Rev. Laurie Haller, who blogs at http://lauriehaller.org/, has written a profound and stimulating memoir of her experience on a Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program leave. Recess: Rediscovering Play and Purpose is a book that will benefit anyone thinking about what it means to craft and pursue a sabbatical program in the context of parish ministry.
Haller, whose congregation was one of the earliest recipients of the grants in 2000, models the sort of spiritual struggle and ultimate benefits often associated with these leaves. At various points she describes the sense of dislocation that she feels—from her family (on those portions of the leave where she was alone), from her congregation, and (tellingly) from the sense that as pastor she was the center of the action in her congregation. Indeed, she is even away from her congregation during the events of September 11, 2001! However, this dislocation becomes a catalyst for her undertaking the work of coming to a more healthy understanding of her pastoral role as one who is dependent upon grace, vulnerable, and blessed by a congregation that does not need her at the center of the action all the time. Indeed, in a helpful and honest postscript written 14 years after her return from her leave, she reports on how she imperfectly but substantially continues to attend to the lessons learned during the leave period in holistic ways.
Of course, every pastor’s experience is different, and every congregational context is different. However, what is so valuable about Haller’s memoir is how it demonstrates that the pastor’s time spent on clergy renewal leaves is, in a very profound sense, soulcraft. While renewal leaves are not “work” in the day-to-day sense, they are also not vacations. At their best, as in Haller’s case, they provide space, resources, and—most of all—time for pastors to reengage with their own spiritual moorings so as to come back revitalized and with fresh insights for how to continue to thrive in ministry.
Thus, Haller’s book is a valuable testament, not only to the benefits of renewal leaves, but to the wider project of pastors attending to the question of “what makes your heart sing?” and pursuing the difficult but rewarding work of incorporating ongoing practices that foster joy into ministry. To her great credit, Haller presents this as work that is often gritty and unsentimental; however, her wrestling yields blessings both for herself and her readers.
And now, as the director of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary, I would like to be selfish enough to make the following request: can some author out there who is a member of a congregation that has undergone the experience of your pastor being away on renewal leave and the congregation intentionally pursuing its own activities during that leave write a similar memoir from the perspective of the congregation? After all, the programs’ purpose is to vitalize whole congregations, not only pastors, and we know from our talking to people whose congregations have received these grants that they have a tendency to be very enlivening indeed for congregation members. A book as well-crafted as Haller’s from the congregation’s perspective is one that I would very much like to read!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.