By Robert C. Saler and Callie J. Smith
Not all congregations have a history with granting “pastoral sabbaticals.” The concept of a leave for clergy renewal may be relatively new to some. It may be suspect for others. Whatever a congregation’s orientation to this concept, leaders can help facilitate a positive experience with renewal leaves by finding ways to frame clergy renewal in the context of a shared ministry of clergy, staff, lay leaders, clergy family, and the many who comprise faith communities.
One way to frame the possibility of a clergy renewal leave is to acknowledge early on the potential challenges. “A good sabbatical requires expectant hope and good planning, with a wise awareness of the dark side, ” writes the Dean of the Disciples Divinity House at Vanderbilt and Associate Professor of the Practice of Ministry, Mark Miller-McLemore, in an article for Duke Divinity School’s Faith & Leadership. Attending to the potential pitfalls inherent in inadequately planned clergy leaves, Miller-McLemore claims that their negative effects may be moderated with some strategic visioning. From acknowledging the stresses on those left behind to planning ritualized ways of acknowledging separation and return, Miller-McLemore’s article outlines helpfully some courses of action for managing what he calls the “dark side” of sabbaticals and other clergy leaves.
Another way to frame the possibility of a clergy renewal leave is to explore what that leave may look like from the perspective of multiple constituencies who will be affected by it. The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs’ “Request for Proposals” document encourages applicants to consider their renewal outline and budget with these multiple constituencies in mind. How much time will the pastor engage on his/her own, and how much of the time will he/she engage family or other significant relationships? What support will be needed for interim staff or lay leaders to continue ministries in the pastor’s absence? What renewal activities might congregation members engage in themselves, concurrent with the pastor’s renewal leave? Allocating a helpful balance of time and financial resources to crafting a community’s experience of the renewal leave can lay a comforting groundwork that serves as the foundation for the kind of improvisatory surprises that often accompany successful renewal leaves. Planning around maintenance for valued ministries also demonstrates the congregation’s commitment, not only to the constituencies within its walls, but also those who benefit from vital congregational activities in the community.
Whatever path communities take for exploring the possibilities of a clergy renewal leave, those paths which emerge from the variegated people and perspectives making up those congregations will have the best chance of nurturing not only the clergy on leave, but also the congregation as a whole. One reason the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary emphasize the importance of pastors and congregational representatives collaborating on applications is that pastors and congregational representatives can envision together what renewal will mean as they continue on in ministry together after the renewal leaves have ended. Collaboration on the “front end” of renewal leaves helps to maximize the long-terms benefits that come from revitalized shared ministry. And that is what helps to make these renewal periods a blessing for pastors, congregations, and all that are served and honored by these ministries.
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Rev. Dr. Robert Saler is director of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary.
Rev. Callie J. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.