming back just for this one thing), but I was able to do it, and do it well, and everyone was okay.
    We spoke occasionally while she was gone, but she called me; I didn’t call her. I gave her general assurances that things were going fine without getting into specifics. We did go out to the cemetery together after the interment so she could put flowers on the Matriarch’s grave, and I stopped by her house a couple times to drop off something from the church that she wanted.
    I’m trying to think if there is anything else we learned that would be useful. She really needed a complete break, and I think by and large she got it. There were moments that she was intensely sad to be missing something (we met outside in person twice while she was gone and she heard it was happening. Sitting at home while she knew we were meeting was really hard on her since we hadn’t met in person since March), but the total break was good, at least from my perspective.
    It was also helpful for me as the lead person in her absence. It meant I didn’t have people going over me to check in with her, and I didn’t have to wonder, well, will she want to come in for this or that? I could lead in my own way in my own right (with the Holy Spirit and Session backing me up and holding me accountable, of course). If you don’t have a person who knows the congregation and is able to step in as I did, I can see that some of this would be more difficult.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My “out of office” email gave contact information for church office, the person coordinating worship, and one other church leader. It also said that all email would be deleted, unread, and invited them to reach out to me after I returned. It was really liberating to not have to go through 3 months of emails on my return, Highly recommend.

    Liked by 3 people

We hope you'll join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.