There are two or three hymns in The Hymnal ’82 that I really dislike and if I had real power I’d invite congregations to reenact that great scene
The Dead Poets’ Society
when Robin Williams asks his students to rip some pages out of their poetry books.
“Come, Labor On” (H-541) is the first hymn I’d rip out. It’s the Protestant Work Ethic on steroids! “
Who dares stand idly by
?” the poet asks, while there is so much work to be done, when all around us the harvest is so plentiful? “Jesus is coming, look busy” is the bumper sticker version of this warped theology.
I am having some fun writing this and engaging in a bit of hyperbole here to make a point. But even if this edition of
21st Century Congregations
elicits some angry emails about why this is such a great hymn, please know that I won’t read those emails until July, because as you read these words, I am beginning a three-month sabbatical. Or, as I think we should call them, “renewal leaves.”
I was ordained twenty-nine years ago, in June 1988 in the Elm Park United Methodist Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania. As a Methodist pastor I spent the next year working on a Th.M. degree at Princeton Seminary and then accepted my first call as the Protestant Campus Minister at Central Connecticut State University, where I served for four years. In 1993 I was “re-ordained” in the Episcopal Church: first as deacon at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford and then as priest that winter at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, where I was serving as Associate Rector.
It is hard to believe I have been doing this work for nearly three decades. As mentioned, on April 1, I will begin my third sabbatical. I took the first one in 2003 and used it primarily to focus on work for a Doctor of Ministry degree. I took my second one in 2008, which was more of a renewal leave. In June 2013, I was preparing to take my third sabbatical as the rector of St. Francis, but instead I began working as Canon to the Ordinary for Bishop Fisher. (Our diocesan policy is that for those who make clergy transitions
our diocese, the next leave comes four, rather than five years, into the new call. This is why I’m a year ahead of Pam Mott – not because the Bishop likes me better.)
When I took my first two sabbaticals there was a lot of work to be done at St. Francis Church. To be very honest, some lay people feel a little envious of clergy for getting this “perk.” They would remind me they had no such thing. In fact the only people who do get something close are academics, but basically they use their sabbatical time for research and writing without the burden of a teaching schedule. I will do a lot of reading on my sabbatical and I hope some writing but not with the pressure of “publish or perish.” Rather, this is a chance to step back – to ponder anew what the Almighty can do. To look back and to reflect on how I, and the Church, have changed over the past three decades but then more importantly to pay attention to the present context, and dream a bit about the future and the work that I can share in for the sake of God’s mission of mercy, compassion, and hope in this time and place.
It is a gift for which I’m grateful. It’s not a vacation. I think that the Church ought to try to influence, not mirror, the culture. This takes me back to that hymn which I think reinforces workaholism and devalues rest. But even God rested on Day Seven. It didn’t mean the work of creation was finished, or that all of chaos had been ordered. It didn’t mean there wasn’t still work to be done. There is always work. But sometimes we need to rest. We need to renew. We need to consider the lilies of the field. We need to dare stand idly by…
According to the Torah, there is cosmic wisdom in rest. In Leviticus the notion is taken further: every seven years there is to be a chance to recalibrate. (See Leviticus 25) Personally I like the idea of seven years, although I’m no Biblical literalist. But for whatever reason, our diocesan policy is that full-time clergy are entitled to three-months off every FIVE years and I’m not going to mess with that.
Here is what I know, both as a parish priest and as someone who is now four years into diocesan work: burned out clergy serve no one. Not the Reign of God, not the Church, not the Bishop, not our diocese or our congregations or our families.
And while clergy are not unique in this (I think healthcare professionals, especially those in mental health, and police and firefighters and others would also benefit from renewal leaves) we do tend to carry the emotional baggage of the places we serve. People lose a loved one and go to a funeral and they experience grief. But clergy may do as many as a dozen or more funerals in a year and over time, this takes a toll. It’s only one example of how grief and loss and anxiety can be cumulative.
So every now and again it helps to step out onto the balcony and to breathe, and to refuel, and to get back in touch with that initial fire that led to the crazy notion that someone might actually be called to do this work, with God’s help, in order to come back renewed. I think the thing we do least well and need to improve on in our diocese is re-entry. When clergy return they often find that the lay leaders in their parish are weary. They who have full-time jobs with no sabbatical time are picking up the slack at church. The priest returns and everyone may be ready to say, “glad you’re back – tag, you’re it – now things can return to “normal.” But I found in Holden that the two sabbaticals I did take (even the first one focused on academic studies) helped define three distinct chapters in my ministry there. It was almost like I had three separate “calls” at St. Francis, not one long one. The work changed, and when I was away I was changed. And they were changed too. My two “breaks” gave me, and them, a chance to reflect on that as we moved forward. I don’t want to suggest that was easy, but I was blessed to work with very capable people who were intentional with me about this.
Diocesan work is different from parochial work, to be sure. But I feel like I’ve spent four years trying to keep up with Doug Fisher, and the learning curve has been steep. In this time away, my reading and writing will focus on communities that are learning to practice resistance by conspiring to love. For those interested, you can check out a recent blog post I wrote about this interest
I’m going to begin and end my renewal leave with the Brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist where I’ve been a member of the Fellowship of St. John for the past fifteen years. And I’ll be traveling to San Antonio, Texas for the Festival of Homiletics. And I’m writing a cookbook for my family. And Hathy and I and our two grown sons are headed to Scotland, including St. Andrews where Hathy and I first met as junior-year-abroad students in September 1983. We may taste some single-malt whiskeys along the way to the Highlands and out to Skye as well as a Scottish ale or two.
I ask for your prayers while I’m away. You will be in my prayers, too, especially the congregations that are in the midst of clergy transitions. I expect some “gifts” to come to me along the way but I know that, as with God’s grace, they will surprise me and maybe even challenge me. I pray that when I return in July that I’ll be a healthier and more mission-focused canon ready to begin the next chapter. With God’s help.