Sabbatical thoughts - part two...

In the past 24 hours I've heard from so many of you sharing your love, tears and prayers - and I am deeply grateful.  But that wasn't my intent with my last post; rather, I was trying to put into words in a way that makes sense to me why this Sabbatical feels so important. Let me assure you that I am neither leaving ministry nor seriously considering early retirement from my current call, ok?  What's more, our emerging Sabbatical plan won't take place until the summer of 2015. Not only do we have a lot more work to do on crafting the proposal, but we want to hear from the congregation about their hopes and dreams, too.  And while 2015 seems like an eternity away, it will be here before any of us know it.

I had intended to write part two of this reflection before so many of you shared your thoughts with me - and now it seems even more important to do so for all involved - including me!  So here's another layer of this unfolding story....

First, the weariness I know is not unique to me:  ALL clergy who
have been doing ministry for a long time feel exhausted and even spiritually depleted.  That is why Sabbaticals for clergy were created; our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers know this far better than most of us in the Reformed tradition. Not only do they take extended retreats every six or seven years, but they also build into their schedules monthly and annual retreat time, too.  And this is NOT vacation.  It is quiet time set aside for reflection, rest and renewal. Over the years I have been uneven in my application of "oasis time" and that is one reason why I am so whipped.

But here's an uncomfortable truth:  all clergy - of every denomination - approach "burn out" if they stay in the ministry for more than 15 years. ALL clergy - male and female - rich and poor - gay and straight. It is a fact of life in ministry because it is NOT a job - it is a calling - and appreciating this distinction clarifies the weariness.

In a job, or a profession, even if it defines much of your self identity, you can still walk away from it. Not so with a calling. When your work is an invitation from God to serve God's people, that is something you do with your soul as well as your time and heart and mind.  A job is what you do to both earn a salary and express some of your gifts.  A calling to ministry is what you do with your life. And even when a clergy person "retires" from active duty, he/she still understands their essence to be shaped by God's invitation rather than a profession. People who know you also relate to you not simply as a professional, but as some one who has been set aside to attend to God's work here on earth. It is a demanding and all-encompassing identity from which you may run but you cannot hide.

Another reason why all clergy approach burn-out from time to time has to do with the way we spend our days.  Some time in every day is given over to remembering the people in our charge in prayer. This is a sacred privilege, a religious responsibility and a genuine burden all at once.  There isn't a week that goes by when I don't weep for two or three people or families in my congregation when I lift them up in my personal prayers.  Same goes for some pastoral visits or office meetings:  I can't tell you how many times I find my insides aching because I am so inadequate, the problems or wounds being shared are so enormous and there is usually nothing to be done except sit in loving silence and solidarity with those who are hurting. And it doesn't get any better after 30 years! In a way, I've been crying for 30+ year and I still can't fix most things. I still usually don't know what to say - and refuse to say stupid or pious things just to fill the space.  

What a double whammy, yes?  We're called to be deeply intimate with people who possess mind-numbing wounds - people who come to us seeking solace - and while we honor their courage in sharing their truths we simultaneously know there is nothing we can do to make things better. Nothing. We know that anything besides our presence is of the Lord - and our heart breaks over and over again at our impotence.  Such knowledge of our own powerlessness is honest and even healthy but it is also exhausting: healthy clergy understand that we can't fix anything, AND, it grieves us to acknowledge this fact. And I think that is mostly because we love the people we have been called to serve.  Love them sometimes more than some of our own blood family - that is certainly true for me.  

And the wounds and pains that are confessed to us! The anguished hearts and broken faces that look to us for hope!  The mangled souls and fear-filled bodies that ache for some sign of peace.  And most of the time, the BEST we can say is:  Come, Lord Jesus, come and bring your loving spirit into this moment.  The love and grief that are co-mingled in ministry grinds everybody down - it strengthens our sense of humility, to be sure - but at such a cost.  And this grief follows you home even when the television is on and the wine has been poured.

If Jesus was right that we see him best when we are in the presence of those in greatest need, then this old hymn articulates what it feels like to open your heart to authentic pastoral care:  we come to see and feel the wounded Christ in those we love.

O sacred Head, now wounded with grief and shame weighed down, now scornfully surrounded with thorns, thine only crown: how pale thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn! How does that visage languish which once was bright as morn!

So first there is a relationship with God that defines our days. Second

there is the cost and joy of discipleship that comes from sharing the real life wounds of the people you love. And then there are the soul-vampires who seem to delight in sucking life out of you whenever they can. All churches have them - they come in all ages, sizes, races and genders - and they are ALL vampires. Young clergy are particularly susceptible to soul vampires simply because they haven't figured out strategies for deflecting their bites. But even seasoned clergy cannot escape that sickening sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you are attacked or slandered - or simply misunderstood with no room for grace -- because it almost always arrives as an ambush. When you are most tired, when you are facing maximum personal stress, when you least expect it: BAM the soul vampire strikes and more often than not you are left dazed and weakened.

Now I've talked to clergy about this fact for years and almost everyone tells me that after asking God's healing in your heart - and after checking in with those who help you process the bullshit of ministry - most of us still go home and brood and fret. No matter how good we are at compartmentalizing - and I am a master - you still wake up in the middle of the night feeling like you've been ridden hard and hung up
wet to dry. This, too breeds exhaustion. And while I've learned to take on the soul vampires whenever they strike, their attacks are still emotionally draining and take a toll on the soul over the years.

And let's not even open the door to how all of this drives your family crazy.  It is no accident that most pastor's children stay as far away from the church as A is to Z. They've lived in fish bowls.  They've been held to different standards than everyone else simply by the accident of their birth.  They've had to endure meager salaries, hand-me-down clothes, gossip and slander about their parents often accompanied by sickly sweet smiles and soppy pseudo-religious language.  I am actually stunned that more PKs don't murder some parishioners.  And for good measure let's make sure to mention that while most clergy are both introspective and introverted, most congregation members are the polar opposite:  they want clear answers, gregarious leaders and programs that produce tangible and useful results.  My, my, it is enough to give your introverted minister a migraine - for life!

And yet, despite it all - the wounds, the pain, the confusion, the
judgment and emptiness - pastors keep doing this ministry because... we are called.  Over the past 30 years there have been three times when I seriously considered chucking it all away.  The first time was about four hours into my first call when I realized I had been manipulated and lied to about the nature of my ministry by the senior minister.  I hadn't really been called to help the church do urban ministry; I had been hired to be the senior pastor's servant.  If I had been single instead of married with two small children, I would have sung the country song, "Take this job and shove it" and found something else to do to keep body and soul together. Instead, I learned to make it work in spite of myself.

The second time came during my divorce when I reconsidered all my former commitments.  I thought something along the lines of massage therapy would be a whole lot less crazy making than ministry and actually did some research into that profession. The thought of bringing comfort to hurting people - and then leaving when my shift was over - sounded most excellent in those days!  And the third time was in Arizona when I had to surrender to my addiction to work that was killing me and everyone I loved.  As my therapist eventually said, "Well now we've figured out all the WRONG reasons why you went into the ministry, let's see if we can find some GOOD reasons to stay." And in time we did - and I am grateful because I love serving God and God's people in ministry even though it is exhausting.

Which brings me back around to the Sabbatical. My hope for myself is simple:  I want to rest, read, pray and practice the upright bass so that I become a better musician and a more balanced pastor. I sense that the hour is upon me for an extended time of renewal - not a retreat from my calling - but an extended break to revitalize myself.  It is my hope, you see, to deepen the ministry we've been given in his place. It is my honest desire to find new ways to serve these loving, beautiful and faithful people, too.  That's why the Lilly Grant process makes so much sense because it challenges the congregation to do some renewal work, too.  What would feed their soul during my four month absence? What would enrich their lives and expand their dreams of sharing compassion and hope in this community?

My prayer is that we can find this out together so that at the close of our joint Sabbaticals, we reconnect in new ways that give glory to God. So, there it is - part one of this posting must be integrated with part two - and then part three will be the actual proposal.  I will share what my part is starting to look like soon and over the next month we'll gain some greater clarity about the congregation's part, too.  So stay tuned for more... 


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