a possible new approach for congregations to organize around their mission.

I have read quite a bit about congregation dynamics, organization, and governance in the past few years in addition to serving an historic, urban congregation. As our world and culture changes, so too must our congregations. We cannot keep doing things the way they were done in the 1950s. So what do we do, and what might that look like? Here is a model I have been tinkering with.

It is in our congregations that our mission and vision is best incarnated. It is through our congregations that we change ourselves, our communities and our culture. Please note that I am not using the traditional definition of “congregation” here, but am expanding it to include any community of faith. For these purposes, a congregation might be a covenanted community or other emerging organization that does not fit the traditional definition.

I propose a 6H Approach for congregations to use to serve their mission:

  • HEALING those participants who are spiritually wounded and struggling, providing resources (such as pastoral care and counseling) to those in spiritual need who choose to participate in the life of the congregation. So many people come to us desperate for our message of love and acceptance. And so many of those already with us have crises in our lives during which we need a community of love and support. Before any of the other steps can take place, people need to be spiritually rejuvenated.

  • HOLDING participants in care through providing opportunities for them to make connections with others in the congregation; and through worship and religious education opportunities that help them deepen their faith. This step must continue through the rest of the process, as it grounds participants in the congregation and its mission.

  • HEARING and honoring the the stories of participants, recognizing that each person and each story is unique and brings something to the table. An important part of this step is to create space to encourage participants to discern how they are called to minister to each other and to the world. There are deep discernment and spiritual direction components to this step.

  • HELPING participants to gain the skills/training/experience necessary to live out their ministry. It may mean saying “This does not fit with our mission” and returning to the HEARING phase. Provided the ministry does fit into the mission of the congregation, it may mean connecting them with an existing ministry. It means holding participants accountable and helping them create a plan for the ministry. It means helping a participant to learn/discover the risks/cracks in their plans. In this step, the congregation might provide leadership training, or grant writing training. Or perhaps the congregation would help connect participants with others in the local/extended community who are interested in or already doing similar work.

  • HANDING OFF the mission to the participant(s). Provided the ministry fits with the mission of the congregation, the congregation needs to trust the participants and not micromanage every level of detail of their ministry. The congregation should give the participant(s) access to the resources of the congregation (newsletter, facebook page, copy machine, etc.) with clearly defined policies, limits, and expectations.

  • HOMECOMING provides the essential accountability and ongoing connection between the congregation as a whole and the various ministries in which participants are engaging. Is the ministry effective? Does it continue to fit with the congregation’s mission? What might need to be updated? What is working that other ministries might be interested in replicating? This phase is also a time for people to review and renew (or change) their connections with different ministries – perhaps an individual will want to re-enter the Hearing phase for additional discernment.

With the 6H Approach, congregations could structure themselves around these different steps. There would still need to be strong governance of the congregation, but this would help organize the congregation’s ministry around its mission. In this way, with the mission at the forefront, congregations can better be about the work of transformation.

In the interest of transparency, I haven’t yet tried this out in a congregation but I hope to have a conversation around these lines with my congregation when I return from sabbatical.

I welcome feedback and thoughts/suggestions.

feeling impotent about Ferguson.

As a human being in general, and as a minister in particular, I am called to pay attention; to pay attention to what is going on in the world around me, particularly when I would rather focus on much easier topics. To bear witness to the highs and lows of human life.

I have been struggling with that this week. I don’t want to pay attention. I am on sabbatical, the kids just started school, I finally have time to myself. I want to work on the book I have in my head. I want to tackle that enormous reading list.

I open the book I am supposed to read for my study group in November, and this is what I see.

In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Ferguson, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed at random, we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all America. No American is without responsibility. All are involved in the sorrow that rises from Ferguson to contaminate every crevice of our national life. The people of Ferguson will struggle on for the soul of the nation, but it is fitting that all America help to bear the burden. I call, therefore, on clergy of all faiths to join me in Ferguson…In this way all America will testify to the fact that the struggle in Ferguson is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land.

The original is the telegram issued by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on March 8. 1965. I changed “Selma” to “Ferguson” because that is what my heart read. And as I read it, my throat closed and my spirit cried out.

Fifty years, and we are still viciously maltreating our citizens, and sorrow rises to contaminate every crevice of our national life.

I know so many of us feel similarly right now. So many of us are hurting, overwhelmed by the issues going on in Ferguson and elsewhere around the country.  We may want to just ignore it, but since it is not going away, we get drawn in.

Our pain is a testament to our interconnection. We hurt, seeing and hearing about these events, because we know we are connected to those who are suffering, in Ferguson and beyond. We have an innate capacity for compassion, to want to reduce suffering if we can. And right now, many of us feel impotent.  “What can I do about it?” we may ask ourselves.

I find hope in the increasing intensity of what is happening – not just in Ferguson, but around the country. The longer people are demanding justice and are showing up in Ferguson and in solidarity in our own towns, then isn’t it more likely that something must change?

This is the start of something big, something hopeful but not without pain. The best way to address that pain is to do something that has meaning. No matter how impotent those of us at a distance may feel, there are things we can do to help out. This list that the Huffington Post put out is the best I have seen.

So hang in there with me. Pay attention, but take breaks. Take care of yourself. Step away from the computer and take your dog for a walk. Hug a loved one. Call a friend. Go see a movie.

Then, when you are rejuvenated, read through that list again and do something about the next item on it. In this way, instead of going out in a blaze of existential impotence, we might keep the flame of justice and compassion burning within us for as long as it takes to see this through. May it be so.

book chapter.

A huge part of my sabbatical is working on a book that reflects on lessons and experiences I had in Roller Derby and applies them to psychological, sociological, and theological topics. Each chapter has two titles: the first one, in capital letters is the basic concept, followed by a phrase or inspiration from derby.

I won’t promise to post all the chapters, but I will post many of the first drafts. What do you want to know more about? What should I write less about? I welcome all constructive feedback, questions, curiosities.

Towards that end, here is the chapter I am calling…

RISK / Liv Fearless
I sat there in the car and I could not help but wonder what on earth I was doing. Even though my family was at church, it was one of my Sundays off. And there I sat, outside a roller rink, wondering if I would get out of the car and go in. Surely, I did not belong there. The other women who I saw go in were much younger, in better shape, and infinitely more hip than I had ever been in my life. So there I sat.

As the sun streamed down on the beautiful morning, I thought about what had gotten me to this parking lot in the first place. I was still new in town, having relocated my family nine months earlier so that I could take my first full-time settled ministry position. I wasn’t having a lot of success creating a community of friends around me – something that I was not only used to but that I craved. Ministry was lovely and wonderful and I was having an amazing time, but a part of me needed to just let loose every now and then. I was feeling wound up. I knew I needed to find some way to release this pent up energy, and soon.

We had previously watched the movie “Whip It!” and I had loved it. It was an interesting experience for me, because I realized that though I liked Bliss, the main character played by Ellen Page, I did not relate to her the way I would have even 10 years ago. Watching then, as a mother with 2 elementary school kids, with a career of my own, I could remember what it was like to flounder to find my own way in life. And yet now I was engaged in a different kind of finding my way, trying to prove myself in a new place and a new job. I related more to Kristen Wiig’s character Maggie Mayhem, a mother who was trying to juggle the many needs pulling on her. But it was not the human characters that so fascinated me in the movie. It was the Roller Derby.

Prior to watching “Whip It,” I had no idea such a sport existed. I vaguely recall there being a televised games on after pro-wrestling, but neither were something that appealed to me at the time. And it never would have crossed my mind that the sport might be going through an enormous growth spurt.

I quickly determined that there was a flat-track Roller Derby league in town, and we went to a bout. The music was loud, and the hits were hard. As I sat there watching these women skate around the track, colliding with each other, falling, getting up, skating more, I yelled over the music to my spouse “I want to do THIS!”

Just a few weeks later, we were at the local St. Patricks Day parade, in which the team was participating. Like a scene from a movie, one of the skaters came right up to me, shoved a flier in my hand and said “Have you ever thought about being in Roller Derby?” Why yes, yes I had.

The flier indicated that the information session was on a Sunday, and that bootcamp training was on Sunday mornings. This caused me a moment of despair, since Sundays are a prime workday for me as the sole minister in a congregation – definitely not something I could just work around. But I looked on the calendar and saw that the information session was on one of my Sundays off, so I thought maybe I would go and check it out.

So there I sat.

And sat. I worried about what people would think if I actually went through with this. I worried about how my congregants might react. I worried about what the skaters might think when they found out what I did for a living.

But then I began to think about all the times fear and anxiety had kept me from doing something, whether it was something relatively small like trying a new restaurant or talking to someone new, or something larger I had always wanted to try, like skydiving or doing a study abroad in college. I thought about my daughters, and what I wanted to model for them. And I thought about what I would say to a congregant who came to me with a similar quandary: “Will you regret it more if you don’t check it out?”

Finally, it was almost time for the session to begin. I knew it was time to get out of the car and walk through those doors. But those first steps into the unknown? They are so difficult. They can be the most difficult steps we take.

I remember those steps. I remember getting out of the car, and closing the door behind me. I remember my heart, pounding with anxiety as I walked across the parking lot towards the doors of the rink. I remember that the first door I tried was locked, which was almost enough to make me give up. But I had seen other people going in, so I tried another door, which thankfully opened.

And then I heard something that instantly made me more comfortable. A woman cried out “Yay, Rookies!” as several of us looked around confused. She pointed to where the orientation session would be and off we went.

I am often my own worst enemy. As I sat in the car, I had been telling myself a story about how I didn’t belong there at the rink because I was too old, or too out of shape, or too whatever. And that story almost stopped me from doing something that would turn out to be one of the most formative experiences of my life. Almost.

Instead of letting that voice of anxiety be the last voice, I managed to gather up my inner resources and get out of the car and walk in. It may sound crazy, but it was one of the hardest things I have ever done by choice.

Someone once tried to describe to my child what it means to brave. “It means not having any fear,” she said. But that is not right. Bravery is not about the absence of fear, it is about overcoming fear.

Was I being brave the way soldiers are brave when they go into battle? No. Was I being brave the way a parent is forced to be brave when dealing with a child with a terminal illness? No. But that does not mean it was not a form of bravery nonetheless. I was taking a risk. And risking is a way of being brave.

Taking a risk means doing something even though you know you might fail. It means being ready to not only accept, but embrace failure. It is in taking risks that we experience some of the most profound growth as human beings as we learn about the limits of what we are and are not capable of.

When we are afraid to take risks, afraid that we might fail, we are often telling ourselves a story. The fear of failure comes because we don’t want to be seen as vulnerable, or as lacking somehow. We don’t want others to see our limitations, to see that we are only human after all. So often, we want to project this image that we have all our shit together, that we are strong and capable. We shy away from anything that might threaten our ability to project such a mirage.

The paradox is that we can not get all our shit together, develop strength and resilience, become the amazing people we are capable of being without knowing what it is like to fail. Which means taking a chance, taking a risk.

One of my favorite quotes ever, perhaps one of the most influential quotes in my life if I were to think about it, is from author Marianne Williamson. She writes:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

It might seem like a stretch to say that getting out of my car that day was a way of letting my light shine, but it was, even if no one saw it other than me. Everyone who sat there during that orientation was nervous – some more so, some less. None of us knew what to expect. And yet we had managed to overcome our fear.

I have found that, at times of deepest fear or anxiety in my life, times when I feel almost immobilized, I am able to recall those minutes in the car. If I can do that, I tell myself, I can do anything. I choose to try to live my life, not without fear because that is impossible, but constantly overcoming my fear.

It was on that day that Liv Fearless was born – on that walk from the parking lot to the doors of the rink. She was born during the orientation, when I saw that the bootcamp practices were Sunday morning and I resolved to ask if I could get some sort of special dispensation due to my work schedule (I did, and I did!). She was born to help me overcome my own anxiety, to take risks, to let my own light shine so that others might do similarly.

problems with being on the fringe.

This blog entry originally appeared over on The Lively Tradition

I have heard Unitarian Universalist congregations described as “Islands of Misfit Toys.” This metaphor comes from the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV show from the 70s that many of us are probably familiar with.

The problem with acting as though we are islands of misfit toys is that we just stand around doing nothing. Toys are meant to bring joy to peoples’ lives. Television viewers celebrate when all the toys leave the island and go find homes where they can live into the fullness of their creation. If we, as Unitarian Universalists, relegate ourselves to the fringe, to being islands of misfit toys, then we are not out there living into the fullness of our past, present, and future.

Taken one step further, if we want to be about cultural transformation, we cannot abdicate our power by putting ourselves on the fringe. We need, instead, to be out there, amongst people, speaking the language of the culture that we are trying to transform. Goodness knows they need us actively loving the hell out of the world, particularly in weeks like this when hell is on display in every window.

A few years ago, I saw an increase in my colleagues taking Spanish lessons as we prepared to have a very unique General Assembly in Phoenix. We wanted to be able to speak to people on their terms, about their lives. This is as it should be.

Beyond Phoenix, and beyond Spanish, I believe we are uniquely positioned to be multi-lingual. We have the ability to speak to those on the fringe (where many of us, are, frankly, more comfortable). AND we have the ability (if we are willing to claim it) to speak as peers to those in power.

If we, as a faith tradition, are content with being on the fringe, then we might as well write our obituary. Not only will we not be about cultural transformation, but we will have lost our way entirely. Let us instead use our power and privilege in solidarity with those who need it. So many do.

 

Comments redirected to The Lively Tradition.

being part of Christendom, pragmatically speaking.

This is part 2 of a blog exploring Unitarian Universalism’s location in relationship to Christendom (that is, the world of Christianity).  Tom Schade graciously hosted the first part at his blog “The Lively Tradition“.  Since I wrote that first part, I’ve been thinking about the next logical question: So what?  So what if UUs are a part of Christendom?

Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship

One way to address the “So what?” question is to look at what it means internally.  Does being a part of Christendom affect our congregations, our people, our mission?  I believe it does.  I have sometimes heard people describe UU congregations as places where “We welcome people with all sorts of theological beliefs…except Christians.”  Indeed, many of our congregations are hostile places for UU Christians.  This closes these congregations off to religiously liberal people for whom the definition of Christian may be quite broad and inclusive; people who are looking for what we uniquely offer.  Since we have not disassociated ourselves from Christendom, the hypocrisy of these congregations is glaring, and irrational. It is hampering our ability to live our mission. It is hampering our ability to get our saving message to those who so desperately need it.

As an aside: I am sure someone will correct me if I mistaken, but it seems to me that our congregations in the South are a little bit better (on the whole) at welcoming a liberal Christian.  Perhaps it is because of the deeply religious culture that they are surrounded by.  I think this is especially notable, as it is in the South and the Bible Belt in which our congregations are experiencing the most growth…

Getting back to the issue at hand: There are also external ramifications to being a part of Christendom.  For one, it gives us not only the power to critique others who reside in Christendom, it also gives us the authority.  Let me explain with an example.  First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans recently had an encounter with Operation Save America, wherein OSA disrupted First UU’s worship service and harassed the church members.  There is a wonderful interfaith letter written to the New Orleans Advocate about the event.

An OSA member briefly put a YouTube video online, with footage he had shot during the encounter and his rationale for what/why they were doing it.  In it, he shared that they were disturbed that the UU “church” (their quotes, not mine) was actually a cult and was leading children astray, etc, etc.

Now, if we had disassociated ourselves from Christendom, then we could critique their actions and subsequent justification, but it would be coming from an outsider position, speaking mostly to our own experience of the encounter and the pain it caused. It might have power, but it would not have authority. But becuase we have not disassociated ourselves from Christendom, we can stand with both power and authority and firmly say “You do not hold the monopoly on what it means to be Christian. And you behaved in a manner that was decidedly not Christian.”  We can pull rank, as it were, as our faith tradition is older than the belief in the rapture, a hallmark belief of Christian Fundamentalists.

The “So what?” question also leads me to reconsider how our congregations relate to other religious organizations when working for social justice.  I was moved by this year’s Ware Lecturer  Sister Simone Campbell to reconsider my response to an ecumenical organization that had contacted me wondering if the church I serve would be interested in joining with them.  I responded then that since they were not an interfaith organization, I could not in good conscious recommend this to the congregation.  I have since reconsidered and hope to start a conversation with the congregation I serve about joining this organization as soon as I return from my sabbatical.  This ecumenical organization is doing amazingly good work. It is our loss for not participating.  And…

This leads to a final “So what?” So we might be able to change the conversation, provided we stay in it!  Perhaps we can help that ecumenical organization become an interfaith one, but that is not going to happen if we continue to absent ourselves from the conversation.  Unitarian Universalists are notoriously uncomfortable with our  collective privilege.  Being a part of Christendom is a privileged position in this country, so it is not surprising that we have tried to distance ourselves from it. Especially with Christianity becoming synonymous with fundamentalism (something that is driving many Christians crazy).

Those of us who are in places of privilege (or perceived privilege) in our individual lives are learning to use that privilege to be better allies, as is demonstrated in the video below. As a faith tradition, Unitarian Universalists can collectively use our privileged location within Christendom (no matter our personal theological bend) to become a force that cannot help but impact the future of Christendom, and beyond.

That is why it matters.

the stages of vacation.

This year, for the first time in recent memory, my family and I were able to take a two-week vacation. It was quite an experience, which I recommend to everyone if you are able to do so!  But I could not help “getting up on the balcony” and watching my own process during the trip. Here is what I learned about my own personal “stages of vacation.” They may or may not resonate with you.

Days -1-0: Anxious planning

Holy crap, we are about to leave for 2 weeks. Have I done everything/packed everything/planned for everything? What am I forgetting? (What I forgot: to turn in that Redbox movie…whoops).

Days 1-2: Disbelief

Am I really on vacation? I needed this so badly, I can’t believe it is finally here. Thank goodness. But, um, exactly how does one “relax”??

Days 3-4: Reorienting

Okay, I am getting into the swing of things. I don’t have to rush. I don’t have to do everything all at once.  Thank goodness this is a two-week trip or else it would be half over.

Days 5-11: Enjoying

Yes! This is the life! Takin’ my time, relaxing, no rush to do anything or get anywhere.  The kids are happy, the spouse is happy.  And I am definitely happy. I wish we could be like this all the time.

Days 12-13:  Missing Home

This has been nice, but I miss my bed. And I miss all the utensils and gadgets in my kitchen. And my pets. I will try to savor these last few days, but I think that I am ready to go home.

Day 14: Returning

YAY! We are going home.  What a great vacation, and I will be so glad to be home.

Day 15: Exhaustion

Ok, I need to unpack, do the grocery shopping, do laundry, pay bills, balance the checkbook, check up on email, sort through the mail, clean up after the pets, sort through all these pictures…I think I need a vacation!

May you find the time and resources to get away long for long enough that you are able to look forward to returning home.

recharge, reorient, recommit

Recharge, Reorient, Recommit
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on June 22, 2014

Listen to the sermon here.

Five years ago, we started our journey together. And what an amazing ride it has been. We’ve done so much together in that time – some of it has been wonderful and exciting, some of it has been really, really hard. We’ve stopped relying on endowment principle and balanced the budget, we processed ways we could be more multigenerational and created the Religious Exploration hour, we have seen the birth of new programs, the death of some that were no longer sustainable. We’ve had staff turnovers, negotiated conflict, helped to host a General Assembly, and had a wonderful capital campaign. And so much more. In these five years, I have grown as a minister, and you have grown as a congregation.

In fact, I have been so caught up in the whirlwind of life at First Unitarian that I’ve barely had time to process it all. After these rich and exciting, challenging and busy five years, I need to take a step back and make sense out of them. And so it is with both excitement and nervousness, plus, frankly, quite a bit of disbelief, that I stand up here before you knowing that it is my last time at this pulpit until January. Starting in July, I will be taking four weeks of vacation and then embarking on a five month sabbatical.

The paid ministerial sabbatical is an important part of our tradition. The standard letter of agreement between Ministers and Congregations, which my letter of agreement follows, states that a minister earns one month of sabbatical for every year at a congregation, with the sabbatical being taken every five to seven years. So we are right on time according to the letter of agreement. But I know that questions remain: where does this tradition come from? What will I be doing on sabbatical? What do I hope the congregation will be doing? These are the questions I want to address this morning.

First, where does this tradition of a sabbatical come from? Why is it a standard part of the relationship between a minister and a congregation, not just in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, but in many denominational traditions?

The Presbyterian Church compares “the life of a minister with that of a taxi leaving an airport. It is so loaded down with passengers and suitcases and the other items that the car has a hard time even moving and is strained to the point of breaking, yet the taxi may be only a few years old. So [can it be] with clergy…As a result, many, if not all [clergy], experience to one degree or another symptoms of emotional collapse, stress related illnesses [which has definitely hit home with me recently], and “burnout” adversely affecting the minister’s personal, family, and parish life, and greatly diminishing his or her effectiveness and well-being.” The ministerial sabbatical is a way to address this burnout.

One of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever experienced was delivered at a UU Ministers event in 2011. The Rev. Peter Friedrichs talked about how, when ministers are ordained and have the stole laid across our shoulders, we often don’t have any idea how heavy the stole will become. We bear the weight of our call to ministry, plus the hopes, dreams and expectations of the congregation. We bear the weight of the grief, loss and pain that we are asked to carry as ministers, and the weight of the empty leadership positions in the church that need to be filled. As Rev. Friedrichs was listing these weights, he was shrinking, getting smaller. “Suddenly,” he says, “we look down and wonder: has stole gotten longer?

And he continues. We carry the weight of a cloud of witnesses looking over our shoulder – Hosea Ballou, William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker. Here at First U, I often feel the weight of James Freeman Clark, of Robert Terry Weston, of the amazing ministers this congregation has had in it’s formidable history. And ministers also bear the weight of having to bring an idea to fruition each and every week, to craft a worship service that appeals to a variety of generations, educational levels, length of membership, and more. Services that we know cannot be all things to all people, but we hope has something that each person can connect with.

It is enough, Friedrichs demonstrated, to bring us to our knees. Which can be a good place – it is certainly a humble place. But there is more. There is the weight of empty mouths needing food, of rent needing to be paid, of empty pockets. The weight of our families, waiting for us as we are out 2, 3, 4 times a week and can never get away for a weekend because ministers don’t get weekends.

At this point in the sermon, Friedrichs was lying down on the floor. And all the ministers in the room were laughing – not because it was funny, but because it was so familiar. I was going to try to do that today, but I was afraid I might not be able to get up.

Thankfully, that is not the end of the sermon. As we lie on the floor, we pray for enlightenment. And we find it. In the tears of someone who was moved by what we said on a Sunday morning, by watching a new member find their niche and thrive and grow into leadership. We are enlightened by the generosity of a donor who sees a need and comes to us very quietly to make it happen and by a family that is visibly comforted by our presence in the surgery waiting room. And to all this, let me add that the sabbatical is a powerful, powerful way to be enlightened of our burdens.

The sabbatical has it’s roots in scripture. In Genesis, God rests on the seventh day after six days of creation. Later in the Hebrew Scriptures, we are told that in farming, we should let the land rest in the seventh year so that the nutrients in the ground might begin to replenish.

A sabbatical is actually quite different than just a rest – there is a replenishing aspect. “Sabbatical Leave…is a planned time of intensive enhancement for ministry and mission.” In many ways, we follow the model set by the academic community and a growing number of private sector groups in that a sabbatical is “qualitatively different from vacation or days off. [Instead,] it is an opportunity for the minister to strategically disengage from regular and normal tasks so that ministry and mission may be viewed from a new perspective.”

Because sometimes, we really do need a new perspective. There is an old story about a traveler who saw three people at a pile of stones, working hard with hammers and chisels. Curious, the traveler approached the first one. He said, “What are you doing?” Grumpily, the worker spat out, “Just cutting these stones.” The traveler approached the second worker with the same question. The second worker paused, wiped some sweat from his brow, and said, “I do all this to make enough money to support my family. So, that’s what I’m doing.” Then, the traveler came to the third worker, and asked, “And what are you doing?” The third worker stopped what he was doing, and looked at the expanse all around him, before he said, beaming radiantly, “I’m building a cathedral to serve this community for generations to come.”

Even the best minister, who surely wants to feel like she is building a cathedral, sometimes feels like she is merely cutting stones. At such time, a sabbatical can help a minister to recharge professionally and spiritually. It can be a time to reorient the spirit by engaging in areas of ministry that the minister does not normally have time for, and a time to recommit ourselves to our calling.

Which then leads to the next question: What will I be doing on my sabbatical? Though I may be lying on the beach during my vacation, in my sabbatical you will find me, glued to my computer for the part of each day as I write. I want to take my roller-derby sermon and expand it into a book – something I have wanted to do ever since I wrote the sermon 3 years go, but not something I would ever have time for in my normal day-to-day life. And I will be blogging – about my sabbatical experience, and also reflecting on more general issues facing Unitarian Universalism – and maybe even sharing some of my book chapters. You can follow my writing on my blog, and on facebook and twitter.

I also plan to spend a great deal of time reflecting on our relationship. What has worked well? What habits do I want to continue? And, perhaps even more importantly, what about our relationship has not worked so well? What areas need tweaking, and how can I return in January and forge these as new habits rather than just falling into the old ones?

Sometimes, ministers go somewhere special on sabbatical. I know of ministers who have gone to congregations in England or in Australia for their sabbatical time. Or gone to a cabin in the woods for retreat and reflection. At this point, I will not be doing intensive travel on my sabbatical, though I do have a few brief trips planned. This means you are likely to run into me: at the grocery store, walking in the park, at Heine Bros, who knows where. When you do run into me, I would invite you to not hide your head and pretend I don’t exist. I am happy to talk to you and say hello. I am happy to talk about how the book is going, or how I am enjoying sabbatical. I might even ask how you are doing!

As you heard Linette share in our Children’s Moment, my family will also still be around – attending on Sunday occasionally while I am on sabbatical. I ask that you respect their boundaries and not pass messages through them to me or ask how I am doing.

There is one topic that is forbidden to talk about if you see me: how things are going at church. I will not ask and I hope you do not tell me about it either in person or online. Part of my sabbatical is a trust exercise: I trust that y’all can hold the fort while I am gone.  This is important, because this is your church. So, finally, what do I hope that First Unitarian Church will be doing on my sabbatical? A sabbatical is not just for the minister, after all – it is for the congregation as well. Let me bless you with my hopes and dreams for YOU during the sabbatical:

I bless you with a deep sense of lay ownership, which will enable the congregation to better embody your mission. Sabbaticals can rekindle a congregation’s calling. Congregations get busy doing stuff that makes a real difference.

I bless you with improved communication lines and new ones drawn when I am out of the loop.

I bless you with insight. There are ways in which, perhaps, I get in the way of you doing your work. And there are ways that you get in your own way. During this time, you will get a chance to figure out which is which, as well as discover strengths you did not realize you had.

I bless you with permission for new people to get involved. Gifts and talents that are currently unknown can be brought out and cultivated when new people are asked to pitch in.

I bless you with an increased sense of hospitality, as you welcome pulpit supply ministers and guest speakers.

I bless you with a robust immune system. Feed the healthy parts of this congregation, so that when anxiety inevitably rises, you are able to live your covenant and your mission and respond firmly, but not anxiously.

I bless you with letting go of out of date programs and committees that I may be propping up unintentionally. May they not survive when I am not around. This is okay! Prioritize. Let things go that need to go.

And, finally, I bless you with the permission and energy to try new ways of doing things. Balance the new and the old. Let your creativity guide you. Take risks.

We have had an amazing five years together. And I look forward to many more. The sabbatical is time for all of us to recharge, reorient, and recommit ourselves. It is an exciting time. For me, it will be spiritually re-engaging, full of contemplation about my call to ministry, and a re-fueling for the next stage of our time together. For you, I hope the same – that it will be enlivening, and full of positive growth and development. I hope that the story of this sabbatical, several years down the road, will not be a story of a congregation that “just hung in there” but rather one of a church that engaged in new opportunities and endeavors. I can’t wait to hear all about it, in six months. Blessed be.