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Restoring the Spirit: The Sabbatical Journey of Pastor Deterding


Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.Psalm 51:12  

Amid the constant pace of ministry, with its regular demands of leadership, pastoral responsibilities and community involvement, the idea of taking a sabbatical can often appear as an unattainable indulgence. 

As part of his sabbatical, Pastor Deterding and his wife, Jo Ann, visited Romania and new churches supported by missionaries of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

For many, though, a sabbatical can be a pivotal chapter in one’s journey of faith, leadership and personal growth. For Rev. Curtis Deterding of Zion Lutheran Church in Fort Myers, Fla., a sabbatical was, in fact, pivotal.  

His story isn’t just about stepping away from the daily grind; it illustrates the impact of rest, renewal and reflection in sustaining the spirit of those who dedicate their lives to serving others. 

Planting the seed of a sabbatical 
The idea of a sabbatical was planted in an unexpected yet providential manner. In celebration of its 50th anniversary, Zion Lutheran welcomed back its first pastor, Rev. Timothy Fangmeier, to preach the Good News.  

A strong advocate for church worker wellness, Fangmeier later presented the concept of a sabbatical program to Dave Buelow, the congregational president at Zion. Designed to support church workers in their spiritual and personal growth, he suggested Zion may be the perfect place to embrace such an initiative.  

“The main thing is it got me and Pastor Deterding thinking about a sabbatical,” Buelow said. “With all the stuff that we’re normally thinking about in a church, the sabbatical wasn’t one of them. But the more we thought about it, it’s just a great idea. Of course, the question we had is if this is going to work for us and for our congregation, and that’s just something that we didn’t know. But we would push it through as far as it goes, and let God decide if He wants this to happen.” 

The church’s executive board, a group consisting of seven lay leaders, unanimously supported the idea at a meeting in 2022. They recognized this wasn’t merely an opportunity for renewal and restoration for Deterding; it was also an opportunity to enrich the church’s ministry.  

Of course, there were questions. Who is going to fill in while the senior pastor is on sabbatical? What happens to his pastoral duties while he’s away? What are the financial implications of a sabbatical?  

Fortunately, they had about 12 months to prepare.  

“You need a lot of time to really put all the pieces together and to get everybody comfortable, the congregation, the voters, everybody,” Buelow said. “It all takes quite a bit of time.”  

Financially, Fangmeier offered a gift—a $10,000 scholarship of sorts—to help offset some of the cost if the church granted a sabbatical to Deterding. With that and the support of the executive board, plans for Deterding’s summer 2023 sabbatical started to take shape.  

Pastor Deterding and Jo Ann visited Erfurt Cathedral, where Martin Luther was ordained.

Deterding and his wife, Jo Ann, were already planning a trip to Germany in 2023. Upon hearing of the sabbatical proposal, he suggested incorporating the trip into his sabbatical.  

“I really wanted to learn more about the life of the reformer, Luther, through visiting the sites that I had not visited in Germany yet, plus the sites where is eventual wife came from,” Deterding said, “That was the basis of the sabbatical, to grow in the history of our Lutheran church, especially when it came to Martin Luther and Katie von Bora.”  

The trip evolved into so much more. In addition to spending a few weeks deepening his understanding of Martin Luther’s life and the history of the Lutheran Church, Deterding would also participate in the Wittenberg English Ministry, serving tourists and locals alike, and attend the annual festival celebrating the wedding of Martin Luther and Katherina Von Bora. He planned to explore various historical sites connected to both individuals as well.  

Pastor Deterding preached at Town Church Wittenberg.

The second leg of his sabbatical would take him to Romania, where churches supported through missionaries by The Lutheran Church— Missouri Synod (LCMS) were growing. He hoped to foster connections and explore the potential for his congregation to support these missions in a predominately Orthodox country.  

“I really wanted to experience and see what it looks like to see a new church body growing in a country that’s never had a Missouri Synod influence in mission congregations,” Deterding said. “I thought that would just be so intriguing, and maybe even enriching to the point of identifying things we could do as a church, circuit, or district to support what they’re doing.”  

Pastor Deterding and Jo Ann at Arch of Victory Bucharest.

How Zion prepared for a sabbatical
In the year leading up to the sabbatical, Deterding meticulously prepared, ensuring his congregation would be well cared for in his absence. He developed a detailed plan with visiting pastors to preach and administer the Sacraments. He arranged for a retired pastor, Rev. Hank Simon, to serve as the lead pastor during his sabbatical to oversee the spiritual needs of the church.  

Blessed with Director of Christian Education (DCE) Tim Richter, who was in the process of becoming a pastor, Deterding asked Richter to cover many of the day-to-day responsibilities, administrative tasks and serve as a conduit between the congregation and Simon.   

The proactive approach facilitated a seamless continuation of church services, programs and pastoral care, minimizing any potential disruptions during the sabbatical period.  

The congregation’s support was equally vital. They embraced the temporary leadership changes with openness and adaptability, recognizing the value this time would be for their shepherd. Deterding encouraged the congregation to view this time as an opportunity for growth and renewal, not just for him but the entire church community.  

Meanwhile, the church explored how to cover the remaining costs—those not covered by the gift from Fangmeier, who provided a list of other sabbatical grants available. However, funding is limited, and Zion Lutheran was late to applying for funds.  

The remaining funds came from a congregation member, who had included Zion Lutheran in their estate plan and left a generous donation upon being called to their eternal home.  

Pastor Deterding and Jo Ann concluded the sabbatical with a few days of rest and relaxation in Paris, France.

‘Rejuvenated, renewed and refreshed’
The sabbatical proved to be immensely beneficial. Deterding enriched his theological understanding and reinvigorated his passion for ministry during his time in Europe.  

Rejuvenated, renewed and refreshed are the three words that I came back with,” Deterding said. “I hit the ground running. I was able to get right into expanding the mission of the school, helping (DCE Tim Richter) get into his vicarage for the Specific Ministry Pastor (SMP) program and continue to reach our community through various outreach efforts.” 

For the members of Zion Lutheran, active participation in supporting the sabbatical process fostered a stronger sense of unity and shared responsibility among the members, reinforcing their commitment to the church’s mission and to one another. 

While in Paris, Pastor Deterding and Jo Ann visited Notre Dame Cathedral.

“Some congregations really rely a lot on their senior pastor, and just the thought of him getting sick for a week or two puts them in panic mode and here we’re letting him go deliberately for almost three months,” Buelow said. “A lot of congregations would just immediately reject that idea. But having had a sabbatical now, it gives us a whole new perspective on the church. Its ability to run well is based not only on a pastor, but everybody has gifts that they can contribute and put together a great worship service, a great service to the community. It helped all of us develop our gifts that we sometimes may not know about, because when he’s gone, you’re being asked to do different things and fill different roles” 

While on sabbatical, Deterding wrote a daily blog for his congregation to follow along. Within a few months of returning to the pulpit, he made multiple presentations about the trip to allow members of the congregation to hear and see the value of this time.  

Ultimately, the sabbatical underscored the importance of rest and renewal in church leadership, setting a positive precedent for the congregation and its future leaders. Now, the congregation budgets for future sabbaticals for all full-time called church workers.  

“We see (sabbaticals) as an incentive for church workers in the future,” Buelow said. “And we put that upfront- this is something we really see the benefit of.” 

Insights from Zion’s sabbatical journey
The sabbatical experience for Deterding and Zion offers valuable insights for church workers and congregations considering a similar program. Thorough preparation and clear communication are significant. Deterding recommends engaging in open discourse with congregational leaders to ensure sabbatical objectives align, so the purposeful period of time uplifts the church worker spiritually and professionally. 

For congregations, Zion is an advocate for churches recognizing the sabbatical as an investment in their church’s future. It’s one way congregations can support the well-being of their ministry staff, allowing them to further care for the congregation’s ministry needs.  

But a sabbatical is a two-way street. Both congregation and church worker can and show benefit and grow from a sabbatical. In essence, a sabbatical should be a period of mutual growth, reflection and rejuvenation that impacts both the individual and the congregation.