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Posted May 03, 2016 | Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs

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This blog post is part of a series that features guest posts from pastors who have participated in Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal grants. We wish to highlight some helpful approaches to the process which have allowed these grants to be blessings to both the pastors who go on renewal leaves and to the congregations themselves.

The impact upon the congregation was positive and focused. The church offered the sabbatical as a gift to myself and my family. The vast majority of congregants were genuinely rooting for me in the long waiting period between submission of the application and confirmation of selection. The congregation burst into spontaneous applause when they learned that we had been selected by the Clergy Renewal Program. Some worried about the longevity of absence and others were a bit skeptical about the theme. However, the church did a magnificent job preparing for the absence, and the leadership stepped up in all the right ways. To my knowledge, Tabernacle Baptist Church has never offered a three-month sabbatical to a pastor in its 125+ years of existence. However, I now believe the church would not hesitate to offer an extended sabbatical for myself, or future pastoral staff members, because of this positive first experience.

Here are some practical thoughts for pastors and congregations that are considering applying for the renewal grant:
  • The clergy renewal team was formed and began their work several months prior to the submission of the application. We worked collaboratively on a shared google document as the actual grant submission required multiple drafts.
  • We made a concerted effort to include multiple voices from various church leaders throughout the grant. The task was less intimidating and also reflected the congregation’s voice as a whole.
  • The clergy renewal team hosted a town hall meeting and a series of brief articles to keep the congregation informed. They also released a Sabbatical Q&A booklet just before the beginning of the sabbatical to help answer questions about my absence. Clergy Renewal: The Alban Guide to Sabbatical Planning provided a wonderful template.
  • I resisted the urge to check Facebook throughout the majority of the sabbatical and avoided reading church newsletters. That said, I spent some time reading through the church Facebook entries, newsletters, and bulletins the week leading up to re-entry. It provided a good snapshot of activities that took place and also the evolving prayer list.
  • I suggest you set up an auto-reply on your e-mail stating that your account won’t be checked. Ask folks to wait to e-mail you upon your return so that you aren’t looking at a full e-mail box on the first week you are back. Same goes for voicemails.
  • Your colleagues with previous sabbatical experience are telling the truth: it takes some time to get back into the rhythm. The post-sabbatical fog is real, but it won’t last forever. Most of us don’t realize how tired we are until we finally get a chance to break away and rest. Sabbatical provides deep rest and re-entry can be jarring. I suggest you create a “start here” folder and place it atop your desk for the first day you enter back into the office. Some of the folder’s contents may include: upcoming sermon passages for the next season, a calendar of events for the upcoming season, advice on bad habits you promised to put down on the other side of sabbatical important issues you left behind before you left, etc.
  • Pay it forward – identify five colleagues that could use sabbaticals but aren’t serving in congregations that have experience with sabbaticals. Offer to bring some of your lay leaders to their church to speak to the benefit of offering a sabbatical to their pastor.

This piece has been adapted from the reflections of Pastor Sterling Severns from Tabernacle Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia, who says that, “The sabbatical was life-changing.”

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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