Sabbatical thoughts on a Berkshire sabbath.....

This has been a tough albeit clarifying week for me as I ponder
and explore options for continued ministry.  Seeking God's truth within my skin has never been simple for me - or probably anyone - so I agonize when I am in a discernment process.  Truth told, it probably started two years ago when, coming home from a few weeks in Montreal, I said to Dianne:  "I feel like I am ready for retirement." Now, we have a long-standing joke about both being BORN to retire. We like nothing more than to park ourselves in a new place and wander, watch and listen to what's going on.  We like to sit at open air cafes and sip tea or wine. We like to chat-up the locals and get their take on their home.  In a word, we were BORN for retirement.

Our finances, however, don't seem to agree with this assessment. So
we both continue to try to do creative and satisfying ministry until such a time comes when we can step back from the fray.  When I first raised the retirement issue in a deadly serious way two summers ago, and we both owned our financial realities as well as the continuing challenges and opportunities to grow deeper with the dear people of our current church, that started an exploration into what an extended Sabbatical might mean for heart and soul.  And after returning from Montreal this summer, I proposed we start the planning process in earnest.

Our church council endorsed the idea - this congregation has a long and satisfying history of pastoral sabbaticals - and it is built into my contract, too.  My suggestion, however, included bringing the church leadership into the planning process a la the Lilly Foundation grant process.  In a nutshell, this process involves deep rest and renewal for the clergy person AND a time of playful creativity and renewal for the congregation, too.  As one lay leader told me, while they celebrated the three sabbaticals my predecessor experienced - and they were ready for a little breather, too - they mostly hung on by their finger nails until he returned.  It was not a time of congregational joy - and this is one of the ways the Lilly grant is different. They grant funds for the church as well as the pastor to do the work of renewal.

So, we selected a small Sabbatical team and have been writing our shared proposal for the past two months.  Four weeks ago, we first met to review and critique my first draft - and it was tough going for me. Not because people were harsh, not at all; but rather because it soon became clear that some of my team doesn't really understand the level of my weariness. Part of that is just the nature of the beast, right?  As a rule I am not a whinger in public - it doesn't change anything and pisses people off - so why bother?  But it is also true that lay people are rarely welcomed into the deeper emotional life of their pastors - for good and bad reasons - so when they are, their reactions are often startling.

We've made two passes and rewrites on our application so far and each
time the final critique has made the document stronger.  But it has also caused me a few sleepless nights as I wrestle with what is at stake here for me.  You see, for me this Sabbatical is NOT simply another task in ministry.  It will make the difference between my continued vitality in ministry for the future, or, my decision to bite the bullet and opt for early retirement.  As I told one member: if an extended Sabbatical wasn't a real possibility, I would be preparing my resignation.  Not because I feel we're done with ministry together. But because I am worn out and need to step back for a time. This is a matter of the soul for me rather than just one more complicated task in the life of a local church. 

So my perspective on what matters is very different - in the actual time way and when I return - and this has made coming to common ground complicated. Again, it probably shouldn't be simple but there have been a few times when I've felt defeated and thoroughly misunderstood. Not by all, thankfully, but I sometimes sense that for some this application is one more task to be managed. I am grateful that my team members are wise, creative and dedicated professionals who know how to get things accomplished - and this grant will be no exception.  What I sometimes find excruciating, however, is how our very different reference points slows down our quest for common ground.

This is not a task for me - it is a life line - for while I love ministry - and THIS ministry in particular is very sweet to me - I know I am not a kid anymore.  I don't have the emotional, physical or spiritual reserves that once let me run on empty for months at a time. Now I carry the weight of my own wounds and the pain of others with me most of the time.  M. Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, says that all of this creates an attractive "gravitas" for a pastor.  He is right - and the legacy of 30+ years clearly helps me be a better pastor than when I first began - but it is also a burden.  As I wrote in a recent correspondence to my sabbatical team:

I am risking being very vulnerable with you about my deepest needs and concerns.  As a rule, I don't do this with the people I serve in a church; but we won't be able to make this work without it.  Most lay people don't have any deep appreciation for the weariness born of carrying an other's pain. So if I sound like I am carping from time to time, please invite me to first unpack my concern so that you can grasp where I'm coming from, ok? I can handle criticism after sharing my perspective - even if it is of the harshest type - but I prefer to do this in an environment that honors deep listening.

Clearly even the application process is part of the spiritual quest for

common ground, yes? I sense that we are building a deeper trust between clergy and laity by doing this.  I believe we are unlocking a new level of creativity and even sacred playfulness, too. But damn is it hard work - and this week I've felt it in spades.  There has been hard work taking place between other colleagues, too as we try to find a way to unlock emergency housing for the homeless poor this winter.  There has been hard musical work accomplished as we practice and prepare for our Thanksgiving Eve show next week.  And there has been hard emotional work done as two more babies were born into our wider families just last night.

It is a cold and dark day in the Berkshires. It feels like winter is just around the corner. In a few hours we will head into hill country to share dinner at our daughter's farm.  Our puppy will have a chance to run through the woods and fields in total abandon. We will rest together for a time with our loved ones around the supper table.  I give thanks to God for this Sabbath rest because tomorrow the hard work resumes.


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