The root of the word “purpose” comes from the Greek word for fire. It’s related to words like pyro.
There is nothing wrong with vision statements and I know they are popular in Episcopal circles. But my personal preference when thinking about vocation (calling) is to return to purpose which avoids the danger of floating in midair. This is true about my own calling and also I notice it when I’m asked to reflect with others on their work – both individually and as communities of faith. Where is the energy – or even, where is the fire? I think purpose is closely related to Frederick Buechner’s understanding of vocation: where our deep gladness meets the needs of the world. Where that happens, sparks fly. There is fire and where there is fire, there the Holy Spirit is present.
So I am returning, on this very day, from a three-month clergy renewal leave. I prefer that name to “sabbatical” for several reasons. I’m all for sabbath rest. But I knew back in May that I didn’t need a three-month nap. What I needed was to re-ignite a sense of purpose in my work. And that has happened.
CREDO is a program for clergy-wellness, sponsored by the Church Pension Group. For a while now I’ve been a member of the faculty for CREDO, doing vocational work. It’s an amazing joy to watch burned-out clergy get re-ignited and doing that work energizes me. Normally, faculty serve on two teams each year – two weeks that I take from my own continuing education time. (Truly I receive more than I give so that has made sense to me at this stage in my ministry.) But because of the long pandemic hiatus and because I was on leave, I was able to add in a “pick up” team and do one in May, and one in June – with a third conference coming in September. In fact, starting in September I’ve been asked to lead my own team as Conference Leader, rather than doing the vocational work.
In addition to two CREDO conferences, I co-led a group of diocesan pilgrims with retired dean of our cathedral, Jim Munroe, to Israel and Palestine. We had an extraordinary experience, my sixth time there, capably led by Iyad Qumri, a Palestinian Christian. We were there for almost two weeks and for the first time my wife, Hathy, and youngest son, James, were able to be there also.
So in the first half of my time away I was pretty busy. Yet it also represented a return to purpose: to the work I believe God has called me to in this time and place. In addition to this structured time, I also spent a week with Hathy on Cuttyhunk Island serving an ecumenical congregation. Over the three months, I averaged six miles a day walking. I read, and prayed, and thought. I did two weddings, with a third one coming this month. I get it that weddings might not appeal for parochial clergy taking renewal leave, but I miss those and these were a real treat.
Last week I had lunch with our bishop as he prepared to take the month of August as his vacation time, so we could “pass the baton” and catch up as I prepared to return and as he prepared to take some much-deserved time away. I told him that a couple of months into my tenth year, I am on fire and ready to re-commit to the work of leadership from the second chair.
Context matters in ministry. I realize on reflection that there were three distinct chapters in my fifteen-year ministry as the rector of St. Francis, Holden and that they were boundaried by two renewal leaves at the five and ten year marks. By far the most rewarding chapter was the third one, years 11-15. Relationships were strong by then. There was a high level of trust in all directions. We accomplished a lot together – and while seeds were planted earlier in my time there it was in that last chapter that we started to see the fruit of our earlier work.
I return to this work seeing a similar pattern. I’m no longer a “new canon.” While it may be premature to speak of a post-pandemic Church, we can see our way toward that, even now. We won’t go back to 2019. We can’t stay stuck in 2020 or 2021. There is only forward. There is only a return to purpose. My work, as I see it, is primarily about helping congregations return to purpose. Sometimes that happens during a clergy transition but it also happens at many points along the life-cycle of the congregation with some mixture of work and intentionality and grace.
So I feel ready to serve, with God’s help. There’s a line in an old West Wing episode when President Bartlett says, "break's over."