Reflections from Sabbatical

I’m a processor. Perhaps to a fault. While I can and do make some decisions that call for quick decisions, I much prefer to ponder, pray, simmer all possible perspectives in the pot—especially those not my own, getting in touch with feelings, and praying that God would help me and guide me to see and respond to the situation in the most Christlike way possible. I’m also an overachiever, which can default me to works righteousness even while knowing its futility. The dilemma is the clash between the simultaneous need to process yet pressing ahead to achieve. Which brings me to the why of sabbatical, for me.

You’ve lived and are living—with me—many of the challenges of it the past few years, what with pandemic, economic woes, racial and gender and orientation and reproductive rights oppression, deep political division, wars, refugees and migrants, and climate change, not to mention church culture decline and unsettledness. In my role as bishop, I’m reminded of what Agent K tells Agent J in the original Men in Black movie about not discharging his weapon in public. K says sharply, “The only reason these people go along with their happy little lives is because they Do. Not. Know. about it.” Some of what I know and have seen within the church has been not only concerning but sometimes heartbreaking. Especially when someone like me presses on to the next crisis without processing.

I know our congregations and clergy have struggled in ways we hadn’t seen even five years ago. The relativization of truth, and poor behavior by and toward clergy precipitated by anxiety. How can we be motivated and lead by Gospel love rather than fear? How can there even BE a we (or a synod), when the order of the day is my opinion, my perspective, my affiliation based on what I want to hear, which might be formed at its core by political parties and platforms and personal advantage with a Gospel veneer rather than a Gospel foundation with a zeal for justice that flows from it for ALL people?

I am immensely grateful to our synod staff and synod council who, at last fall’s council meeting, urged me to take the sabbatical that I missed entirely in 2015 because I was elected bishop and then missed again in 2020 because of the pandemic. I’m even more of an advocate for a sabbatical for clergy in particular because of how clarifying and renewing the gift of these past three months has been for me. I hope your congregation will consider it for your clergy, and our office may be able to help if you’d like to talk about the possibility—even of a mini-sabbatical of six weeks. Let me share a bit of what mine was like:

1. Rested and visited with family, including grandbabies, but also some cousins I rarely see. (75%)
2. Processed/pondered back-burner grief with a counselor/therapist. Several sessions. So glad I could and did. It was a blessing to take time to process with someone from outside the system.
3. Represented ELCA Region 9 in the Border Immersion with bishops from the other regions. (5 days) We spent the time with Border Servant Corps in Texas and New Mexico. We met with a wide array of folks about the immigration and border challenges, and obviously there are no easy answers. One thing the wide variety of perspectives agreed on was getting work permits for those who cross the border legally seeking asylum. It can take years before their asylum cases are heard in immigration court, and it benefits everyone if they can legally go to work sooner than the average time of 11 months it’s been taking to get such permits. Not only does it provide those families with sustenance and income, but it also provides much-needed labor for which there frankly are not enough citizens currently to fulfill, particularly in agriculture.
4. Started midway through sabbatical on a 9-week, 5-hour/week course toward an Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising. I hope to help the synod and agencies/institutions with this both in my remaining time as bishop and perhaps in my retirement in some way.
5. Went with Wendy to Berlin, Myrtle Beach, and Charleston for relaxing and fun.

I returned to work when I flew to ELCA Conference of Bishops on February 27 and, with Monday, March 4, as my day off (which I’m going to do a better job of honoring moving forward), my first day back in the office will be March 5, the day you receive this e-news. Again, I am grateful for the time away. I can personally attest that it can mean the difference between either limping along/bad attitude/quitting and returning energized, renewed, and committed! For now, I’m grateful to be your bishop and ready to hit the ground running. I’ve got lots of catching up to do, so I beg your patience if I don’t get back to you right away this month.


Walking with you,

NC Synod Bishop

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