Connecting and conversing

Posted Mar 05, 2014 | Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs

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By congregation members from University Congregational United Church of Christ, Seattle, WA


This blog post is part of a series that features guest posts from members of congregations that have received Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal grants. We wish to highlight the ways in which these grants are blessings, not only to the pastors who go on renewal leaves, but to the congregations themselves.

What was the impact of the renewal program?

Flat Catherine Foote This ‘Two Flocks’ sabbatical was designed to help the members of this urban congregation deepen their sense of connection with the earth. This included opportunities for interaction with rural communities, invitations to engage in reflection while they traveled during the summer, and specific sermons and church activities that had a ‘sacred earth’ component.

‘Sabbatical Packets’ were designed and distributed that provided structure for families and individuals as they traveled. Materials included a structured family worship service, an interview outline for folks to use for engaging folks who lived where they were visiting, and a ‘Flat Catherine’ picture of the pastor who was on sabbatical for folks to use to take pictures of where they went.

The ‘Flat Catherine’ pictures became the basis for a large congregational mural, put together by a small group at the end of the summer, and also provided a basis for conversation and reflection on how ‘break out from the ordinary’ sabbatical activities can be universally renewing.

A handful of families engaged in a very specific farm residency program that involved a week of staying on a farm, tending animals, and writing daily reflections. For the families that participated, this was a transformative experience. All the families wrote in a group journal, with the youngest children either dictating their thoughts to an adult to record or drawing pictures of their experiences.

One family returned home and at the urging of the daughter built an urban chicken coop. They stocked the coop with a hen that the girl had watched hatch at the farm, as well as two other hens acquired from other sources. That girl continues to sell eggs from her urban chicken coop.

The congregation as a whole became more engaged with one another. The reports they brought back from summer activities provided a basis for connection and conversation. The Farm Families also bonded in some important ways and continue to connect. The congregation as a whole became more interested in the sabbatical process and has changed its approach to sabbaticals in two important ways. First, they have expanded sabbatical opportunities for leadership staff, and second, they have asked for more direct engagement with their own activities during leadership sabbaticals.

The pastor returned to the congregation renewed and more clear on her work for the next five years. Her sabbatical report sessions were well attended and enthusiastically received. The congregation could sense the renewed energy in her work, in her preaching, and in her sense of call.

What significant learnings have emerged in regard to this experience?

A very significant learning has been the value of sabbaticals and the possibilities for structuring sabbaticals in engaging ways. Before this sabbatical, pastors just went away and then came back with little congregational engagement. Now, as another member of the Leadership Staff prepares for his sabbatical, the congregation is much more engaged. They have learned how to join in the sabbatical process and anticipate the gifts, rather than carrying a sense that sabbatical is something that happens outside the congregation.

Is there any wisdom you would share with other congregations whose pastors are about to take renewal leaves?

One thing that worked for us early on was to take the sabbatical plan to many different boards and committees and let them think through how they wanted to be involved. Many creative ideas came from these boards, including the most successful ideas of a sabbatical packet and picture taking adventure for all families which came from the Elementary Education and Fellowship Board.

The image displayed in this post is a picture of congregation members with a "Flat Catherine" photo. This image is used by permission of Rev. Catherine Foote.

This piece has been adapted from the reflections of congregation members of University Congregational United Church of Christ, Seattle, WA, served by Rev. Catherine Foote. When asked if they would recommend this program to other congregations, representatives answered, “Absolutely.”

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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