It’s been a while since I’ve lasted posted a blog. I was blessed with a sabbatical during the months of May, June, and July this year. The blog below is a brief reflection that I wrote during the last week of the sabbatical. It is being shared here and in other locations to make it available to the leadership and members of the congregation I serve (Good Shepherd Lutheran Church). And hopefully this gives you a glimpse into the sacred and holy journey that is a sabbatical.
According to Good Shepherd’s Employee Handbook, a pastoral sabbatical is “to further the pastor’s education, add to the pastor’s ‘life experiences’ in a special way, enhance his or her pastoral skills, and encourage the refreshment of the pastor’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.” (Good Shepherd Lutheran Church Employee Guide, p. 17)
I asked for wisdom from several colleagues who I trust as I prepared for my first sabbatical experience. Overwhelmingly, the most significant insight they shared with me was this – “be open to the ‘rhythm’ of the new schedule during the sabbatical time.” This simple statement guided my experience as I entered, journeyed through, and now return from sabbatical.
There are four major themes that arose from this sabbatical experience – Travel, Continuing Education, Rest and Renewal, and Spiritual Growth. I offer a brief reflection on each one along with a few highlights below.
At the beginning of sabbatical, I honestly didn’t expect travel to play much of a role during these three months. At the end of sabbatical, I am grateful for the significant role that travel played.
- Logged more than 9,000 miles in my Subaru Outback.
- Worship in many languages and locations across the country.
- Visited 17 states.
- Time spent with relatives and close friends in North Dakota, Montana, Tennessee, and Minnesota.
- Spending 2 days with staff and church council members at a Susan Beaumont (author of Inside the Large Congregation) workshop in Jamestown, ND.
- A few good and bad rounds of golf along the way.
- Fulfilling a “bucket list” item with a day-long visit to Graceland in Memphis, TN.
- A week of renewal, continuing education, and networking with other Senior Pastors of Large ELCA Congregations in Fort Meyers, FL.
- Being introduced to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN by the nephew of Ernest Withers. Mr. Withers was Martin Luther King Jr.’s photographer during the last 12 years of his life.
- Being able to serve and worship with young people from Good Shepherd for a few days at the ELCA’s National Youth Gathering in Detroit, MI.
- Visiting the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the Center for Civil and Human Rights and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Park in Atlanta, GA.
- Singing “We Shall Overcome” at Ebenezer Baptist Church while holding the hand of female African-American ELCA pastor who serves a congregation in Washington, D.C. I believe that Ebenezer Baptist Church is truly holy ground for disciples of Jesus in the United States.
I left Good Shepherd in May with a box of books on strategic planning and church growth. I had every intent to read all of these books during sabbatical. The Holy Spirit, however, had a different plan. I’ve done some reading and studied a lot during sabbatical, but not in any of the ways that I had expected.
Senior Pastor’s Retreat: This event is always a highlight of my year. It is a week-long gathering of Senior Pastors from the largest ELCA congregations. Each year, it gives us a chance to learn from one another and some of the leading theologians and organizational leaders in the world.
This year, as we met in Ft. Meyers, FL, the Rev. Dr. Anna Madsen from the OMG Center in Sioux Falls, SD, led a week-long conversation about what it may mean to be an apostolic church in a post-Christian world. We also heard from other church leaders like the ELCA’s Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and Dan Speckhard, the President and CEO of Lutheran World Relief.
Wendy was not able to join me this year, so I drove from Bismarck to Ft. Meyer’s, FL and back.
ELCA Worship Jubilee: The ELCA hosts a national worship conference every few years. It is an opportunity to learn from some of the church’s leading figures in music and worship ministries. This year’s jubilee was an exceptional representation of the variety of worship music and styles that we celebrate in the ELCA. The conference theme was “Called to Be a Living Voice.” This theme challenged all participants to listen deeply for how God is calling our church to be a living voice in the world today – a world that continues to become less and less connected to local Christian congregations in the communities we live.
Peder Gulleson, Good Shepherd’s Director of Music & Worship, was also at the Worship Jubilee. It was good to be with him as we spent time dreaming, praying, and discussing the incredible ways that God is calling Good Shepherd in its worship life together.
Rest & Renewal
Sabbatical gives one a chance to experience rest and renewal in ways that are simply not possible through any other means. It is far from a vacation. And far more renewing than any vacation experience I’ve ever had.
NO Technology: I made a conscious decision to eliminate all social media and email during sabbatical. At times, this proved to be quite challenging. All of the time, however, this proved to be one of the most important accomplishments during sabbatical. Words cannot explain the rest that I’ve experienced for the first time in over a decade after not receiving a telephone call or text message at 2:00 a.m. for 3 complete months. And I didn’t have to respond to 100+ emails or Facebook and Twitter posts on a daily basis. If you’ve never taken a technology Sabbath, I strongly advise it as a transforming spiritual discipline.
Time with Family: It was good to have an extended period of time with my 3 girls. We enjoyed more family meals together than we have since the girls were born. We also enjoyed a few days in Medora and time with grandma and grandpa in Montana.
Work around the house: As many know, we moved into a different home last fall. We love this new home, but have spent a lot of time and money loving it back to life after years of it not receiving much love. I tackled a few projects during sabbatical that I would never have considered in the past. Taping, texturing, and painting the garage and several small construction projects involving tools I had never used before. These might seem like simple things for most handy husbands and fathers, but for this guitar player/book loving husband, father, and pastor, they were incredibly significant!
The most significant aspect of spiritual growth that has occurred during sabbatical is a deeper understanding and belief in God’s presence in every moment of my life – at play, at rest, at work.
Men’s Rite of Passage (M.R.O.P.): The M.R.O.P. event, held every two years at the end of June at the Audubon Center of the Northwoods in Sandstone, MN, is quite possibly the most bizarre, challenging, soul-searching thing I have ever done for my spiritual journey. It is also one of the most grace-filled experiences of my life. M.R.O.P. is grounded in Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr’s teachings on masculine spirituality. It is really impossible to explain fully with words what I experienced during this week of ritual, fasting, prayer, and searching. I will be forever grateful for this amazing experience. I believe it will forever shape my spiritual practice and growth.
Worship: I was able to worship in more than 20 different communities of faith throughout the United States. It was exciting to be with small congregations in Bismarck and celebrate God’s unconditional love in community together. I was also able to worship in congregations that are completely different than worship in small congregations. One such experience was worship in one of the largest Christian congregations in the United States – Cornerstone Church in Nashville, TN. And I was blessed to worship at Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison, AL, one Sunday morning in May. Messiah has been a wonderful partner with Good Shepherd in our mission and ministry in El Salvador. Members of Messiah have been part of our Mission Teams to El Salvador on several occasions.
First and foremost, a sabbatical every 5 years is a significant and gracious gift for pastors who serve Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. I am thankful for this opportunity. I hope and pray that my service within and through this congregation is strengthened and renewed as a result of God’s work through this sabbatical time. I look forward to all of the ways that we will be called as children of God, disciples of Jesus “to share the Shepherd’s love with all of God’s children.”
Second, all of us who call Good Shepherd Lutheran Church our church home are blessed by the amazing staff and Church Council leadership of this place. I give God thanks and praise for these amazing brothers and sisters in Christ who continue to go above and beyond in order to fulfill what God is calling this community of faith to live out in ministry and mission. It is an incredible blessing to be called to serve with each of you. I hope and pray that this sabbatical time has been a blessing for you as well.