By Nate Walker
“I am not the head of the church. Jesus is.” As a pastor, I had not only heard that many times, I had said it many times myself. And I really did believe it.
But it left a major question unanswered for me. If I am not the head, what part of the body of Christ am I?
The Lord answered that question for me during an incredible opportunity I had to take a three-month sabbatical. I was eight years into a church plant that had grown from a living-room house church to a midsized congregation. We had faithful elders and a healthy staff. As much as I knew that trying to be the head of the church would burn me out, I needed an alternative. Everyone knew my role wasn’t just like anyone else’s in the church. So how should I understand my role?
My discovery: I am a joint or ligament in the body.
Paul says in Ephesians that Jesus gave pastors to the church to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body.” I had never realized that later in that chapter, Paul adds that “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” John Calvin says that these “joints” are the pastors of the church.
It may sound small, but this was a profound realization for me. This little insight represented a much deeper work that God was doing in me. This work came through an extended period of reflection and contemplation that only a sabbatical could allow.
The true nature of a sabbatical
A sabbatical is not simply a long vacation. (It is partly that!) If planned well, it is an intentional time to explore our calling and to refresh our joy in our union with Christ.
The nineteenth-century preacher James Stalker once said that it is the job of every minister to visit a far off country every week and then return to the pulpit to tell the congregation about this land they had visited. This far off country is Christ himself. But sometimes it helps for the preacher to go live in that country for an extended time to understand it more deeply.
That is a sabbatical.
Planning your sabbatical
Visits to foreign countries benefit from a little planning. Going to Italy with a flexible
itinerary will make the trip richer. So, too, a little planning for a sabbatical can set up a pastor to have an enriching, restful, and even life-changing experience. Below are a few planning tips that helped me.
Make a plan for before
Unfortunately, it is very common in churches for sabbaticals to happen only when an emergency happens. The pastor is burned out and he is going to quit unless he gets an extended break soon. This is not a healthy way to operate.
I am grateful that an older elder counseled our church to make a sabbatical plan from the beginning. Our sabbatical schedule was not just for our pastors but for all of our elders. Lay elders were given five-month sabbaticals every three years and a yearlong sabbatical every seventh year. These elders received their sabbaticals before I did, and the schedule ended with me getting a three-month sabbatical after eight years of ministry.
We were advised that I should not be required to produce anything during this time. (The Sabbath emphasis in the Scriptures is always on resting.) We had a small team assembled who helped write a plan, and we presented it to the congregation. At a congregational meeting about fifteen months before the sabbatical, we explained the plan to the congregation. They were given an opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback. This intentional planning process helped the congregation share in the joy of giving their pastor a time of rest and refreshment. They weren’t surprised, either, when the time finally came.
Make a plan for during
For most of my three months, I followed a daily routine. From 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., I devoted myself to meditation on God’s word, journaling, reading, and prayer. Then I would pause to have lunch with my family. In the afternoon, my family and I would go on hikes, play tennis and games, and cook dinner together. These days were both intentional and restful—truly a delight!
My reading focused on spiritual formation and pastoral leadership. The books included Calvin’s Company of Pastors by Scott Manesch, The Rule of Saint Benedict (with a companion book), and In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen. I also re-read some favorites that bring me to a place of joy and rest, like God in the Dock by C. S. Lewis and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
Others had counseled me that some films might be meaningful during this time, and there were two that affected me pretty deeply (Of Gods and Men and Cars 3—I know, a cartoon!). The first I watched alone with time and space for reflection.
Over the course of these weeks of reading, writing, praying, and watching, a theme began to emerge of what the Lord wanted to communicate to me: shared leadership. Whether it was through Calvin’s sixteenth-century Geneva, Henri Nouwen and his disabled friends at L’Arche, the monks in Of Gods and Men, Doc Hudson and Lightning McQueen, or the apostles on mission in the book of Acts, the message over and over was the same: “Share your leadership. You are not the head of the church.”
As a church planter, I had been indoctrinated in the visionary leadership philosophy. I needed to develop and cast a vision that would attract a lot of people. I needed to guard my vision at all costs (for others would try to derail it). Ultimately the message was “you need to be great.”
But having an extended time away gave space for God to reshape my understanding of leadership. Each of these influences was showing me that my job is to see the gifts and graces of others and set them up to serve God effectively. Joints hold the body together and support the hands and feet of the body, enabling them to do their work. So do pastors. They make other people strong.
In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (another sabbatical reread), he writes:
He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. … God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly.
What an incredibly important insight for a life of ministry. I wonder how else I would have gotten this message without a sabbatical. I’m also not sure I would have gotten it unless my time had been intentional, restful, structured, and well-planned.
Make a plan for after
After returning, the congregation needs an opportunity to hear how the sabbatical affected their pastor. My first Sunday back in the pulpit, I preached on shared leadership and Ephesians 4:12–16. This sermon translated what God had been teaching me into our church’s community. It also let them into my heart, helping them appreciate the value of the sabbatical.
I met with our elders, shared these insights, and recommended that I preach fewer Sundays each year. I love preaching, but we needed more trusted voices in our church than just mine. Shared leadership would mean hearing from more people throughout the year.
I was also happy to find that this sabbatical left a permanent mark on the health and quality of our church’s ministry together. My being gone for a season set us on a path of mutual leadership as we entered into the next phase of our church’s life. It gave opportunities for others to step up in leadership while I was away. It also clarified areas of the church where I was not needed, and the areas where I was.
But most of all, it was a time to focus on my first love. Before I am a shepherd, I am one of the sheep. I am a member of Christ’s body, “holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from
God” (Col 2:19).
This article first appeared in the June 2021 issue of Ministry Team magazine.
Nate Walker is the head pastor of Christ Church Bellingham, which he helped plant in 2011. He also cofounded Trinity Classical School and serves on the board of the Northwest Church Planting Network. Nate and his wife, Shannon, have five children and a cockapoo named Poppy.