Early Planning Ensures Sabbatical Survivability

When a minister announces plans to take a sabbatical it can strike fear into the heart of the congregation. The prospect of being leaderless for months can be daunting. But to congregations that plan with care, a sabbatical not only gives the minister time for rest, reflection, and renewal, but improves a congregation's lay leadership skills.

The first rule? Early and careful planning.

First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church, Fort Worth, TX (181 members), began planning well ahead of Rev. Craig Roshaven's six-month sabbatical. The congregation made the sabbatical part of its strategic plan and over several years set aside money for it. Six months in advance, Roshaven trained worship leaders, practicing with a script and a video camera. Roshaven said, "The camera helped ratchet up the level of anxiety to what people experience on Sunday. We worked hard at getting people comfortable with the authority of the role."

"There had been times previously when I would come to church when I was not in the pulpit and the service would be painful to watch," he said. "Now everything is flawless. It wouldn't have happened as well without the sabbatical. It also made the church much less dependent on me."

Lin Wells, who was chair of the Worship Arts Committee, said, "The biggest challenge was simply planning ahead to make sure we were prepared for our guest speakers every week." Each week there was a lay leader plus a backup person.

For more than three decades ten New Jersey congregations have helped each other with sabbaticals as part of the Leadership Leaves Program. Each pay one percent of their annual operating budget into a fund to support sabbaticals. The money goes to speakers and to give ministers extra funds for study purposes.

When Rev. Paul Mueller took his nine-month sabbatical in 2000 he received $7,000 from the fund. His congregation, the Unitarian Society of New Brunswick (188), received another $2,000 to pay speakers. Each of the nine other ministers preached once in his pulpit, and the program committees from each congregation presented one service to his congregation. This year Mueller is to preach to two congregations whose ministers are on sabbatical. The New Brunswick program committee also presents two services.

UU Ministerial Association guidelines say that after four years with a congregation, ministers may take one month of sabbatical for each year of service up to a maximum of six months. Sabbaticals are generally taken between the fifth and seventh years. Congregations continue to pay salary and benefits during the sabbatical. They are encouraged to set aside enough additional money for speakers.

First Jefferson spent $3,000 for twenty visiting speakers. Allen Avenue UU Church, Portland, ME (221), spent $1,000 when Rev. Jean Wahlstrom took four months in 2001. "It went well," said David Juers, who was board president. "The key was planning a year in advance and having a good worship committee."

Good planning at First UU Church, Rochester, MN (335), enabled Rev. Dillman Baker Sorrells to take a four-month sabbatical in 1997. "It was great for me and for the church," she said. "And when I took a shorter leave later there was no anxiety. We all understood that this could work."


The Sabbatical Handbook is $15 from the UU Ministers Association, 25 Beacon Street, Boston MA 02108. Also check with your district office whenever a sabbatical is planned.

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.

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