Sabbatical as Fitting Room—Part 2

Sabbatical as Fitting Room—Part 2

January 8, 2018—This is PART II of a two part reflection on pastoral sabbaticals from James Lamkin, Senior pastor at Northside Drive Baptist Church, Atlanta GA. (PART I HERE)

The clothing store in my small hometown of Arcadia, Louisiana, had a mirror in which I could see myself sideways. This was a big deal to a kid. With three mirrors placed in a concave shape I could see me from various perspectives at the same time. As a kid, I thought that phenomenon incredible. As a mid-life adult, I relate that experience to sabbatical. Sabbatical time is sequestered time—time set apart for rest and reflection and God. I do not see it as time to accomplish something for God. It is time to be accompanied by God. It is a time to regain perspective—to do as I did as a kid in the clothing store mirror—to see one’s self sideways.

A Systems Theory Perspective

As I reflect upon my sabbatical, the second image seen in the fitting room mirror is a “systems thinking” perspective. Family Systems Theory is the largest idea I have come across as an adult. Seeing life through this lens has given me a healthier perspective on how I view myself and my ministry. It is a conceptualization of the behavioral processes at work in relationships—with the emphasis, not on the individual pieces, but upon their position in the overall structure.

However, the sabbatical process—from policy to preparation to implementation to reflection to reentry—reinforced the importance of the perspective of Family Systems Theory. First, “systems thinking” keeps the big picture (and my position in it) in mind. The following quotation is attributed to a World War II U.S. Army Chaplain. “God, when we find ourselves in unfamiliar terrain, help us trust our maps. However, when we find that our maps don’t match the terrain, help us trust the terrain!”

Humans collect maps—life maps. These maps are memories, hopes, feelings, world-views, theologies, polities, and politics. Yet, all maps are time-stamped. All maps are provincial. “Where you stand determines what you see,” said Robert MacAfee Brown.(1) Some of maps are proven to be helpful and true. Others are discovered to be misleading and false. The process of maturity is a study in cartography. These are anxious days. We have adapted our lives to the terrain of reactivity; and the terrain no longer matches our maps. Though ministers “seek to meet the needs of people,” more people are anxious with unmet needs.

Multiple models for “ministry communities” abound, from mega-churches to micro-churches. Denominational loyalty is a long dead dinosaur. Anxiety symptomizes in the self-destructive behaviors of clergy. Chronic tension between and within the faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam appears more acute. The Serenity Prayer invites an accepting “of the things we cannot change.” An anxious society, an anxious religious climate, and the angst in local church would be on that list. But the Serenity Prayer also asks for courage to “change the things we can.” For me, my own level of anxiety and reactivity are on this list of courageous challenges.

Second, systems thinking provides a map for working on myself. The engine that drives human emotional processes is each person’s family of origin. This multi-generational process wires us with abilities and liabilities that surface and submerge depending on the relational terrain. Our “family tree” attends to the depth of the roots and the arrangement of the limbs—all of which are held in the memory of the tree.

Many ministers know the vocabulary of systems thinking. The emotional triangle, non-anxious presence, and self-differentiation are familiar phrases. However, they are like signs hanging on a fitness center wall. For me, the most benefit of these concepts happens when I exercise in the gymnasium of the genogram—the fitness center of family relationships. There is no substitute for this often difficult and often delightful family of origin work. In other words, one of the best continuing education gifts ministers can give congregations is to go to their family reunion.(2)

Family of origin work is best done with a coach. In addition, to individual monthly coaching from my supervisor, I am a part of a family systems group that meets for three days, twice a year. These consultations are vital to my exploration, because when it comes to emotional issues, we all tend to be blind to those processes which are most significant. For ministers wanting to explore Family Systems Theory I recommend the Leadership in Ministry workshops at the Center for Lifelong Learning.

As I look in the mirror of the fitting-room, I see how much my life has been enriched and my posture enhanced by this exploration. Also, I see how the sabbatical process (planning, departure, separation, return, reuniting) are systemic issues. The togetherness and differentiation forces are great in the congregation/minister’s relationship. Systems thinking helps me find my place of service, leadership, and joy with a map for ministry that matches the terrain of congregational life.

Only God Gives Salvation

The third observation reminds me from where salvation cannot come. As obvious as this may be, it still is worth naming. Sooner or later, every minister has the opportunity to own that she or he has entered “the ministry” to continue working on unfinished issues from his or her own family of origin. To some degree, we are all searching to acquire the blessing we never fully received.

To be sure, there are other reasons we enter the ministry—the call of God, for instance! However, we are mixed bags of many motives—all of which God uses within God’s grace.
I assume further explanation and confession are not necessary here. Suffice it to say that “borrowing self” (to use a systemic term) tends to occur between pastors and congregations. When this lack of differentiation occurs, leadership is comprised due to the enmeshment.

However, epiphany moments happen when the minister realizes and affirms that it is not the church (or any other relationship system) which gives salvation. Salvation is something only God gives. One cannot work hard enough for the church to bestow it…and even if one could, it still would be conditional. This “ahha” is good news for the clergyperson and for the church. It encourages a “connected distance.” As Gibran the Lebanese poet put it, “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.”(3) This space is the place of soul growth, based not on dependency, but on differential and the adventure of connection with a community of faith.

Church members tell me that I am different following my sabbatical. They say I appear happier. I think they are right. But the appearing “happier” is a result of a deeper truth. Though this may be odd for a pastor to say, I need the church less; therefore, I can love the church more. In the imagery of C.S. Lewis (The Four Loves) I’m freer to offer gift love, and less driven by need love. My preaching is freer. I am working less at “impression management” and more at awareness and expression.

A United Church of Christ minister and friend, Chris Graham, gifted me with the word sabbatitude. It is the notion retaining the grace of and freedom of sabbatical time while bringing it back to one’s life with the congregation. For instance, what difference might it make to attend the next Church Council meeting with one’s sabbatitude in place?

In keeping with my fitting-room metaphor, I came back to my pastorate knowing that alterations were needed. However, they are far less mechanical and far more relational (spiritual) than I anticipated. I returned with less need to fix the church, and with a greater capacity to love the church and be loved by the church. All of the above is connected to my ability to love myself as I am—rather than the self I wish I were.

Mantras as markers for ministry

In last week’s post I promised a listing of my mantras. These are notations from my experiences, research, and reflection that addressed vulnerable areas in my life. I continue to be surprised at how well they name my slippery, growing edges and give daily traction. I offer them in collegiality and without much explanation.

  1. Enjoy God. (The Westminster Shorter Catechism says we are go “glorify God and enjoy [God] forever.” I have a PhD in working hard trying to glorify God; but not even a high school diploma in enjoying God.)
  2. Enjoy myself.
  3. Be gracious and forgiving to myself.
  4. Rest in God. (Notice the word is rest not wrest.)
  5. Pray prayers of filling and emptying. ( I watch my Muslim friends do this. I have something to learn from them.)
  6. Though I desire the affirmation of others, I am not as dependent upon it, for I have God’s affirmation.
  7. Life is not something to be conquered.
  8. I am expendable.
  9. “We seek not the meaning of life; rather we seek the rapture of being alive.” (from Joseph Campbell)
  10. Attempting to find meaning in every action is like trying to ride a horse riding a horse.
  11. Obsession with emotional processes can wither the soul.
  12. The need to win every small battle makes me small. 9
  13. I am a piece of the Milky Way.
  14. Keep the love for God glowing brightly in my heart.
  15. “Go on. It’s going to be all right; you’ve got everything you need.”
  16. Our lives are blown by the wind of God.
  17. The success of others does not diminish mine.
  18. “We are called not to prove ourselves, but to express ourselves; and oh, what a difference there is between proving and expressing.” (William Sloan Coffin)
  19. “God, thank you for work that is more important than how I might feel about it at the time.” (A prayer prayed by Fred Craddock.)
  20. God is a God of abundance.

A final, Backward Glance

The clothing store in my small hometown had a mirror in which I could see myself sideways. I could see me from various perspectives at the same time. My sabbatical offered the same—to look sideways again and ponder the ways I go at life and the posture of my life. This process was sacramental to me. It reaffirmed perspectives that helped me locate myself in the big picture. I returned to my congregational duties freer from the church and in so doing have been able to give myself more freely to and through the church. Indeed, only God saves and God’s salvation is beautiful.


(1) Brown, Robert McAfee, Creative Dislocation—The Movement of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), 107.
(2) Friedman, Edwin H., Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: The Guilford Press, 1985), 1. “It is the thesis of this book that all clergymen and clergywomen, irrespective of faith, are simultaneously involved in three distinct families whose emotional forces interlock: the families within the congregation, our congregations, and our own.”
(3) Gibran, Kahlil, The Prophet (New York: Alfred A. Knoff), 15.

James Lamkin is Senior Pastor of Northside Drive Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA. James is on the Faculty of the Atlanta Leadership in Ministry workshop. This revised reflection is used with permission of the author. James served on the faculty of Leadership in Ministry, Atlanta. The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops in four locations: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, and Lynchburg, VA. To learn more about the Leadership in Ministry workshops.


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