Photo: Robert A. Jonas
Starting today, May 1, I will begin a time of clergy renewal leave (sabbatical) that will last for three months. I will return to the office on August 1.
In more than thirty years of ordained ministry, this will be my fourth sabbatical. I am grateful for each of them. The first two happened during my fifteen-year tenure as the rector of St. Francis in Holden. When my two sons were young, the first of these included a family trip out west to see the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone Park; the trip of a lifetime. I also worked on a DMin degree at Columbia Theological Seminary during that time. My second sabbatical allowed me to travel to colleges and ballparks up and down the east coast as my eldest was looking at colleges. It gave me weekends off, a precious gift for parochial clergy.
I was due for a third sabbatical at the fifteen-year mark in Holden and applied for a Lily Foundation grant that I did not receive. At the same time, I was asked by Bishop Fisher to join his staff as Canon to the Ordinary for this diocese. I joked at the time that if I had gotten the Lily Grant (which requires a year back in the same setting after it is finished) that it would have been a much harder decision to make. But as it turned out, I said yes to this position. Our diocesan policy allows for those who change positions within the diocese to become eligible for clergy renewal leave after four years, instead of five. So in 2017, I took time away to do a lot of reading and reflecting, and some blogging on the Revelation of John and the “powers and principalities” of this world that destroy the creatures of God. I also wrote a cookbook for my two (now adult) sons which I’m happy to say they use regularly in DC and NJ.
And so it has come to pass, five years later, as I mark the end of nine years doing this work, that I will be stepping away for a season. As with parish ministry, I find the work to be tremendously life-giving and a privilege. And sometimes, also draining. One can be drawn into the weeds in this work. Over time, it can take a toll. One can lose perspective. As I prepare for this fourth sabbatical, I’ve discovered that a period of extended rest to reflect brings back a sense of purpose and clarity. I’ll be honest: I would not have lasted thirty years in this vocation if I had not had these times away for renewal. I would have burned out or chosen another path. I have come to believe from personal experience that these seasons away create an opportunity for long-term ministry and that actually serve the church well, not just the cleric. Burned-out clergy? It’s a nightmare for all of us.
I chose to be away from May 1 to July 31 in consultation with our bishop. It is normally a slower time in diocesan ministry and especially in transition work. Each of the parishes that are currently seeking new rectors know where they are. They have work to do while I’m away. And we will pick it back up in August. June and July will include time away for our bishop at General Convention – work, not renewal leave. But even so, and even though things still happen in a diocese when the bishop is away, I have found over these past nine years that the summer months are normally a time for me to catch up on special projects and on things left undone during the busiest months. This year my special project will focus on my own rest and renewal.
What will I do with all of this time? In May I plan to be away for almost two weeks to co-lead a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with the retired dean of our cathedral, The Very Rev. Jim Munroe. (Originally this time was planned before a two-year pandemic.) I am grateful that it comes now, however. It will be my sixth time there and I am ecstatic that it will be the first time that my spouse and my youngest son will be traveling with this group.
I’ll also be serving on two CREDO conferences as the vocational faculty member; one in May and one in the first week of June. CREDO is a clergy wellness program offered by the Church Pension Group. They stopped meeting during the pandemic, but I am convinced that clergy need this wellness program now more than ever. One might think of this as a bit of a “busman’s holiday.” Perhaps. But I have found that even as a faculty member, I get way more from CREDO conferences than I give. They restore my energy. Because I’ll be on sabbatical, I was free to “sub in” to an extra conference that I normally would not have been able to say yes to. Starting in September, I’ve been asked by CREDO to lead my own team, a position I’ve accepted. It is an important part of my commitment to clergy wellness and the wider work I feel called to do in sharing in the councils of the Church.
For the rest of June and July I’ll be closer to home, reading and cooking and walking and thinking. My hope is to be able to spend time with my beloved friends at the Society of St. John the Evangelist, either at the monastery in Cambridge or at Emery House, during the summer months.
Although one never can know for sure what lies ahead, it seems very likely that this will be my last sabbatical in active full-time ministry. Five years from now I will be 64. My big vocational question is two-fold: what is left for me to do in this work as Canon to support our bishop, clergy, and congregations? And, what comes next? One thought I have, after diocesan work, is to serve smaller congregations and do interim work. That is still a ways off. But it’s something I’ll get to ponder in my heart for a bit.
I ask for your prayers during this time, that I do not take for granted. I know it is a great privilege. Our bishop and I sometimes joke (but it’s not really a joke) that diocesan ministry is a bit like “dog years” even in the best of times. I loved being a parish priest. But I truly needed both of those sabbaticals. My ministry would not have been as effective without them (and likely not as long and fruitful as it was.) Each of the two sabbaticals came at really critical times in my ministry. People at St. Francis got tired of hearing me say that I had three distinct “chapters” in my fifteen-year tenure, but it was true. The time away became markers for the new work that God had planned for us going forward.
It’s a little bit different sitting in the “second chair” than it was as a rector. I don’t expect the diocese will miss a beat during my absence. Whether or not diocesan work is like “dog years,” certainly pandemic years have been. I feel that in God’s wisdom this comes at a really good time not just for me but also for the diocese. I feel we are on the verge of the next chapter; being away will afford me the opportunity to process some of what we have learned in these long two years. And we have learned much. I pray that I’ll have some time to reflect on where we are heading and what that means for our congregations, including (but not limited to) the work of clergy transitions.
There are very few clergy right now who were in their current positions when Bishop Fisher was elected and when, soon after that, I began this work. (You can definitely count them on one hand.) It has become very clear to me and to us that the work that lies ahead is a time for rebuilding. A time and a season of renewal, focused on relationships and on clarifying mission and purpose. I feel called to that work for as long as it remains the bishop’s pleasure to have me serve. And I anticipate with profound gratitude getting back at it in August, always with God’s help.
What to do with questions that arise during my time away? Please be in touch with my administrative assistant, Ms. Karen Warren, at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will be able to direct your question to the right person(s). In a recent clergy gathering, someone asked who to contact in the middle of the night with a crisis when Rich is not around. The bishop said to that person that he could text him! Please do not do that! Please be in touch with Karen, and know that my two canon colleagues, the four deans, and others can be contacted and will help you out. Karen will know where to direct you. And if it’s not urgent and it can wait for me, I just ask that you try to be mindful that I will not be reading emails while away. So when I come back there will be thousands. If your request can hold off until August it will greatly help my re-entry be a bit more efficient if you wait to email me then. I’ll be tanned, ready, and rested.
Peace and all good,