Sabbatical Grace

Dwight A. Moody


After nine years of teaching, counseling, and preaching at Georgetown College I was granted a sabbatical. My wife and I spent 13 weeks on the road, traveling 10,401 miles from Kentucky up through Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, across the plains into Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, and to the west coast of Oregon and Washington. We visited Victoria on Vancouver Island and several of the Hawaiian Islands before striking out from Portland for the journey home.


We drove south through California, then east into Nevada and south again to Arizona in time to spend Thanksgiving at the Grand Canyon. Then the long road east: New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, and back home to Kentucky. On this wonderful trip we visited college alumni, wrote the draft of a yet-unpublished book, stopped at most of the National Parks, and of course, took a million pictures. It was the perfect sabbatical, full of adventure, discovery, and delight.


Sabbaticals are common on the campus but rare in the congregation.


In 1978 my father received a one-month sabbatical from his post at the First Baptist Church of Murray, Kentucky. He was the first staff minister to utilize the then-new sabbatical policy. We spent one month in Israel. I was just four years from a one-year student residency in Jerusalem, so I was thrilled to take him on a personal tour of all the wonderful sites in the Holy Land, especially the Arbel, Tel Dan, Megiddo, Caesarea, the Plain of Benjamin, Wadi Qelt, Masada, the Negev, Bethlehem, Herodium, and the innumerable sites in Jerusalem itself.


More churches need to establish sabbatical policies. It would provide their ministers the rest and renewal they need. It would instruct them, inspire them, and invigorate them for another season of ministry.


I was reminded of this recently when I interviewed the pastor of a Houston church swamped by Hurricane Harvey one year ago. Their 40-acre campus was covered by three-to-six feet of water; five of their six buildings were flooded; one had to be torn down. For two months their church was a distribution center for millions of dollar worth of supplies; and for another ten months the church struggled to rescue their buildings, restart their programs, and restore their congregational spirit.


It was tough, and not a few members took off, not willing to engage the enormous task of institutional recovery. It is quite likely the church itself was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); for sure, their pastor was, and he told me so.


In fact, he said this: “I attended a post-disaster seminar hosted by a group called PastorServe. They shared this statistic from FEMA: after Katrina, 50% of the pastors in New Orleans were gone within two years and most of them within 18 months.”


I don’t know if he was already thinking of how to get relief for himself. “It has been a hard year,” he said. “My seminary education taught me nothing about managing a disaster. I have made so many mistakes.”


He needs a sabbatical.


He needs what the Lilly Endowment offers: a three-month escape from the pressures of ministry funded by a $50,000 grant to the congregation.  The Endowment, based in Indianapolis (but now unconnected to the Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical Company), recently earmarked $8,645,867 to underwrite sabbatical programs for ministers in Indiana and around the country during 2019.


These programs are now managed by Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. More than ten years ago, I had the privilege of joining a team of ministers to review hundreds of these proposals and recommend many for approval.


Perhaps the Endowment needs to earmark a certain number of these 2019 sabbaticals just for the Houston ministers. It would compliment the $5 million the Endowment approved last year for the United Way of Houston as they help that great city address the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.


But it doesn’t take a hurricane to establish the need for a ministerial sabbatical. And it doesn’t take a multi-billion dollar foundation to fund what so many clergy and their congregations need. It does take imagination, resolve, and collaboration. And yes, some money.


But I am one minister who has been on all sides of this sabbatical issue, and I testify that it is the grace of God to everyone.