Strengthening congregations

Posted Jan 08, 2014 | Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs


By Callie J. Smith

Callie J. SmithThis past fall, the Huffington Post featured a striking article by Beth Sirull. This article explores the concept of sabbatical leaves for nonprofit leaders, describing them as beneficial for not only the leaders but also for the organizations and communities they serve. This connection between the well-being of leaders and that of their communities warrants the attention of faith communities, as well.

Sirull cites a 2009 study on the impact of nonprofit sabbaticals. The study showed improvement in leaders’ work/life balance, health, and work performance. Most remarkable, though, were the benefits to the organizations themselves. Almost two-thirds of respondents saw organizational boards becoming more effective, and over 80 percent of leaders reported increased comfort delegating responsibility as a result of colleagues having planned for and provided leadership during the sabbatical time.

On the one hand, these findings may be no surprise. The book of Revelation, after all, pictures God’s final redemption as an entirely new heaven and earth (21:1). We who think in terms of Christian faith may well expect redemptive things to affect not simply individuals but entire communities and eco-systems.

On the other hand, these findings about sabbaticals might go against our conventional wisdom. Especially if we come from workplaces and/or congregations that have no history of sabbatical policy, it could seem counter-intuitive to pay our leaders if they are not physically present at their normal spaces of work. The concept of sabbatical is not exactly popular in our culture at large, which means that this may be a place where the Judeo-Christian theological imagination, with its rich history of linking sabbatical with life-giving renewal and excellence, might helpfully inform the broader culture.

However the concept of sabbatical strikes us, evidence of a connection between the health of leaders and the health of organizations and constituencies they serve has profound implications for faith communities. As a more recent piece in the Huffington Post suggests, clergy burnout and attrition are “real issues.” If we are to be about caring for each other that we may serve God and neighbor well, then it is worth our time to explore how intentional leaves of clergy renewal may help address those issues, benefitting both our congregations and our pastors in the process.

The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs have for over a dozen years now provided grants to congregations funding renewal leaves for their pastors. With the goal of strengthening congregations, these grants make it possible for pastors to step away from the persistent obligations of daily parish life and to engage not in a vacation, but in a period of renewal for intentional exploration and reflection. In a recent blog series (November 6 – December 4, 2013) the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs have featured the experiences of congregations whose pastors have gone on renewal leaves, offering a glimpse of the difference these leaves may effect in the rhythm of congregational life. As many congregations have found, even just the process of exploring possibilities can pave the way for potential-laden conversation and collaboration.

What is your experience with sabbaticals and renewal leaves? How have you seen congregations or other communities strengthened by the practice?

Rev. Callie J. Smith is administrative assistant for the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary. She is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) seek to strengthen Christian congregations by providing opportunities for pastors to step away briefly from the persistent obligations of daily parish life and to engage in a period of renewal and reflection. To request permission to repost this content, please contact



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