Recently I attended the Festival of Homiletics in Nashville, TN, in order to share information and answer questions about the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs. From my booth in the vendors’ area, I was able to engage in stimulating conversations with religious leaders from a wide spectrum of Christian churches across the country.
It’s a bit like speed-dating: I’ll have brief encounters, one right after the other, with folks who come up to the booths either to ask questions or to share experiences concerning the programs. And the fact that these pastors and leaders came from very different congregational contexts made for a delightful, if occasionally dizzying, series of mental transitions as I tried to think with them about how the Clergy Renewal Programs could benefit their ministries.
Not surprisingly, one of the starkest differences that emerged had to do with the question of how open the congregation would be to the very idea of the pastor being gone on a renewal leave. Sometimes this was a matter of apprehension about whether things in the congregation could “hold together” without the pastor. Sometimes, though, the concern was more immediate: Would the congregation even be convinced that a pastoral renewal leave is valuable? Would it be seen as something other than an extended paid vacation for the pastor? Put bluntly: what’s the point of the programs?
This question is particularly pressing given that the ethos of the Clergy Renewal Programs is to emphasize the pastor’s restedness, renewal, and revitalization as the main outcomes, benefits, and (if I may put it this way) “products” of the renewal leave. This is in contrast to the purpose of sabbaticals in the academic world, for instance, where the general expectation is that faculty will use their sabbatical time to produce tangible research products—books, articles, studies, etc. It also contrasts with models common in business that emphasize the use of sabbaticals as periods of intense skill building and “retooling” one’s professional acumen in systematic ways.
How are our programs different? Well, to be sure, pastors whose congregations receive grants from the Endowment’s Clergy Renewal Programs MAY choose to write and conduct research during their sabbatical leaves. They MAY choose to focus on skill acquisition. But the final “product” envisioned by the Clergy Renewal Programs is not a book or a new skill set, but something even more fundamental and valuable: a re-energized pastor and congregation that are ready to reengage the day-to-day practices of shared ministry with renewed vigor and vocational passion. It is not an exaggeration to say that, in many respects, renewal is its own reward.
And what is the value of that? Now that the Endowment has offered these programs for fifteen years, there exists clear empirical evidence that the programs have been blessings to over a thousand congregations in Indiana and throughout the United States. We receive testimony after testimony of how pastors and congregations embarking on the adventure of conceiving, applying for, and undertaking the renewal process find their work and lives together reinvigorated by each step of the process. As the theologian Joseph Sittler was fond of pointing out, in the Hebrew language a thing is called “righteous” (tzedek) if it is does the work that it is built to do, whether that is a hammer or a human being. On the basis of the feedback we receive, we are confident that these programs do what they were conceived to do: revitalize congregations by allowing pastors the chance to drink again from God’s life-giving waters. And this revitalization leads to even more effective shared ministry on the part of congregations and their pastors. Pastors return from their renewal leaves with intensified vocational excitement, greater health, and fresh thinking; meanwhile, congregations grow by honoring their pastors in their absences, having laity take up new leadership roles, and/or enjoying programming related to the themes of the pastors’ programs. These are empirical, tangible realities that contribute to the lifeblood of mission and ministry.
In the coming months, this blog will feature more testimony from both pastors and lay members of congregations who have benefited from the Clergy Renewal Programs. We believe that, as these voices bear witness to the effects of the program, your congregation may well have its imagination sparked by fresh possibilities for renewal and reengagement with God’s world.
Robert C. Saler is Research Fellow and Director of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minister of Word and sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) seek to strengthen Christian congregations by providing opportunities for pastors to step away briefly from the persistent obligations of daily parish life and to engage in a period of renewal and reflection. To request permission to repost this content, please contact email@example.com.