Spiritual sources for thinking about sabbatical: Practices

Posted Aug 06, 2014 | Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs

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By Robert C. Saler


Robert C. SalerAs we turn now, in this series, to Christian sources for thinking about the theology and spirituality of sabbath, we are in a position to carry forward one of the most important lessons learned from both the Hebrew Bible and the work of such Jewish thinkers as Abraham Joshua Heschel: in order for sabbatical to be truly effective, it must be part of a larger rhythm of spiritual life and not simply an occasional occurrence.

This has special resonance for us at the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs because the nature of our grants are such that they tend to be “once in a lifetime” occasions for most pastors and congregations—that is, a congregation cannot regularly plan to have a grant of $50,000 to support its practice of sabbath rhythms. So how do these grants help to foster an ongoing rhythm of sabbath spirituality among congregations and pastors?

We have discovered that a key answer to this question for many pastors and congregations comes from the notion of sabbath practices. In a famous treatment of the notion of practices, the influential Roman Catholic philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre defines them as follows: “By a practice I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.”

This comprehensive and subtle definition has been exciting to Christian thinkers because it highlights the fact that practices are meant to foster excellence, but also that the standards of what COUNT as excellence are themselves defined contextually by specific communities. Here’s an example: in the corporate world, it’s appropriate for employers to grant sabbaticals on the expectation that the employee will return with ideas for how to improve the bottom line. At colleges and universities, professors taking sabbaticals are often expected to return having made substantial progress on writing a book or an article. In Christian communities, however, the results of excellence are less “product-oriented” and thus less tangible. This is because pastoral excellence (and excellence in the Christian life generally) is tied to spiritual rhythms that are not always easy to quantify.

Fortunately, in recent years a number of Christian thinkers (such as Dorothy Bass and Jennifer Ayres) have written perceptively about how Christian practices foster particularly appropriate modes of spiritual and pastoral excellence, and so congregations seeking to foster practices such as more intentional sabbath rhythms have rich resources to help them thinking about the challenges and opportunities that might arise.

Meanwhile, as we have administered the Clergy Renewal Programs on behalf of the Lilly Endowment, we have heard regular testimony from congregations as to how the intentional three- to four-month period of renewal afforded by Clergy Renewal Program grants have been a catalyst for revitalizing, or in some cases starting, congregational reflection on sabbatical practices. This means that we have come to think of these periods as part of a larger ecology of sabbatical rhythms on the part of congregations and their leaders, and this allows for renewal periods to be that much more of a blessing to Christian communities seeking to practice their faith in ways that foster excellence in 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 clergyrenewal@cts.edu.

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