Sabbatical, Day One

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The view from under our lilac bushes.

Today begins the gift of a fifteen week sabbatical.  I have committed to posting every other week so I begin today. 

This morning I awoke with a jerk and immediately thought I was late.  This is funny because today is a school holiday so there are no sounds in the house or outside of children preparing for school.  There was no reason for me to bolt upright in bed worried about the day.  My arrival downstairs shocked my always early rising spouse and our dog.

I am not surprised by my early rising today, I expect this will last most of this first week and into the second.  I have an excess of energy and my mind is rushing with all the tasks I think I need to be doing; those tasks I have handed over to others to do for this sabbatical.  I know this feeling of needing to get things done will settle down as I ease into the rest of this sabbatical.

To help slow me down I am learning a poem today.  I am memorizing “The World I Live In” by Mary Oliver, found on page five of her book Devotions, published in 2017 by Penguin Press.  I am struck by the reality that I have lost some of my sense of wonder and am not watching for angels.  Yesterday at our monthly session meeting (church board) the elders talked  about watching for God and I realized how much I missed watching for God myself.  I tell people about God all the time, I mention how I see God working in their lives daily, but I have lost the sense of wonder in watching for the Holy Spirit to work.

This first day of this sabbatical gift I am confronted with how I have closed my eyes.  I am committed to opening them again so I can see the wider world.

A Radical Community

20181204_082455[1]I know when people describe our congregation, radical is not the first adjective that comes to mind.  We pride ourselves on being simple people who strive to live showing kindness and respect.  However, the first stories I heard about our congregation when I was making reference calls all those years ago was that the congregation in question was a radical one.

This congregation was radical from its beginning.  Two congregations, one Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the other United Methodist, had leaders in their thirties who saw a bigger vision for the future of the congregations.  They were not the only leaders, leaders with more age and wisdom also saw this vision, but the younger leaders were the ones who filled in the story when I accepted the call to serve.  The radical decision was made to unite the congregations as one and become a brand new congregation.  The leaders made decisions about property, pastoral leadership, and denominational status and the congregations followed those leaders.  I have been told there was much to be afraid of and some struggles in the beginning, but the radical vision of a vibrant congregation kept them going.

The second radical story I was told in the beginning that has been re-told many times, is the decision the congregation made to spend their money to hire a full-time pastor instead of yoking with another congregation or hiring a part-time pastor.  This might not seem radical to you but for a rural congregation living in an area with a diminishing population, the decision to spend money that has been saved for decades is a huge leap of faith.  I was told that the congregation decided the only way to continue to grow into their vibrant vision was to use the resources they had been given.  It was some of those original leaders, now forty years older, who filled in the details of that story for me.

A third, and by no means final, characteristic of their radical nature is that I am the sixth female pastor to serve with them.  This is radical because there are still congregations in our denomination (PCUSA) who have not had a female pastor.

I share this radical nature of our congregation because today they made a new radical decision, they agreed to enter into a sabbatical in 2019.  Sabbaticals, spending money, uniting small congregations (or consolidating businesses), and hiring women may not seem radical to some of you, as in many fields these are normal practices.  But for a rural congregation a sabbatical is typically a brand new experience.

Today we had an honest and heartfelt discussion as a congregation about our concerns and dreams for taking a new radical step into the future.  We decided we would use this tool we have been offered to nurture our pastor-congregation partnership and dream of that vibrant future we have been living and want to continue to live.

Tonight one of our oldest members said to me that a sabbatical is such a good idea and is exciting not only for the pastor but also the congregation.  I heard in their words that same radical nature that has kept this congregation serving God and the community all these forty-nine years.

I am inspired by their faith and thankful I get to learn how to live simply and radically with them.

If the Way Be Clear

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Looking out the windshield. 

In Presbyterian Church U.S.A. vocabulary the phrase “if the way be clear” is used to acknowledge though we plan, dream, and hope, sometimes the way forward is not what we imagined.  I was thinking of this phrase yesterday afternoon while I drove my family home through a massive thunderstorm complete with a tornado warning.  We arrived home safely thanks in part to smartphones, internet access, and my husband’s use of those tools to give me guidance about when to get off on an exit to wait out a portion of the storm.

Yesterday I could not see more than a few feet in front of me, I had to trust my knowledge of the road, the tools I had at hand, and the rules of the road.  I could see the yellow dotted line on my left, and the white solid line on my right, that was about all.  I knew stopping would likely result in a crash.  I knew going forward meant I had to trust what I could not control.  I am not the first person, or pastor, to find the act of driving to be a powerful metaphor for life.

I am thinking about that drive home because I feel stuck in the storm.  About two years ago I reached my tenth anniversary of ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament.  I was elated to reach this milestone and thrilled to be celebrating it with the congregation I had been partnered with for those ten years.  It is not all that common for fresh out of seminary (first-call) pastors to stay with their first congregation that long.  We celebrated and looked forward to the future.

In the two years since that milestone a fair number of difficult experiences have taken place, making me feel stuck in a storm and surrounded by fog.  Each one has taught me a new lesson and helped grow the Fruits of the Spirit in me, but they have left me feeling as if I cannot see more than a step in front of me.  I have the yellow dotted line of my faith, the white solid line of my partnership in ministry with colleagues and the congregation, the tools or spiritual practices of my faith tradition, and my trust that God is in control.  So I keep putting one foot in front of the other confident one day the storm will cease and the fog will lift.  But as driving in a storm sometimes requires a chance to rest, so does life as a pastor.

Our polity as members of the PCUSA states the elected elders serving on the session (governing board) and pastor are partners in ministry.  The congregation takes a vow to support and care for the pastor and family, and the session vows to help lead the congregation with the pastor.  As I have put one foot in front of the other I have shared my experiences with the elders and they have prayed with and for me, they have walked with me through these struggles, they have helped me find joy, and they have reminded me we are partners. Even as I have felt stretched thin as I care for our congregation and community, they have joined me in carrying out our worship and work.

It is from the elders that the idea for us to take a sabbatical came.  In the past year and a half we have prayed, studied, discussed, met with others, and dreamed of what a sabbatical could mean for our congregation and for me.  The dream of a time of rest, reflection, and renewal fills me with hope.  The idea that others would care for me and my family in this way fills my heart.  My family and I have spent over twelve years loving this community and congregation and we have sunk our roots deep here.  Yet, right now, even though I know the road forward is there, the fog of weariness makes it difficult to see.  So, like yesterday while I was driving, it is time to pull off for a bit and rest, to wait out the storm, and trust once I have rested the fog will have lifted.

Life as a pastor is unique and amazing because not only do you get help others be their best self but they get to help you be your best self, and together you get to make the world a better place.  That means sometimes as a pastor you have to let others take care of you and your family, even though that does not come naturally.  I do not know if the way will be clear for a sabbatical, there are more details to work out, but the simple fact that the elders, who I have met in their own storms, are meeting me in mine and are willing to guide me with the tools we have, fills my heart to overflowing.