Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sabbatical - A Year Later

A year ago this month, I was in the midst of a five-week sabbatical. In preparation, I'd planned a few activities and trips, as well as a few books to read. The theme for that time was how to cultivate a long-term pastorate: how does one keep things fresh, healthy, and creative in the same place for eight, ten, twelve years. I asked this question based on my own life experience of never living in one community for longer than 5 1/2 years, as well as based on the statistic that the average pastorate for a mainline pastor is four years. To me, this was an important issue, so I decided to spend five weeks thinking about it.

As my sabbatical progressed, I heard and read a lot of familiar things about boundaries and self-care, the same sorts of things I've heard since seminary. And I was...well...disappointed:
After reading through these insights and journaling some thoughts on each one, I set the book down and reflected for another few moments.

Then I said, out loud, to no one: "Um...duh."

Maybe it's because the concepts of self-care and boundaries were nearly beaten into me during my seminary years, not to mention the strong supports that are in place in my Association. Maybe it's because I've been invited to be a part of several clergy support groups such that I'm actually at the point where I think I have too many. Maybe it's because I just completed a Health and Excellence in Ministry program a few weeks ago that again drove home some of these points about boundaries and church dynamics.

But holy crap, man. I know a lot of this stuff already. I do a lot of this stuff already.
So, I came back from sabbatical thankful for all the reminders, yet unsure whether anything new or useful had been gleaned. It's important to be intentional about time off, setting boundaries between church time and family time, seeking out opportunities for renewal and growth. But I still had a sense that I hadn't come back with any new insights. And that manifested in unexpected ways, like getting mad at altar candles. I became stuck in a sort of limbo as I adjusted to being back and to a post-sabbatical existence that I wasn't sure how to navigate.

And then a light bulb went on...or at least, the first light bulb. And when it happened, I began to see my sabbatical learnings in a whole new way, moving from taking them for granted to seeing opportunities to apply them.

That first light bulb happened sometime in late fall, as I realized how busy the beginning of 2011 was going to be. I occasionally teach a preaching class for my Association's lay ministry program, and I would be due for that starting in January. I would also be due for another round of confirmation classes at that same time. Eventually, of course, it would also be Lent, not to mention the usual preaching, teaching, the pub group, senior high activities, visitation, meetings, and other Association responsibilities, to say nothing of coordinating all of this with Coffeewife's work and class schedule, and January through April was shaping up to be one thing after another after another after another.

So all those reminders about self-care and intentionality about time off didn't seem so run-of-the-mill any more. I knew that I was going to crash and burn if I didn't seek out moments to refuel, to simply enjoy time with family, and to maybe play hooky on an occasional Friday afternoon before a jam-packed weekend. And on top of that, I knew I would need a week off afterward. So I cleared everything the first week of May and took that time to recharge. Maybe I would have done some of these things without what I'd learned last May, but snippets of that time were at the forefront of my mind as I did them.

Another example. I had a sit-down with somebody recently who admitted to me that he doesn't like everything that I do as a pastor. It wasn't shared maliciously, just matter-of-factly. This was the second light bulb. No, seriously, it was like a switch flipped inside me as I fully realized two things: 1) Nobody likes everything that I do, and 2) I'm long overdue in just accepting it.

Around this same time, I re-read the journal that I kept during my sabbatical, and a single phrase that I jotted down stood out to me: Criticism isn't about me personally, it's about my professional role. I don't know about you, but sometimes I can get the two incredibly mixed up. Before this point, I had taken criticisms about my approach to worship, my leadership style, my philosophy about the church, rather personally. Sometimes this would lead to trying to overcompensate for that person, to get them back on my team, to hold back the next time from doing something risky. But this latest admittance by a member coupled with what I wrote in my journal brought things fully into view. If people criticize something I'm doing, they're saying it about Pastor Jeff, not Jeff the person. This deeper realization that nobody is going to like absolutely everything that Pastor Jeff does, it was time to be more myself, more self-actualized, more thick-skinned, and to move forward comfortable with the fact that a 100% approval rating is incredibly improbable.

A third light bulb that probably isn't really a light bulb, but is proving very helpful nonetheless, is my attending a workshop during last year's Festival of Homiletics regarding projecting images and liturgy in worship. In recent months, the congregation has expressed an openness to and even a need for the use of projection during our service, about which I am indescribably giddy. I've been reading over my notes from this workshop as we prepare to do that.

It's been amazing to me how these sorts of insights have fully blossomed so long after I initially received them. It took specific situations to bring them into view, to see how they can be applied. And that's probably my fourth light bulb: a longer pastorate can only be achieved in real time, among the people to whom I minister, actually using what I've learned. It can be a hard slog at times, but it's the only way. And in my mind, it's also worth it.

It makes me wonder what other learnings will finally seep in given another year.