Practicing Sabbath, transforming leadership

Posted Aug 14, 2013 | Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs

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By Callie J. Smith


Callie J. SmithThe concept of a three- to four-month clergy renewal leave can seem foreign when congregations first consider it. Planning for a pastor to be away (and, in some cases, unreachable) for that long can mean planning for a major disruption of leadership patterns. As intimidating as that sounds, such disruption could very well be a gift. In these days of significant change across the congregational landscape of North America, the sabbath practice of disrupting habitual patterns can invite us into fresh perspectives on leadership for the twenty-first century.

Disruption, after all, is a powerful part of Sabbath. Not at all synonymous with “vacation,” the biblical concept of Sabbath calls us to the sometimes-sweet, sometimes-difficult, always-sacred act of stepping back from the systems and assumptions that have been shaping us. In the book of Genesis, God uses a seventh day to stop and evaluate the creation that has emerged, declaring it good. We who are made in God’s image also function best when we stop long enough to observe and evaluate. Observation and evaluation require a very different mode than creating or producing. As Sabbath reminds us, the practice of stepping away is crucial to nurturing a proper perspective on our role in the scheme of things.

This is one of the reasons why the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs emphasize renewal leaves as experiences that pastors and congregations share. While pastors step away from the persistent obligations of daily congregational life, congregation members explore what renewal means for their community, including how they function with more space to exercise leadership and other pastoral gifts. Both constituencies encounter an upset, a disjunction with what has been their way of operating.

While pastor and congregation may return to the same way of operating as soon as the renewal leave ends, they might not. Some pastors arrive at renewal leaves worn out by their habitual ways of being pastor. Some congregations arrive at renewal leaves discouraged by familiar ways of being church. Some renewal leaves disrupt what Wayne Muller’s Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives calls “the pattern of desperation that infects our thinking.” These sabbath-like disruptions, according to Muller, enable us “to see the healing that is already present in the problem” (168).

“The problem” could be role expectations that add up to an over-functioning pastor. “The problem” could be budgets that only fund a part-time clergy salary. However “the problem” gets defined, if renewal leaves disrupt congregations in any significant way, then they offer clergy and laity alike a chance to reflect about what ministries need to happen and by whom.

Learning new ways of doing ministry together is an ongoing task that living and breathing congregations face. In his book Part-Time Pastor, Full-Time Church, Robert LaRochelle explores the specific situation of congregations transitioning from full-time to part-time clergy and yet emphasizes the broader cultural relevance of those leadership models. “[G]iven the realities, financial and otherwise, of the emerging church, many churches that currently have full-time pastors might benefit from considering a part-time leadership model,” he explains (117). Whatever a congregation’s situation, chances are that getting to step back and evaluate the distribution of ministry functions could be invaluable.

In the case of planning a clergy renewal leave, clergy and laity get to explore their current distributions of leadership and then perhaps live into new models, even if those new models are tested only for the  period of a renewal leave. Those renewal leave months may seem strange or unnerving, but this need not be a negative. Preparing to negotiate a pastor’s time away could mean discovering the presence of unexpected possibilities when we only anticipated absence. When communities practice observing Sabbath together, we practice pausing to watch and listen for the unknown gifts of God that are in the process of being born among us.

Rev. Callie Smith is administrative assistant for the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary. She is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

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 clergyrenewal@cts.edu.

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