Rest, restore, renew: The value of sabbaticals

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Pictured Above: Pastor Mike Thedford with his family.

Sabbaticals are often associated with tenured professors taking a semester off to write, do research or study abroad; the term is rarely used for pastors. But, for Florida Baptist pastors, the concept has evolved over the past couple of years and, thanks to the experience of one pastor, the value of pastoral sabbaticals is now appreciated more fully.

Pastor Mike Thedford from LifeQuest Church in Palm City, who had served ministry for nearly 22 years, often found himself juggling his roles as pastor, husband and father. Although he was feeling burned out, the idea of taking a sabbatical never crossed his mind until a church member, who just happened to be a retired Presbyterian minister, suggested that Thedford consider it.

“We’d been meeting regularly to talk, pray and encourage each other, and one day he looked at me and said, ‘You know what, Michael, I don’t think you are going to make it six more months unless you take a sabbatical.’ I said, ‘We are Baptists; we don’t take sabbaticals,’ so I ignored him,” recalled Thedford.

As time went on Thedford finally agreed to consider the possibility of taking a sabbatical.

“At that point, I realized I was just burned out in every way, so we started to have a conversation about it. He had led others to take sabbaticals, so he really had a great format of what a sabbatical looks like,” Thedford said.

Five key areas

The sabbatical format his friend suggested concentrates on five key areas of a pastor’s life: reconnecting with family and friends, rest and recreation, restoring the soul, spiritual retreat and marriage enrichment.

As Thedford began his sabbatical, he purposefully devoted time to reconnecting with his wife and children–going to the beach 26 times with his children and taking two trips with his wife of nearly 25 years. On the first of those two trips with his wife, Pastor Thedford realized a very significant truth.

“By the time a pastor gets to burnout, his wife has already been there,” he said. “That first trip was rough because we were unpacking everything that had taken place (over the course of my ministry).”

He also spent time seeking to rekindle the fire that had led him into ministry, spending three days in isolation.

“The spiritual retreat was one of the hardest and most glorious things I’ve ever done–no phone, no technology. I just communed with God–prayed, cried, read my Bible and had three days of absolute silence,” he recalled.

In this isolation, Thedford experienced a renewed sense of calling to the ministry.

“I was reminded of my first love … why I went into ministry in the first place. I love Christ and wanted to help others to walk in relationship with Him.”

Thedford returned to his church as a changed man, and LifeQuest Church has also changed.

“I came back and determined that we would devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching. We are going to fellowship, break bread together, pray and have communion. We are just going to get back to the basics,” he said.

Thedford said that his absence helped his ministry leaders grow in their service, realizing that they had become too dependent on him and needed to become spiritual leaders.

“In every way my sabbatical was life-giving and spiritually renewing,” said Thedford. “That needed to translate back to the way we look at sabbaticals in our Baptist culture.”

Associational support

After returning from his sabbatical, Thedford wanted to share what he had learned. He spoke with leaders of Treasure Coast Baptist Association about the value of sabbaticals, proposing that every year the association grant two $4,000 scholarships – $2,000 for pastors to be able to take a sabbatical and $2,000 for the church to help with pulpit supply and other expenses during the sabbatical.

Tim O'Carroll
Pastor Tim O’Carroll with his family.

Last year the association adopted Thedford’s proposal and, as a result, two pastors went on sabbaticals during the summer of 2022.

One of those was Pastor Tim O’Carroll of Discovery Church in Fort Pierce. O’Carroll had served in ministry nearly 18 years in numerous roles, including youth director, children’s pastor and worship pastor. The 14 years it took for O’Carroll to establish Discovery Church involved several moves, eight years of weekly setup/teardowns and a building project.

“I had planned on taking a sabbatical in 2020 but decided not to as Discovery was in the middle of building. There were too many decisions to make, and I could not in good conscience leave the team during this time,” he said.

Fast-forward to 2022 when, feeling exhausted and tired, O’Carroll was encouraged by a friend to consider taking a sabbatical.

“A friend of mine–another pastor who was returning from sabbatical–said, ‘You are next.’ That friend was Mike Thedford.”

O’Carroll met with Thedford numerous times to hash out a plan for his sabbatical, covering everything from spiritual expectations to practical day-to-day church operations. In addition, O’Carroll and his wife planned how and where the time would be spent “so that we would not be home the entire time with the temptation to go to the places we frequent and meet with the people we do life with.”

Once the logistics were in place, O’Carroll was then able to delve into the sabbatical’s spiritual and restorative elements.

“I was able to do projects around the house that I’d been putting off. My wife and I and our two daughters were able to take several small trips away from the area. We stayed in cabins, did a lot of hiking, played in the water and made a bunch of memories,” said O’Carroll.

One day, while doing some much-needed yard work, he noticed that vines were wrapping around several branches of an oak tree and that some of the oak’s leaves were turning black.

“My entire sabbatical could be illustrated through removing the vines from the oak tree,” said O’Carroll. “The Lord revealed some areas of my life that I needed to pray through and reorient once I came out of the sabbatical. There was a reset that needed to take place physically, emotionally and spiritually.”

Both O’Carroll and Thedford emerged from their sabbaticals renewed, restored and reenergized, passionate about enabling other pastors to take the time away – for them and their congregations.

“My prayer is that our association will pave the pathway for others to see that they need to support pastors through sabbaticals,” O’Carroll said. “A lot of other churches can’t financially support them – provide support at the pulpit during the sabbaticals. We want to do everything we can to help support all of that and make sabbaticals part of the culture in Florida.”

Thedford continues to be amazed at the results of his sabbatical and the impact it continues to have on LifeQuest Church.

“As a result of my sabbatical, our church body has realized that they need to grow and mature in their own way. This past year our church has had the largest amount of growth it has ever had. We’ve baptized more people than any other year that I’ve been here, and our giving is way over anything that it has been in the past. All the metrics are there, and I am actually doing less.”

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