Monday, May 20, 2013

Sabbatical Reflections [part two]

It's the start of my fourth week back with Anchor since my sabbatical ended. The time is quickly churning by as I talk with Anchorpeople, reconnect with the ministry and the community, participate in meetings, and worship together on Sundays. It's good to be back. 

I'm continually reflecting on my sabbatical and how it changed everything. I've been thinking about how we pulled together to make the sabbatical happen. We did it once, and I think Anchor can make it happen again in seven years. As I reflect on the sabbatical, it seems to me that almost any church could make a sabbatical happen if they plan it out, prepare for it in advance, and pray their way forward in it.

The initial conversation in 2012 about a sabbatical happened in September when Tara and I met with the Pastoral Support Team at McAlister's. The Baumans and Suttons listened to us as we poured out our hearts. In the brutal honesty, we were able to share with them where we were at as individuals, as a couple, and as pastor and pastor's wife. And they asked very good questions. As we talked through the options of what to do, the sabbatical option seemed to have the most promise for healing and hope.

Three and a half months is not enough time to prepare for a sabbatical well. The urgency of the situation, the maturity of the staff and ministry leaders and of the congregation, made it possible to plan and prepare for the sabbatical. However, the idea of a sabbatical had been presented two years prior with our Resource Team. And two years is a better framework for planning and preparing a pastor and congregation for a sabbatical.

In the fall of 2010 I had attended a sabbatical funding workshop in Indianapolis sponsored by the Lilly Foundation. Indiana clergy can apply for a generous grant from the Lilly Foundation for a three to four month sabbatical. If accepted, funds are made possible for the church to function well during the sabbatical, and so that the pastor and his family can receive a salary and have funds to travel and relax and learn on sabbatical. The application and planning process is very rigorous. And much time is needed to prepare.

At the time I presented this opportunity to my family and to Anchor, there was a short window of time to plan and prepare the application. In contemplating whether Anchor could provide a sabbatical for me, I was unsure of it's possibility. I had come to lead Anchor in such a way that the ministry was very pastor-driven, pastor-centered, and pastor-owned. It seemed to me that if I stepped out of ministry for three to four months, the ministry of the church would have some level of chaos with out the pastor.

It was a revealing and convicting moment for me. I could trace out how it came to that point, but the larger issue was how to transition out of it. I was thankful for the revelation, but frustrated by reality. The possibility of a sabbatical through Lilly was very inspiring but also overwhelming. I didn't think that I could make enough changes in three to six months such that the congregation would feel confident they could move forward in ministry without the pastor. Maybe the could've, but I didn't think so.

It was difficult to let go of the Lilly possibility. But I was determined to make some changes so that someday the church would be congregation-centered instead of pastor-centered. Instead of me coming up with great ministry ideas and working to make them happen, I realized that I needed to pay attention to the great ministry ideas the Holy Spirit was stirring up in the congregation. By rearranging my priorities and pouring into the congregation, I would be equipping and encouraging them for ministry. This would make for a lot more ministry getting done, it would remove me from the middle of ministry, and make possible for more leaders to emerge. And with this new kind of environment, a sabbatical would be much more likely and much more beneficial for the whole church.

Once I made that attitude adjustment and began to look for the Holy Spirit to bring forth ministry possibilities through the congregation, neat things began to happen. God started bringing people to Anchor, and started to raise up people out of the congregation to get involved and lead and serve in ministry. In my mind, Anchor began to stabilize and gain confidence in itself when it came to ministry to the community and amongst itself.

In 2011 we introduced a governing process using guiding principles that reshaped how we led. By spending the year refocusing on how we lead, other men and women were able to step up and contribute significantly to problem-solving, to decision making, and ministry needs. With more leaders learning how Anchor makes decisions, and a stronger sense of mission that shapes our decision, the possibility of a sabbatical continued to grow. I continually looked for ways to connect people to ministry opportunities, coaching them as I could, encouraging them and supporting them along the way.

In 2012 my dad died. For a variety of reasons that are best saved for a different blogpost, my dad's death wiped me out. My ministry was tied up in my relationship with my dad. And my ministry with Anchor has been a force in my marriage for thirteen years at that point. The grieving and mourning that Tara and I went through was very difficult on our marriage, and on my ministry. I'm thankful that Anchor had grown in it's ability to lead and serve as a congregation, that it was not nearly as pastor-centered as it used to be. As Anchor's pastor began to wither and stumble, the congregation was able to carry on, and carry me.

For pastors that are interested in a sabbatical but don't feel that their church is big enough to afford it or you don't think you have the staff or leaders to minister during the sabbatical: you can do it.

If you plan and prepare far enough in advance, you can do it. If you are convinced in your heart, if you are convicted by the Holy Spirit that you ought to take a sabbatical, then Jesus will help you prepare and plan your congregation. It was two years of planning and preparing on my end that helped contribute to a good sabbatical experience for Anchor. Lots of other things came together that I will give credit to God for.

But if you want a sabbatical, and you know God wants your church to have one, then prayerfully lead the congregation forward so that they grow in their leadership and serving skills. Reexamine your structure so that it is not so dependent on the pastor. Identify key men and women in your church that have the gift of teaching and give them opportunities to deliver sermons on Sundays. Find out who has a talent for ministering through preaching, and continue to give them ways to develop that gift. Given enough time, God can help you put together a preaching and ministering team so that during the sabbatical you can rest and the congregation can grow.

I'd love to have more dialogue with pastor's and churches to help them figure out how a sabbatical could be used by God to bless them. Let me know if I can help. I'm learning as I go, Anchor is learning as we go forward. We'd love to share what we're learning. 

Click here for more of my sabbatical reflections.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Sabbatical Reflections [part one]

It's my third day back with Anchor Community Church. The time has been spent reconnecting with leaders from the congregation. We've been catching up on the sabbatical experience for all of us. All the conversations have prompted some helpful reflection for me.

I didn't do a lot of reflection about the sabbatical during the four months, but now that I'm on the other side of it, now seems a good time to do so. Over the next few weeks and maybe even months I intend to write out my reflections as a way to connect the congregation to my sabbatical experience.

Anchor provided my family with a tremendous gift for which we will be forever grateful. I want them to know some of what resulted from the gift of the sabbatical. I've begun to hear stories of how God used the sabbatical in the life of the congregation. Apparently we all have a lot of stories to tell. I want to hear them, and share mine.

But I also want to connect with other pastors who may be interested in a sabbatical. It seems to me that most pastors need a sabbatical, but don't believe that it is possible. Through my reflections, I hope to encourage pastors to follow up on their awareness that they do need a sabbatical. Not only that, but then provide some insights on how they can begin to prepare now for helping make a sabbatical possible in their future.

My first brief reflection here centers on the point I just made in regard to pastors: I was convicted, confronted, and eventually convinced that I needed a sabbatical. I needed a Psalm 23 experience.

He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
  He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
  He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

It was with some embarrassment that I admitted I needed a sabbatical. Shouldn't I have managed my life better such that I didn't need a sabbatical? Isn't a sabbatical a luxury item? Who am I to get a sabbatical, shouldn't that be reserved for pastors with more experience or bigger churches who have "real" stress or more complicated, enduring problems that they've had to shoulder? And how dare I ask my small congregation to help fund a sabbatical for me, isn't that selfish of me? If none of them will ever get a sabbatical through their work, how is it fair for me to request that they grant one to me?

You could come up with your own objections to a sabbatical. Maybe the time is not (ever) right. Maybe the money isn't there. Maybe you're too busy to take a break...

Through my family, close trusted friends, through experience, counseling, honest self-assessment, and the Spirit of Christ, and probably some other factors I'm not clear on, I became convinced that I needed a sabbatical. In taking stock of who I was becoming to my wife and children, to my friends and family, and even my congregation, I finally acknowledged that I needed an extended time of cessation from being a pastor. I knew it had to happen. No more putting it off. Either the sabbatical happens, or else something else does...something else not good.

Since sabbaticals aren't a common experience for congregations in my denomination, or many other denominations that I am aware of, there is little precedence for preparing for a sabbatical. Anchor had to dive into uncharted waters to prepare for this sabbatical. Ideally the next sabbatical will occur before I'm worn out, but at just the right time for a Psalm 23 experience for all of us.

But for me, I became convicted that a sabbatical had to happen. That conviction accelerated the conversations and planning. Had we not been operating out of urgency, we may have prepared better for the sabbatical. As it was, God was gracious to the congregation, taking care of all of us as we walked in faith. It was hard work preparing well for the sabbatical, but it was good work that had to happen. Anchor's leaders were amazing in their willingness to step up and help make this experience possible for my family and the congregation.

For pastors reading this who would like a sabbatical, do the research. Find out if there is any precedence in your denomination or region for a sabbatical. Talk to that pastor or congregation. Here's our denomination's helpful guidelines for sabbaticals.

Start paying attention to your schedule and self to determine how weary you are and can you make some small changes immediately. It's better to enter a sabbatical already making some key changes to diet, sleep, schedule and rest.

Continue to pray about the sabbatical with the Lord: does this desire have God's blessing? Is the Spirit of Christ giving you permission to pursue a sabbatical? The conviction and confirmation that you ought to take a sabbatical are key to moving forward. Second-guessing your decision will undermine the success.

For Anchor: with the rapid pace of preparing for the sabbatical, I gave off the impression that I was doing fine, that I had the energy to lead and preach well. I'm grateful that my ministry went well (for the most part...) up to the end of the year. But everything comes with a price to be paid. I was on fumes, I crossed the finish line of December 31st with nothing left in the pastor-tank.

For all the confusion that my sabbatical may have caused, I am sorry. That's maybe part of my pastoring that didn't go well at the end.

But, I was convinced and convicted that the sabbatical had to happen. And I am deeply grateful that Anchor helped make it possible. Thank you.

Check out this link for more blogposts published during my sabbatical, as well as upcoming sabbatical reflections.