This week: A pastor realizes that her sabbatical isn’t complete until the re-entry is achieved. Hear her plea:
Greetings, sisters in ministry –
I am wrapping up a much-needed sabbatical and beginning to feel human again. I return to my congregation this fall. What practices might the Matriarchs recommend, to help the re-entry go as well as possible? What feelings might I watch out for in myself as I return to work & ministry? What behaviors or reactions might I anticipate in the congregation? Looking forward to your wisdom!
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After my sabbatical in 2009, I found these things upon my return:
- The congregation wanted to know what I’d done and it was clear that they needed to hear what I’d done which would help them/make me a better pastor for them. They needed to hear that this was not merely a vacation. I worked on resting for them (and for me.)
- Some people will be resentful that you got this sabbatical. I made it a point to say that – in a perfect world – everyone should get a sabbatical for the purpose of renewal one’s vocational purpose. Like other academic vocations (teaching and medicine for example) clergy need this time to step back and reflect for the sake of their own spiritual health and the spiritual health of the congregation.
Hope the re-entry is beautiful!
Associate Executive Presbyter for Ministry
The Presbytery of Chicago
When I took a sabbatical a couple years ago, I was fortunate to have a connection with Dick Bruesehoff who wrote a book on sabbatical planning for The Alban Institute a few years ago. It was a fifteen year project, so he gleaned quite a bit of helpful information. I asked Dick exactly this question. This is what he told me from his research and the anecdotal conversation with many colleagues. (Sorry, it’s a little long.) Dick served on the churchwide staff of the ELCA for many years.
Dick encouraged me to consider (1) How do I re-enter personally? (2) How do I re-enter with the leadership of the congregation?
Then he emphasized this: “Regardless of how good the sabbatical had been, there is often depression that sets in the first few weeks. Don’t be surprised if you have a lingering sense of, “Oh, $##*!” You are loosing something as you return; freedom of naming your own schedule, and finding things you enjoyed doing. Sabbatical consultants are helpful in the planning of the sabbatical (ideally), and it is helpful to find someone to help process these pieces following your return to full-time ministry.
It is not at all unusual for folks to return from sabbatical more clear on what their work and life priorities are. It is good to pay attention to those internal rhythms that we have. We ignore those at our peril. What would it be like to talk with key leaders about 3-4 key priorities that you bring with you upon your return? Have you discovered any habits you established or reestablished over sabbatical that have been revitalizing, grounding, life-giving…
What challenges do you anticipate in maintaining those habits you’ve established or reestablished on sabbatical? Who will you connect with to help you with this? Is there a Mutual Ministry Team that is already established? A different group of leaders in your congregation?
What feeds you? Pay attention to what you’re hungry for. Eat/drink liberally of that. What do you need to not just survive, but to THRIVE in ministry?
The biggest pitfalls to avoid post sabbatical are not anticipating that you come back different than when you left in ways that you may not even be able to anticipate yet. It may feel “clunky”, “disjointed”. Don’t be surprised by that. Let that be your teacher. Best not to try to get “back” to your old normal. You can’t go back, you can only go forward. Stand back and ask, “What is God up to here now?”
Spend a lot of time talking with other people who have been in the thick of things these last three (or so) months and ask them what they have noticed. Do a lot of listening when you return.
I also found it helpful to write a summary of what I did and learned on sabbatical that I included as a bulletin insert for several weeks, as well as in the newsletter, and utilized several opportunities (council, adult education) to talk about my experiences.
Blessings and peace to you as you return. In an ideal world your congregation will have grown some positive new leadership gifts while you’ve been away on sabbatical. Keep breathing.
SoulWiggles (aka Anne Andert)
I just wrapped up a much appreciated sabbatical myself. I was a little surprised at how hard it was to come back even though I love my community and love my job, and even though things went very well in my absence. I am not usually cranky about work, and so I had to notice and make space for my own crankiness.
I think the reason it was a bit difficult coming back was that I had very successfully laid down all the burdens of ministry and also had taken a break from paying attention to the world’s woes. Picking up the sad stories of my parishioners and the sad stories of earth along with my responsibilities felt heavy.
I have been very grateful for a metaphor given to me by another minister I spoke to during the sabbatical time. He told me about a keystone sermon he preached once, titled “Hamals Do It the Hard Way” that is illustrative of his model of ministry. Hamals are persons who unload the heavy cargo from pack animals and transport it up the narrow alleyways that a camel or ox can’t fit into . This was a hereditary job in Middle Eastern culture. Hamals spent so much time under heavy loads that they never stood upright. Rick’s image of ministry is that we carry heavy burdens, heavy responsibilities, but we don’t have to do it stooped over like the Hamals. He prefers the image of the African women who carry heavy jars of water beautifully balanced on top of their heads, walking upright. Being erect and balanced is the perfect way to carry heavy responsibilities. This particular pastor spoke about his meditation practice and his love of classical music as two of the factors that help him stay balanced.
I would encourage you to pay particular attention to whatever helps you stay balanced as you pick up the burdens of ministry once again. If you cultivated a healthy habit during sabbatical that you would like to keep, make a commitment with yourself to bring that with you out of your sabbatical time.
Peace, Rev. Dee Eisenhauer
Eagle Harbor Congregational United Church of Christ
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Thank you, dear Matriarchs for your wise and compassionate responses.
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Rev. Sharon M. Temple currently serves as Designated Pastor of the delightful Brookmeade Congregational United Church of Christ in Nashville TN. She blogs at Tidings of Comfort and Joy and contributed an essay to There’s a Woman in the Pulpit.
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