Dear Ones, I am reminded of the best thing I did in the first year of my first call some twenty years ago. I noticed the fatigue and weariness of the lay leaders who had held the ship together during their time of pastoral transition. They were exhausted and looking to me to fix everything that prevented them from being a growing community.
It was a newly (likely prematurely) organized congregation whose founding mission developer left soon after they organized. They were the remnant who had hung in there when he left along with most of the lay leadership. They were faithful, hardworking, and longing for new people to do the work.
So I did what seemed the most obvious to do. I put them, one by one, on a one-month sabbatical. I gave them some Scriptures to read and a journal to write in—their thoughts, prayers, revelations, or anything else. I wanted them to commit to praying for clarity, for what roles in the church were they called to fulfill, and for what roles were they doing because they believed no one else would do them. I encouraged them to let the ones go that they were not called to do. Each leader was surprised at how the community filled in any gaps during their sabbatical and they came out with clarity as to where they were called to use their gifts. This gave space for others to be able to serve in new ways and gave permission to the hardworking faithful to serve joyfully and not begrudgingly.
At this time, with our bishop setting a great example by taking a sabbatical, I am reminded of the many fruits of taking time for family, self-care, and learning in this way. Rostered ministers will attest that even when they take vacations it is hard to unplug. Transitioning from working often six or more days per week and being on call 24/7 for emergencies to an extended leave takes effort and planning. A six-week mini-sabbatical (which this synod started offering post-COVID to address increased rostered minister burnout) or the full-term three-month sabbatical reminds us of our commitment to God’s covenant with us. Rostered ministers are indeed human and are in need of rest and uninterrupted time apart with God to keep them healthy and faithful.
Lay leaders and congregation members benefit from this time apart as well. Many full sabbaticals include projects for the congregation during the absence of their rostered ministers. Even when there isn’t a project, the congregation benefits from the healthy leader who returns often with renewed energy, mission clarity, and strengthened relationships with family and friends.
Please continue to pray for Bishop Timothy Smith as he enters his last month of sabbatical. I hope he learned some things and spent lots of extra time with family but mostly I hope he knows God did not call him to this work without sabbath and that we, the people of the NC Synod, are thankful for his gifts and his great example by taking this sabbath.
If you are like the weary lay leaders in my first parish, I hope you will be inspired to pause to rest and give yourself permission to joyfully serve in new ways.
I also pray that all congregations of our synod have sabbatical policies that create an invitation for rostered ministers to live into this part of the covenant. Oftentimes, congregations commit to every five or six years to provide a sabbatical opportunity to the rostered ministers who serve their congregation. Lilly Endowment, Inc. has great opportunities for funding for sabbaticals through their Clergy Renewal Program and our own synod’s Michael Peeler/Virginia Casey Funds offer grants up to $5,000. As well, we still have limited funding available for mini-sabbaticals by contacting Pastor Danielle DeNise.
Finally, this summer I plan on following my bishop’s example as I will be on sabbatical for three months after Synod Gathering. Thank you for helping make mission happen in the NC Synod by supporting rostered ministers—or as a rostered minister by prioritizing self-care. As our core values indicate, as a synod we promote, support, and celebrate whole and healthy leaders. Having practices and policies that support this core value is essential to mission and ministry…for the sake of the world.
Pastor CeCee Mills
Acting Bishop, NC Synod, ELCA