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Posted Aug 02, 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.

I wanted to develop a rhythm in my life and my family’s life in which Sabbath became, not shoe-horning a desperate day off, but living life in all-sufficient seven-day units. Instead of racing, overloading schedules, and collapsing into the occasional week off, I wanted to engage in spiritual, emotional, physical, and intellectual growth each week.

A good plan mattered. Good advance discernment and conversation with my family and mentors set me up to get the shape of the sabbatical right. That helped mightily!

Distance from my usual daily life was crucial. Living near Oxford changed everything because I knew no one and had no markers of my customary fast life. My family and I felt far enough away not to be influenced by my work environs in the U.S. Oxford also provided an intellectual environment that drew me to read more than I’ve been free to read for two decades. It was blissful, not only to live the fictional and non-fictional worlds my books offered but also to read aloud with my sons for hours at a time. I regained books as an end in themselves, rather than a means to teaching and preaching illustrations.

I purposely did not keep a regimented schedule while in England. I slept ‘til I awoke most days – something I’ve never done. I have ten friends who have been awarded Lilly grants. Nine of them planned travel and more travel, so that they were on the move quite a lot. My hunch is that my colleagues think, “It’s the only way I’m ever going to get to see the seven places I’ve always wanted to see.” I get that. But, it feels fast. We loved our experience of NOT having to organize and watch schedules closely and do the other things that travels must do. “No Demand” was our watchword, and we loved just living life in a foreign land.

Now, the congregation has a healthier pastor. We will begin on Ash Wednesday a 6-week Lenten series in which worship, education, small groups, youth and children programs, music – all the ministries of the church – will be arranged to probe the subject “Sabbath” in a hyper-speed world.

It is an inequity of ministry that sabbaticals are not customary for youth and children directors, music directors, et al. When I arrived home, I gathered my six-person Christian-formation team and laid down the law: you are required to spend two consecutive weeks NOT WORKING next summer. We began to work on the pragmatic issues involved – ours is a highly programmed church. But we have made it work. All of them will experience a mini-sabbatical each year.

I really did not think I would be able to stop working. I ended up loving the break. That surprised me. When I returned to the church, the first three weeks I felt like the staff and leaders around me seemed to be moving at a significantly higher RPM than I was. It was surreal. I’ve kept a bit of that calm. I haven’t felt harried in six months. That’s a record in my adult lifetime.

I have begun planting seeds among the several CEOs in our congregation to consider sabbatical programs in their corporations. That initially drew incredulous glares. But the more we speak of the increase in our own work quality health, and productivity post-sabbatical, the more they listen. We’ll see what happens.

This piece has been adapted from the reflections of the Rev. Dr. Allen Hilton of Wayzata Community Church, Wayzata, Minnesota.

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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