On Lying Fallow
The rationale for pastoral sabbaticals.
A field of dirt is a miraculous thing, no matter how large or small. It can produce beauty to please the eye and food to feed the hungry. My wife grew up in the thumb of Michigan among rich fields of black dirt full of pinto beans and barley and sugar beets. She now nurtures tiny “fields” of dirt around our suburban house producing much smaller, but no less miraculous, yields.
But “dirt” is a disparaging term. I’m talking soil here, and it is soil that produces the wonder. In a single handful of healthy soil, Isabella Tree tells us, “are more organisms than the total number of human beings who have ever lived on earth.”1 Soil is a thriving ecosystem that, when well cared for supports life.
When not cared for, however, that same soil can do little more than dry up and blow away. When we overuse the soil we wear it out. We deplete the nutrients and leave it vulnerable to parasites and disease. To abuse soil is to leave nothing but dirt.
Out of concern for the soil, and for those who live off its yield, God built into the agricultural rhythms of his people a requirement that every seven years the fields be given a year to rest, a season to lie fallow. This required a great deal of faith on the part of the farmers who depended on those fields. To leave that field alone was to lose the income and meals that the crops would provide. I’m certain many balked. At the same time, to let the fields lie would give them a chance to restore their fertility. Nutrients that had been drained would be replenished. Dirt would once again become soil ready for another seven years of growth.
Soil needs to lie fallow if it is to serve its community well. And I believe it’s necessary to think of pastors the same way.
The life of the pastor, like that of soil, is one of giving out and supporting others. And similar to soil, time and use exhausts the pastor’s stores of mental, emotional, and spiritual nutrients. Pastors can turn from growth nurturing soil into little more than fields of overused dirt. To continue serving their communities well requires restoration. They need to lie fallow.
This is the logic of the pastoral sabbatical and I urge it upon you not as a luxury afforded the rich church or the celebrity pastor, but as a necessity for the health of the church and pastor alike.
The idea of sabbatical first landed in my world through Eugene Peterson’s book The Contemplative Pastor. Peterson argues that both pastors and congregations benefit when the pastor is given a sabbatical. Like soil, the pastor is restored. And like the farmer, congregations learn that God is more faithful, and they more capable, than they might have realized.
A well-implemented sabbatical is wrongly judged to be an undeserved and extraordinarily generous vacation. A pastor on sabbatical stops coming to church, stops preaching, stops planning and moderating meetings, stops visiting the sick, stops mentoring or discipling others, and yet sabbatical is more than stopping. It is a period of intentional rest and renewal.
Pastors need this rest and renewal for both their bodies and souls. As for the body, the pace and intensity of our calling can wear us out. During one period of particularly stressful ministry I was puzzled by frequent sickness. This was not like me. I couldn’t figure out why I was suddenly so vulnerable. “It’s stress, Dad,” observed my bemused daughter, a nurse who wondered why I couldn’t see what was clear to her.
As well, ministry can deplete a pastor’s passion for Christ. In our unbalanced lives, we give more than we receive. We preach grace three dozen times for each time it is preached to us. Eventually, we find ourselves going through the motions, ministering weakly on the fumes of a former devotion. We soldier on preaching and managing a church, but like soil we can only give for so long. We need periods of receiving that message that once moved us, so that we might be caught up in the wonder of grace once again.
Sabbatical exists to restore life to barren fields of dirt.
And it works.
I returned from my three month sabbatical2 eager to be my church’s pastor again. Peterson’s year-long experience was similar.
"I returned with more energy than I can remember having since I was fifteen years old.... The experience of my maturity was now coupled with the energy of my youth.... The sabbatical had done its work."3
Every field of dirt longs to be deep, rich soil. The God who has shown us how to care for soil so hints at how we can care for pastors as well, to the end that both endure.
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Isabella Tree, Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm (United States: New York Review Books, 2018), p. 278.
Remarkable resources exist to encourage sabbatical for pastors. The Lilly Endowment offers a generous grant to help churches give their pastors sabbatical. But through careful planning for it, many churches give pastors a sabbatical without such a grant.
You can find out more about the Lilly Clergy Renewal Program here.
Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor (United States: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), p. 152.