I have now been back from my sabbatical for 3 weeks. In many ways, I am still basking in the restful glow of having three and a half months off to study, rest, and most importantly play. This sabbatical came at an interesting time in my life. I turned 40, which means in the eyes of my profession as a pastor, I’m caught between not-so-young anymore and not-old-enough. I am too old to be a part of any young clergy groups and not aged enough to say “that’s not how it used to be in my day” with any integrity. And I enter my 10th year of ordained ministry and my time here at my current church. In fact, I’m still at my first call.
I also began my sabbatical in the fifth year of what could be considered a mid-life crisis, mid-ministry itch, or pastoral identity conundrum. A few years ago, I remember writing a blog about my journey in processing my sense of call. My expectation was that in time I would just figure things out. But five years later, here I am still conundrum-ing my way through ministry. In my attempt to figure things out, I began seeing a spiritual director – someone that I could verbally vomit all my thoughts and feelings in the hopes that he could help me hear God’s voice and my voice.
I began running again after a 10-year hiatus from any activity remotely physical. When I first started, it felt as if I was running away – maybe trying to run away from feeling this way. As my feet hit the pavement, I found myself chanting “I’M-GOING-TO-BE-OKAY.”
I’M GOING TO BE OKAY. I’M GOING TO BE OKAY. I’M GOING TO BE OKAY.
I found myself repeating that as if I was trying to convince myself that I am going to be okay.
As months went by my running mantra would shorten to “I’m going to be.” What am I going to be? I don’t know yet, but for now I’m just going to be . . . present, patient, gracious to myself.
A few more weeks would go by and I found myself just chanting “I’m going,” which gave me the space to dream all the possibilities I could be going, want to be going, and hope to be going.
My hope as I kept running was that eventually my running mantra would simply be “I AM,” but before I knew it my sabbatical began. It couldn’t have come sooner because I entered this sabbath time exhausted. The funny thing about sabbaticals is that people have many ideas of what you should be doing on your sabbatical – pilgrimages, silent retreats, exotic vacations, studying some reformed theologian blah blah blah . . . It all sounded tiring. For the most part all I wanted to do was play, rest, and have fun. But in addition to doing that, I did three things that really impacted my five year crisis-itch-conundrum.
Working the Plan
In the Presbyterian church, pastors have an opportunity to attend CREDO sponsored by the Board of Pensions. It is a time for pastors to evaluate their health spiritually, physically, financially, and vocationally. If you go to a CREDO conference, you will come to know the term “working the plan.” It basically means that you are working on the goals you made for yourself. I scheduled a time to meet with a financial advisor, mainly because I was curious to see if I would ever be able to afford to retire. In looking over my finances, he said “you are going to be okay.” I had him repeat it and he wrote on a piece of paper “you are going to be okay.” He was repeating my running mantra, except instead of me trying to convince myself that I’m going to be okay, he was actually saying it.
Later in meeting with a spiritual advisor, she said that since I seem to be okay physically, spiritually, and financially, then I have all this time to focus on what I want to do in my vocation. She suggested making it a part of my job description – carving out time in the week to discern my call.
Over my sabbatical, I did two things that can be considered work. I keynoted a Presbyterian Women’s Conference and preached at Presbyterian Youth Triennium, where over 5000 youth gather from across the country. Besides age and the fact that one conference was for women and another for youth, there were some wonderful similarities between them. At both conferences, I met committed people – young and old – trying to figure out how to live a faithful, Christ-like life.
At the Presbyterian Women’s Conference, the theme was “Seasons” and I spoke about their call to share their story of faithful living as a legacy to the next generation and yet allow space for them to interpret, change, and experience it in their own way. This was a group trying to figure out like most churches how to attract younger women to participate in their ministry.
At the youth conference, the theme was “I AM.” The personal irony of that theme didn’t go unnoticed. The text assigned to me was the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. In that sermon, I ended with “It took only one youth for Jesus to feed five thousand.” The youth simply offered what he had so that Jesus could use it in miraculous ways. I doubt the youth knew that his meager meal could be transformed abundantly. The youth simply had to offer. I talk with many young people who wonder if the church even wants to accept what they are willing to offer – their insight, wisdom, energy, and perspective.
I find the dichotomy of these two conferences common in the church, where the older seeks younger participation, but struggles how to do so and the younger strive to be heard and active in the church only to find their voices not equally valued or accepted. As someone who finds herself in the middle, I am curious to discover how God will use my meager offerings and my voice.
So in my third week of post-sabbatical work, kids returning to school, and activity increasing at the church, I find myself working the plan. For me that means volunteering in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit as a baby cuddler. As I continue to discern this abstract thing of vocation and call, I will do something tangible, like hold babies who need touch and warmth. I will share my faith story and simply offer myself, letting go of any urgent need to understand the miraculous ways Jesus works. I will embrace this new chapter with curiosity and excitement as my call transitions from associate pastor to co-pastor.
And eventually as I live in this crisis-itch-conundrum, I can simply be “I AM” – present with God.