Pastoral letter re: our shared sabbatical...

note:  My recently posted pastoral letter to the congregation re: our sabbatical

Pastoral Letter to First Church in Anticipation of Our Shared Sabbatical
April 13, 2015

Dear Friends and Colleagues of First Church:
Grace and peace to you in the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ who lives and reigns in our lives by the grace of God:  As many of you know, Dianne and I will soon be leaving Pittsfield for four months of rest and renewal.  For those who have been following the evolution of this adventure in faith, you know we have been at work on this sabbatical for almost two years. For those who would like to know more, please go to our “Jazz for the Journey” blog site @ https://jazzforthejourney. wordpress.com/

To say that I am filled with anticipation would be an understatement.  In my 33+ years of ordained ministry, circumstances conspired against our taking a sabbatical in our previous congregations.  To be sure, I have engaged in study leave before – and also worked on the completion of my Doctor of Ministry degree during a modest leave of absence combined with vacation time – but the sabbatical experience is truly something different for us.  It is a recognition of the unique joys and challenges a minister experiences in the course of his/her service to God and community. It is an extended period of “Sabbath time” for both Dianne and I to reconnect with God’s calling.  And it is a time for you as the gathered community to listen carefully to God’s still speaking voice:  where is the Spirit of the Lord calling us into new ministries and commitments? It will be a fascinating time to discern all of this on the flip side after we return!

Not long ago, however, someone asked me, “Why are you so weary, James? And why does this sabbatical mean so much to you?” Those are good questions – they warrant careful answers – so let me share three broad replies. The first answer is simple:  contractually my call agreement as your settled pastor warrants a time for sabbatical after six years.  First Church has long recognized that the work of a pastor is different from other professional experiences. One writer put it like this:

The life of a minister might be compared with that of a taxi leaving an airport. It is so loaded down with passengers and suitcases and the other items that the car has a hard time even moving and is strained to the point of breaking, yet the taxi may be only a few years old. So it is with clergy. They bear the burdens, the anguish, the pain, and hurt of their parishioners 24-7. That is 24 hours, seven days a week. As a result, many, if not all, experience to one degree or another symptoms of emotional collapse, stress related illnesses, and “burnout” adversely affecting the minister’s personal, family, and parish life, and greatly diminishing his or her effectiveness and well-being. For too long, this situation has been accepted, even tolerated as an inevitable part of the job.

After eight years of mission and ministry in Pittsfield, it is time both contractually and personally for me to enter a sabbatical. What’s more, the time is right given the grant we were awarded this summer from the Lilly Foundation for Pastoral Renewal. Last week I read this in one of my professional journals – and it rang true.

A pastor has emotional highs and lows unlike most other vocations. In the course of a day, a pastor can deal with death, deep spiritual issues, great encouragement, petty criticisms, tragedies, illnesses, and celebrations of birth. The emotional roller coaster is draining. Your pastor needs a break—many times a break with no distractions. A pastor is on 24-hour call. Most pastors don’t have an “off” switch. They go to sleep with the knowledge they could be awakened by a phone call at anytime of the day. Vacations are rarely uninterrupted. It can be an exhausting vocation, and a sabbatical can be a welcome time to slow down. Pastors need time of uninterrupted study. It doesn't usually happen in the study at church or home. There is always the crisis or need of the moment. Church members expect sermons that reflect much prayer and study. The pastor’s schedule often works against that ideal. The sabbatical can offer much needed, and uninterrupted, study time.

First it is the right time contractually; second it is the right time professionally. The nature of my calling into church renewal work is daunting enough working with dedicated lay leadership to re-energize our congregation for mission and ministry.  For the past eight years we have creatively strategized and implemented new worship experiences and deepened our attention to both pastoral care as well as compassionate administration. We have remained steadfast in our commitment to finding the necessary resources to keep our historic sanctuary open, beautiful and hospitable, too. To do this work in the midst of the recent national economic collapse was a challenge. To do so with the added burden of the congregation’s grief over my predecessor’s early retirement due to a tragic brain injury increased the stress and anxieties of ministry exponentially. It has been a full, satisfying, painful and wonderful eight years.

Third, at this moment in my life I realize that my focus in ministry is profoundly different from when I was ordained in my home church in Darien, CT.  As a young man, I was certain I was going to change the world: I was on fire for radical social, racial and economic justice and impassioned about world peace. I took delegations of adults and youth to the former Soviet Union. I became active in an inter-racial electoral team to transform the Cleveland Public Schools – and was twice elected to public office. 

In time, however, I heard another call – no less radical and certainly no less creative – but one born more of the inward journey.  I rather like Fr. Richard Rohr’s phrase concerning a call to both contemplation and action – and longed for this in my ministry, too.  And as I spent more time resting in God’s grace, I discovered that I also wanted to bring a measure of healing and hope to our broken culture through prayer and the arts.  I discerned that there could be common ground in our nation’s culture wars as people of vastly different religious and cultural backgrounds came together in encounters with beauty and truth in the arts. That is the part of this sabbatical – in addition to the rest and renewal – that I am keen to explore more thoroughly with you upon my return. Visiting the various jazz and liturgy sites in NYC, Nashville and Pittsburgh will be helpful. Resting in prayer and practicing upright jazz bass in Montreal is another important piece of this puzzle. And spend-ing time not “being on” – time in quiet with Dianne – is the third component of this sabbatical that I already cherish albeit in anticipatory form.

And let me add this very personal note:  You may or may not know that in the past ten years – eight of them in ministry at First Church – I have encountered nine significant deaths including my mother, father and sister as well as Dianne’s mother and members of the various churches we have served and loved.  If we listen to the wisdom of the Lord in these events, we can grow in compassion and faith. For very personal as well as professional and contractual reasons, therefore, now is the right time for this sabbatical.

Because this is not a vacation, please know that while we are away, I will not be checking any church email. I will not be giving my attention to the administrative or pastoral needs of First Church. I will not be returning for funerals or weddings. I will not be receiving guests in Montreal either. I will not be posting on Facebook or any of the other traditional social media outlets. I will not be doing what I usually do – and not because I don’t love you – but rather because it is time for me to step away from all aspects of ministry and simply “be” rather than do. I trust in advance you will understand and respect the discipline of this sabbatical commitment. As those who have experienced these things before tell me:  everyone is refreshed in the process.

Let me express my gratitude to those who worked on the sabbatical proposal – those who first conceptualized it as well as those who worked on later editorial iterations – it wouldn’t have happened without all of you. Let me also share my gratitude for both Dana Noble and David Noyes – the two moderators who have been a part of this journey – as they both have been encouraging and supportive. A special word of appreciation goes to Jon Grenoble who understood my quest for renewal in ways that were both profound and powerful: I am in debt to your wisdom. 

To Carlton Maaia II, my colleague and collaborator in renewal, I could not have made this commitment without your patience, brilliance and support. And to my dear wife, Dianne, who pushed me and prayed for me more times than I can ever imagine: I can only say that I treasure your life-saving love.

Becky and David will carry a great burden while I am gone, so I ask for your careful cooperation with them both because they are the best.  During the first three weeks of May, we will have guest worship leaders:  Joyce Sohl, Fr. John Salatino and Rabbi David Weiner. During this time, both the Reverends Quentin Chin and Carol Killian will be on-call for pastoral emergencies. The Reverend Bob Kyte and his wife Stefanie will arrive in time for worship on May 24, 2015.

My last Sunday in worship before we depart will be Sunday, April 26, 2015. I will be back in worship with you on Sunday, September 13, 2015.  I hope you will be able to share in this farewell Sunday with us. Please know of my gratitude as we move into this faith journey together.

Grace and peace,

The Reverend Dr. James Lumsden



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