Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Sabbatical

Sabbatical Plans (or “I May Go Dark Again”)

“Had we not been awarded the Lilly grant,” I told the congregation at our congregational meeting last September, “the sabbatical would still have happened. But Barb and I would be renting a kayak to paddle up and down the Little Big Econ (an oxymoronically named river near the church, pictured in the heading to this blog) rather than taking a cruise on the Mediterranean.”

But we were awarded the grant. Kayaking the Econ may still be a good idea, but what the grant is allowing us to do is far more dream-atic, if I may coin a word.

The sabbatical will launch this Friday, April 6, with a party at the church for the congregation and all who have some relationship with the church or with me. A food truck will feed us, and a bounce house will swallow the children. Capping the evening, magician Marc Vergo will make the children disappear (or at least entertain them for 90 minutes) and the adults will enjoy a concert by the Jimmy Buffett tribute band, The Caribbean Chillers. We want to celebrate and have fun together, and that we will do.

The following week, my wife and I will first wander up to Michigan to attend the biennial Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids. On that Sunday we plan to worship in the building in which we were married which, since that day so many years ago has, ironically, been purchased by a congregation of our own denomination, before returning home.

A kayak

A few days later, we’ll fly to Rome to begin a ten day Mediterranean Cruise. My guess is that it will be more relaxing than a kayaking trip.

In June, seeking a time of renewal, I’ll spend a week at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. I plan to take minimal supplies beyond a Bible, a journal, and a heart to pray.

There are other plans in place for this time, much of which will be spent at our home in Oviedo. We will end the sabbatical celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary in a lodge in the Canadian Rockies in Banff, Alberta, Canada, a far cry from our honeymoon in the Smokies.

For the congregation we are publishing a book to guide the congregation through the same seasons of the sabbatical as I will be following. As well, a special lineup of speakers and programs are designed to enrich and bless the congregation. In addition to five of our church’s ruling elders, Jeff Brown, Nathan Ilderton, Jake Levee, Jon Boardman, and Mike Sacasas, three former staff members, B. J. Milgate, Rob Edenfield, and Josiah Katumu and former interim pastor Rod Whited will all preach for us.

One slot will be filled by Drew Dinardo, the father of one of our members. The remaining slots will be taken by Steve Brown, Bill Mills, Richard Pratt, Michael Allen, and Carl Ellis, Jr. This will be a rich three months of preaching.

As I have suggested elsewhere, I plan to hijack this space for occasional posts bringing reports and reflections during the sabbatical.

But, then again, I may not.

The primary goal of the sabbatical is to strip my life of the constant pressure of deadlines and responsibilities. If all I do is rest and reconnect with Jesus, then the time will have been a success.

But I do hope to check in here a time or two. Maybe.

“A joyful heart is good medicine.” – Proverbs 17:22

“If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.” – Jimmy Buffett

Sabbatical Funding

My sabbatical is being funded by drug money.

That’s only kind of true. The question is rightly raised, though, as to how a church can afford to give a pastor three months away while continuing to pay him. Some churches see sabbatical as so essential for the pastor’s and the church’s health that they budget a yearly amount to build a fund into which they can dip every 7-8 years.

For churches which have lacked such foresight, there are other ways.

In January of 2017 I sat down with my eager and gracious sabbatical committee, one ruling elder and two members of the congregation. We began to brainstorm what a sabbatical might look like. We began to dream. As well, we got down to the business of positioning ourselves to apply for the very generous Clergy Renewal Grant of the Lilly Endowment.

That sentence raises three questions.

What is the Lilly Endowment?

In 1876 Eli Lilly founded a pharmaceutical company which he named after himself. In 1937, three members of the Eli Lilly family with significant shares in the now very profitable company determined to do good with their wealth and started the Lilly Endowment, funded entirely with stock in the company. The endowment shares nothing with the pharmaceutical company other than the stock that funds it.

The founders of the endowment had a deep commitment to the importance of religion in people’s lives, and so the endowment has had a long history of funding religious initiatives, among them those which “nurture the excellent ministers who practice their faith every day.”

What is the Clergy Renewal Grant?

It’s this commitment to nurturing ministers that drives Lilly to offer yearly grants up to $50,000 to churches wishing to give their pastor a sabbatical. Up to $15,000 of the grant can be earmarked to pay the costs of his absence and to underwrite initiatives to enrich the congregation in the pastor’s absence. Our understanding is that Lilly distributes 45-60 of these grants each year.

What did we do to apply for the grant?

The grant application is a lengthy and detailed creature.We had to map out exactly how the time would be spent and the objectives we hoped to accomplish. We had to document details of my standing and of the church’s. We had to prepare detailed budgetary information, and we had to put it all in the right order.

More importantly, we had to think big. Lilly encourages pastors and churches to dream big, to consider the kinds of things that would bless us which would ordinarily not only be out of reach but beyond our imagination. And so we did dream big, and worked hard, and kept the congregation informed. The congregation approved the plan overwhelmingly in early April and we submitted the application at the deadline of April 21, 2017.

On Sunday, August 13, after my church’s worship service, I walked into my study accompanied by one of my elders. I glanced at the week’s mail which the church’s financial director prunes and puts on my desk each week. On top was a letter from the Lilly Foundation. With hesitation I opened it. The letter began, ‘It is a pleasure to inform you….’

I was dazed. My elder disappeared to find people to tell. People told people. I was afraid that word would get to my wife before I could tell her. I told her. I cried. The things we dreamed would become real.

Because of drug money? No. Because of Lilly’s generosity, because of God’s good favor, and because of a congregation’s love.

Sabbatical: A History

On August 1, 2006 I ordered Eugene Peterson’s book The Contemplative Pastor. Reading it was a balm to this pastor’s soul. Peterson rails against the idea that a pastor is called to ‘run’ a church. He believes that the adjective ‘busy’ modifying ‘pastor’ should grate against our ears with the dissonance of ‘adulterous’ attached to ‘husband.’ He invites pastors, who have been culturally set up to rise and fall with the numerical success of their congregations, to return to their calling to shepherd, to pray, and to preach.

In this book he told the story of his sabbatical. For a year, he and his wife disappeared to a cabin in the woods and emerged refreshed and energized.

“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.” (page 150)

At the point I read this book I had been in ministry and at the same church for a month shy of 21 years. Vacations had come and gone. The church had graciously given me study leave and the opportunity to attend occasional conferences. But I had never experienced the kind of rest and renewal Peterson spoke of.

And I was ready.

When I broached the subject with my elders, they were supportive. We began to develop a sabbatical policy that would apply not only to the pastor but in a modified but meaningful sense to ruling elders as well.

And then, sadly, dynamics in the church began to unravel. Stress points to which I was blind, or which I did not want to see, became fissures and the fissures became chasms. Sabbatical was put on hold and then in 2010 it became necessary for me to leave that church for another.

The church to which I came longed for stability and a building to call it’s own, hopes which God over the next few years granted. In June of 2016, I raised the subject with these elders that I had had to abandon in 2010. They were receptive and eventually adopted a policy governing sabbatical leave for pastors and elders. In October of that year I spoke of this for the first time to the congregation and recruited a committee to help in the planning of a pastoral sabbatical. The fruit of their work has already been felt and will be experienced in earnest on April 9 when my sabbatical begins.

And it was all set in motion by a book purchased nearly 12 years ago.

Why Sabbatical?

[These thoughts explaining the rationale for a sabbatical first appeared on Covenant Presbyterian Church’s sabbatical oriented blog, Covenant Pastoral Sabbatical. There are other good articles on that site related to this theme.]

Talk of my taking a sabbatical spawns the question (thought, though rarely spoken), “Why are we giving Randy a 13 week vacation?”

It’s a great question. ‘Sabbatical’ can easily look like ‘vacation.’ After all, I will stop coming to church. I will stop preaching, stop planning and moderating meetings, stop visiting the sick, stop mentoring or discipling others. I will stop doing my job, and that looks like a vacation.

But sabbatical is more than stopping. It is a period of intentional rest, renewal, and re-imagining.

As a time of rest the sabbatical most resembles a vacation. Rest for people in ministry is essential but hard to find. Jesus commanded his disciples to ‘come away and rest’ (Mark 6:31) because ministry depletes the minister. Ministry demands an intentional period of disengagement so that strength for the work can be renewed. The minister’s body needs rest and renewal, but so does his soul. Over time, though the pastor fights to retain his passion for Christ, the demands of ministry can deplete it. This leaves some ministering weakly on the fumes of their prior devotion. Churches end up with pastors merely going through the motions of ministry.

A sabbatical, as a part of a pastor’s regular routine of spiritual health, can renew the depth and vitality of his walk with Christ, restoring his ability to give needed spiritual care to his congregation.

Such intentional rest and renewal can also refresh a pastor’s vision. Men and women from all professions report that disengagement from their regular responsibilities allows them to imagine a future they might have been unable to see before. A properly planned sabbatical (and much planning is being given) can give a renewed enthusiasm for the vision God has for the church.

The sabbath year in the Old Testament law required that farmers let a field lie fallow for a season. Obedience to this was an act of faith by the farmer and an act of renewal for the field. During that year nutrients drained by prior use would be restored to the soil. Similarly, a pastoral sabbatical is a congregation’s act of faith, hoping for the restoration of their pastor’s depleted spiritual resources.

What Is a Sabbatical?

The story is told of a pastor who bought himself a nice, but modest houseboat and docked it on a small lake near his town. He named his boat ‘Sabbatical.’ This way when the urge to fish overwhelmed his sense of responsibility, his secretary could answer all calls by saying, “He can’t come to the phone. He’s on Sabbatical.”

And if that seems shady, to many so does the pastor who persuades his congregation to give him thirteen weeks away from his duties and responsibilities. But that is what I have done.

Sabbaticals are a common feature of academia. It is understood that professors are occasionally given time away from their teaching responsibilities to do research, to study, or to polish off their latest books. What is less well known that some of the most successful and innovative companies (as diverse as McDonalds and Apple according to a report published online by the University of Illinois, a report that no longer seems to be posted) have policies of giving members of their teams sabbaticals. These times have no particular goal or purpose beyond allowing their people to rest, to refresh, and to renew. Sabbaticals like this have been shown to be hedges against burnout and long range stimulation to engagement and creativity.

The idea of sabbatical is very much rooted in the biblical idea of sabbath.

Sabbatical for a pastor is a time for him (or her) to disengage from the regular duties of  ministry. For a time, preaching, visiting, planning, and putting out fires are laid aside that he might find rest and renewal. He is to let go of the control he once owned and to entrust the care of the church to God and to the leaders whom God has raised up. It is a time for him to rest physically and emotionally and to embrace the revelation that the church does not need him to prosper.

The length of time away varies from church to church. Three months is often recommended, but I’ve heard of durations as short as a few weeks to as long as a year. Depending on their stage in life, some pastors leave their towns and live elsewhere for a time. Some travel. Some garden, paint, read, learn an instrument, or rebuild engines. Some, I’m sure, buy houseboats and fish. All detach from the 24/7 nature of their calling so that when they return to that calling they can do so from a position of renewed vigor.

If the sabbatical is done well they return to churches who have learned something of themselves. Pastors are by no means superfluous to the prosperity of churches. But neither are they essential. And churches who learn that they have gifts sufficient to carry on genuine ministry on their own are churches ready to form a healthier bond with their pastor when he returns. In the end, this benefits all.

Being Particularly Mortal

Let me introduce you to Atul Gawande, the author of the insightful and life affirming book about dying Being Mortal.

Not Randy

He is, in addition to being a National Book Award finalist and a staff writer for the New Yorker, a surgeon in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School. He is the director of a company promoting innovation in health systems and chairman of a NGO seeking to make surgery safer worldwide. He also is married with three children.

Typing that paragraph exhausts me.

Unlike Dr. Gawande, or so I must assume, I have only 24 hours in a day. I tend to sleep away six or seven of those. That only leaves me about seventeen, some of which I like to spend eating and taking care of personal hygiene. With what is left I do what I can do. I find I am more like Woody Allen in his comparison with Spielberg and Scorsese:

“‘I’m lazy and an imperfectionist,’ he explained in a 2015 NPR interview. ‘Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese will work on the details until midnight and sweat it out, whereas for me, come 6 o’clock, I want to go home, I want to have dinner, I want to watch the ballgame. Filmmaking is not [the] end-all be-all of my existence.’”

[from “The Remarkable Laziness of Woody Allen”, Atlantic Monthly, 8/10/2017, page 35]

All of which explains, if not excuses, why this space has been bewilderingly empty these past months. Though there are things I want to say, I’ve not had the time or space in my schedule to say it. I’ve not been teaching at Harvard or improving global healthcare, but I have been pastoring a church, caring for a family, doing some other writing, and watching Netflix.

I’ve also been preparing to take a sabbatical.This is a curious and misunderstood thing, so I want to spend some time explaining, if not defending it. This will hijack this site for a few months, I fear. However, there are those for whom this will matter. And I’m hoping that some will pass this on to their pastors to encourage them to consider a similar path.

But I move too fast here. Some of you are wondering what a sabbatical is, why it is necessary, and what it means in my own life. To that we will  turn.

But not until I eat breakfast, something Dr. Gawande must squeeze in between his latest surgery and editing his next book.

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