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.