The Sabbatical as Fitting Room—Part 1
January 1, 2018—This is PART I of a two part reflection on pastoral sabbaticals from James Lamkin, Senior pastor at Northside Drive Baptist Church, Atlanta GA.
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.
I was ordained when I was twenty years old—not an uncommon practice in the 1970’s by Baptist churches in the south. I’ve been doing “vocational ministry” for thirty-three years. Now, in my early sixties, I am pausing for an “inventory time.” some years ago, I took my first sabbatical. This came during my ninth year as pastor of Northside Drive Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
Sabbatical stories can border on romance. These exotic postcards from the edge can offer a break from the pedestrian ways the Holy Spirit seems to prefer in the spiritual building of our lives—such as daily prayer, reading the Psalms, and journaling. Sabbaticals can be the extreme sports of the spiritual path. They also can be the fodder for jealousy, since many parish ministers will never have an opportunity to take one.
Sabbatical leave is bigger than the itinerary. The action of taking a sabbatical is a significant systemic event in the life of the minister and the life of the congregation. Recalling the angled mirrors in a fitting room, I reflect upon “the fit” of my vocational calling thus far, and preview “alterations” for my pastoral pilgrimage ahead. Perhaps my musings—especially about the sabbatical planning process—will help you as you paying attention to the emotional processes within the church.
What do I see in the fitting-room mirrors as I reflect on my sabbatical experiences? Three perceptions appear. I offer these, not just as themes that rise from several months away from the job; rather, I offer these as seminal pieces of my credo. They are both discoveries and directions in my life. First, sabbaticals are sacramental. Second, “systems thinking” offers perspective. Third, only God gives salvation.
Sabbaticals Are Sacramental
A sacrament is an action that mediates divine redemptive power. My Baptist tradition is not big on sacraments. However, I believe sabbaticals can save. I do not mean saving from burn-out or saving from acting-out. I mean that the action of observing the Sabbath is itself redemptive. Sabbath keeping is a commandment. However, nearly every parish minister I know is a serial violator of this commandment; and almost every church could be cited as an accomplice.
Pastoral sabbaticals are a two-fold gift. The church gifts itself and the minister as it offers a sabbatical; the minister gifts himself or herself and the church by receiving and taking the sabbatical. Together, this reciprocity of what is given and what is received makes for one salvific action. It is mutually life-giving—regardless of the sabbatical’s intriguing itinerary, regardless of the church’s hard-to-measure response. Both parties have done the right thing by confessing that the realm of God does not flourish within intense, co-dependent relationships. The minister’s leave-taking is a statement by both parties that the true life of the church is “out of their hands.” It is, in fact, in the hands of God.
Though the church I pastor values academics, though our church historically has been filled with various ilk of clergy, and though we think of our church as progressive—we did not have a sabbatical leave policy when I arrived at the church as pastor. They said the idea was foreign to them and were unable to create and approve one before I came. However, as the prospective minister, I asked the Personnel Committee to put in writing a commitment to work toward creating and implementing one. Yet, as each year passed, the issue continued to be unaddressed. The Personnel Committee’s yearly triage of tasks tended to focus on the normal squeaky-wheel-issues of the staff/congregation interface. “The time was never right,” said the committee, to lead the church toward creating a sabbatical leave policy.
When the time came, it was not without controversy. The church was in a visioning process (ever notice the similarity between vision and division?) and one of the tools was a multi-paged survey. Many of the narrative responses were staff-focused. Chronic anxiety became more visible and acute. In the middle of this process, the sabbatical leave policy came up for a vote. I could see the emotional connection between the pastor’s absence and the morale issue of “how are we doing as a church?” At one meeting a deacon said, “The boat is sinking and the captain is abandoning ship.” I found such comments personally difficult to hear. Yet, through my supervisor’s help, I could hear them as (at least) expressions of separation anxiety. Before the vote on the policy, a friend in the church came to beseech me to pull-the-plug on the process, noting that it would be relationally destructive for me and the church.
However, this arduous journey toward sabbatical was vital to the significance of the sabbatical. The policy eventually and arduously passed. Though it was controversial, to the church’s credit, they stepped to the plate to make it happen. Retrospect reminds me that this was no small relational step.
Ministry through Absence
Part of my sabbatical was funded by a grant from the Louisville Institute. Grant recipients were required to attend a three day seminar on how-to-take-a-sabbatical. The Sabbaticals for Dummies (my title) retreat gave strategic advice. For example: 1) Do something on the first day that marks your entrance into sabbatical time. 2) Start living the sabbatical disciplines/values you want to address right now; i.e., if you want to recommit to journaling, begin today. 3) Enjoy the activities of preparation. 4) Be warned that two weeks before the sabbatical is over, you will wonder where all the time went and may even feel depressed. 5) Ask a non-anxious lay-leader to be the contact-in-case-of-emergency person; and define emergency as nothing less than the entire church building burning down!
I have heard that Henri Nouwen spoke of the necessity of the minister’s absence. For the minister to be always available, said he, is to give the wrong impression about God. To us, God does not always feel easily available and accessible. Thus, even pastoral distance is a loving teacher. My own insight was that it was my job to define myself to the congregation about this issue. I named both my gratitude for the sabbatical gift and my intention to live fully into the gift. In so doing, I named the emotional distance required to make this work. I noted that I only would be returning for a death in my own family.
This self-definition was done with a bit of playfulness. The older members seemed to be the most anxious—particularly those who had asked me to conduct their funerals. An example of how I attempted to honor them and their anxiety—but at the same time hold lightly their angst—is what I said to one elderly saint: “I prayed that God would reveal to me the names of congregants who will die in the three months while I am gone.” Then, I allowed a long pause to follow. “But,” said I, “I am glad to report that, as far as I can tell, your name is not on the list!”
She chuckled. Of course, she then asked, “Well whose names are on the list?” I was ready and replied, “Oh…that? That is confidential information which I am duty-bound not share!” We punctuated the conversation with deep laughter, deep prayer, and a deepened relationship.
Who Manages the Church’s Anxiety?
The church’s nervousness focused around preaching, pastoral care, and administration. My position was that this was natural and that it was the church’s job to mange their own anxiety. In other words, it was not the pastor’s job. I also decided that whatever they chose to do was their decision and I would live with it. As my supervisor, Franklin Duncan, says, “The job of the pastor is to attend to the church as the church attends to its own processes.”
Once again, the church stepped to the plate and delighted in their own resourcefulness. A designated member of the Personnel Committee designed a line-up of great preachers (including Fred Craddock and Tom Long) calling it a Festival of Preaching. I helped craft some general elements of the summer’s worship services that highlighted “the preaching of the Word.” The church hired a former Associate Pastor to serve in a part-time capacity as the minister during the interim with a focus on pastoral care and administration.
I chose to trust the church to do what was best for them. By not being responsible for their interim-anxiety, by not attempting to manage the implications of their choices, and by my choice to work on my own insecurity/control issues, I felt more energy to delight in my sabbatical.
Itinerary for Renewal
Phil Cousineau said in Pilgrimage: Adventures of the Spirit: “All are journeys of renewal. As pilgrims we go back to find something we lost; we return to the source to be restored, rejuvenated, revivified.” (1) “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves,” says journalist Pico Iyer, “and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”(2)
That’s it. To slow time down…and fall in love once more. That’s sabbatical. Like love can leave a marriage (even for a season) it can leave a pastorate. Subtle enmeshment between pastor and parish, removes the catalytic distance necessary for both pastoral and prophetic ministry. Almost like an epiphany, it came to me that drinking deeply from the well of C.S. Lewis and traveling to Africa (the cradle of civilization) would fit perfectly the contours of my soul. I am part monk, part adventurer, part scholar, and part creator of imaginative worlds.
At the tail-end of my sabbatical I hunkered-down in Oxford, England, to read Lewis, visit his haunts, and seek his muse. While doing so, I leaned into the name of my sabbatical, The Three R’s: Reading, Writing, and Resting. The first part of the journey sent me to Zimbabwe where I stayed for a month with friends and read and listened and took long walks. I then traveled for three weeks to South Africa. Cooperative Baptist Missionaries hosted me in Johannesburg and Cape Towne.
At the end of the sabbatical leave, I reviewed daily notations from my reading, observations, and reflections. From these I extracted twenty seminal statements that addressed growing edges in my life. Since then, these have become a Daily Rule. I now pray them every day. Number one is: “Enjoy God.” Number three is: “Be gracious and forgiving to myself.”
There is more to say about these mantras as markers for ministry. I will do so at the end of the article.
(1) Phil Cousineau, Pilgrimage: Adventures of the Spirit, edited by Sean O’Reilly and James O’Reilly, (San Francisco: Traveler’s Tales, 2000).
(2) “Why We Travel,” by travel writer Pico Iyer. The article appeared in Salon.com (www.salon.com).
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.