Our theme for the sabbatical summer was “home again,” which was derived from Diana Butler Bass’s book The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church
, as well as T.S. Eliot’s poem The Four Quartets
. The congregation came home again by participating in creative worship by inviting members to interpret the sabbatical theme and lead us musically throughout the summer, creating art projects that will enhance our worship for years to come, arranging homecoming trips, traveling to reconnect with and worship alongside those we have commissioned over the years, and gathering for potluck dinners and playing together in locations throughout Richmond.
As a congregation, we were careful not to overload the summer calendar, since many of our members travel for both mission and leisure during the summer. The activities we scheduled were enough to mark the special season in our church without overwhelming anyone.
The church staff coordinated the overall sabbatical schedule, with help from a wide variety of congregation members. Deacons and members of the sabbatical team took leadership for particular events, distributing the workload among many hands.
The sabbatical impacted our church in a number of ways. Although some expressed anxiety about such a long pastoral absence, the entire congregation united in worship to bless the pastor and his family and to send them out with our prayers. In the pastor’s absence, our associate pastor (a recent seminary graduate) stepped into the pastoral role. Our congregation takes the training and mentoring of new clergy very seriously. We were happy to provide the opportunity for him to gain experience serving in a pastoral role, and we were delighted to watch his preaching skills blossom over the summer.
Overall, the congregation learned that even though we missed the pastor’s family, congregational life could continue without missing a beat. Even with the addition of a summer pastoral intern to help carry the load, the church staff felt the increased burden of the pastor’s absence. However, they remained supportive of the sabbatical and carried us through with grace and flexibility.
We would enthusiastically recommend that other congregations offer sabbatical leaves to their pastors (and other staff members). Not only did our pastor return renewed and rejuvenated, it was a significant time of joy and growth for our congregation, as well.
We don’t see our congregation as being overly confident, but we would say that we went into this Sabbatical season fully organized. We found the application for the Clergy Renewal Program to be a good blueprint for us. The time we spent completing it over a year ago was time we saved later, during the sabbatical planning process. As our Clergy Renewal Team (church staff and lay leadership) prepared for this sabbatical, many eyes reviewed all the parts of the plan. So, when our pastor moved into his own time of sabbatical, the congregation and staff simply followed our congregational sabbatical plans that had been prepared in advance. That pre-planned agenda helped us establish and sustain momentum all summer long.
For this reason, we would recommend that congregations plan early and communicate often so that everyone is prepared for the sabbatical experience. We would also remind others that many hands make light work. We found the Clergy Renewal Program to be well-designed, easy to implement, flexible, timely and meaningful for our congregation. This piece has been adapted from the reflections of congregation members from Tabernacle Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia, served by Pastor Sterling Severns.