“Born on a bike”—Sabbatical and vision for ministry

Posted Sep 11, 2013 | Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs

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By Robert C. Saler


Riding a bike at sunset on the beachRecently, The Huffington Post featured an intriguing article describing the benefits that Clif Bar, a popular health food company, sees in granting its employees sabbatical time. Like Robert Levine’s useful book, Power Sabbatical, the article details the benefits that accrue to companies when their workers are able to take advantage of sabbaticals:

At Clif Bar, they’ve helped boost other workers who filled in while their colleagues were on sabbatical…. The perk also helps to prevent employees from burning out, which can be a costly problem for companies; presenteeism -- or workers showing up to the job sick, or unengaged -- hurts companies in the form of reduced productivity and increased healthcare costs, research shows. In addition, when workers return from taking “a breather” they’re usually more productive.

These and other benefits are familiar to those who have experience with sabbaticals of the sort offered by academia or (increasingly) by churches. However, I found particularly intriguing a statement by Claudia Perkins, the company’s vice president for human resources. In describing why the company wants to see its employees have time for renewal in the outdoors rather than spend all their time in office environs, Perkins states:  “Clif Bar was really born on a bike.”

In other words, employees having renewal time is about more than simply increasing productivity, reducing turnover, and other quantifiable markers of success. It also speaks deeply to Clif Bar’s identity as a company that promotes healthy living, balance, and enjoyable engagement with the outdoors. Employee sabbaticals are meant to re-connect employees to that larger vision, that core identity.

As I think about the benefits of clergy renewal leaves to pastors and congregations, the parallels are stunning. After all, Christianity was born “on the way” (“the way” being the Gospel of Luke’s preferred terminology for Christian discipleship). It was born from a wellspring of deep engagement with the person and work of Jesus Christ, and continued by prayerful witness in community as the church gathered around word and sacrament to embody for themselves his life, death, and resurrection. All that congregations do—weekly worship, pastoral care, mission, outreach, etc.—is the outworking of the primary vision of “the way” that sustains congregational practice in the world.

If the church was born “on the way,” then amidst the various demands of Christian ministry (some holy, some less so!), it is deeply beneficial for pastors to be able to step back and give attention to their energy for this core vision. For some pastors, that will mean reconnecting with spiritual practices that have languished in the face of day-to-day demands. For others, it will mean exploring new edges in their ministry so as to rekindle their excitement for the road ahead. For congregations, time spent in unfamiliar territory while the pastor is away can be a helpful reminder that when the quotidian routines fall away, underneath them is the primal excitement of God’s call to ministry on behalf of the world that God loves.

Once pastors and congregations have experienced the rekindling of excitement around discipleship and shared ministry that renewal leaves can bring about, they may well be in a freshly blessed position to imagine new possibilities for where their own common journey might take them. If that happens, it can be significant far beyond anything measurable by human standards. But that’s all to the good, since, as the parables of Jesus tell us, the kingdom’s measures are more surprising and delightful than human measures.

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 clergyrenewal@cts.edu.

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