A Review of Sabbatical 2011 and a Preview of What It All Means

I want to express my deepest gratitude to Lutheran Church of the Master, Lakewood, Colorado, for allowing me the opportunity to take a sabbatical July 1 – September 24. This follow-up report includes an overview of what was accomplished, some details about the sabbatical, and what it means for LCM.

 First, an Overview:

A sabbatical accomplishes three things: rest and rejuvenation for the pastor, time to engage in something new about which the pastor has an interest, and provide something of benefit to the church. Scotland and Ireland are part of my ancestry, and visiting there has been on my “bucket list” all my life. That’s the rest and rejuvenation part.

I enjoy writing, but haven’t really had much chance to do it. So I incorporated writing as both my new life-giving project as well as the benefit to the church. The writing project, by the way, is a workbook to help congregations follow a series of steps to hear and see what God is up to in their neighborhoods in order to join God in that work. It involves a variety of ways to listen to the neighborhood, to God, and to one another. It offers suggestions for congregations to form a specific plan for engaging the Holy Spirit in God’s work in their specific context. Some of this was from my doctoral work and some of it was from work we’ve tried out at LCM. When the first draft is ready, I’ll be soliciting “pilot” congregations (I trust LCM will be one) to test it out and offer feedback for an updated version—hopefully one suitable for publication.

I spent the first two weeks basically at home emotionally and intellectually disengaging from the daily routine of ministry at LCM. I also did some preparatory work on my writing project.

I traveled then to Edinburgh, Scotland, where I spent the next two weeks touring and writing. This was thoroughly enjoyable. I had no schedule (except when I needed to catch a train), and was able to do whatever I felt like doing each day. Most of the writing I did happened during these two weeks at the Central Library of Edinburgh, conveniently located just off the Royal Mile.

Following this, Lois met me in Dublin, Ireland. We spent the next two and a half weeks together sightseeing through the Republic of Ireland. What an amazing country! Small (about the size of the state of Maine), this island is amazingly diverse. From the Cliffs of Moher and the Dingle Peninsula on the west to the rugged green countryside of the north to the urban mayhem of the city of Dublin in the east to the coasts and mountains of the south, we experienced a wide range of Irish culture and life.

Lois flew home and I spent the next week and a half outside of Tipperary, Ireland. My plan was to hit the writing heavy at this point. I did, for a week, until my computer hard drive crashed. Fortunately I had all my writing backed up, though I did lose a few pictures I had stored on my computer. So I had time to do the one last “touristy” thing Lois and I had neglected: I kissed the Blarney Stone (I hope the results of that are not evident in my preaching).

Coming back to Denver, I had a few weeks to prepare to re-enter congregational life. I visited some extended family and came back refreshed, energized, and with a wider perspective of what it is to be part of the church. Surprisingly, I also came back with some clarity around our Lutheran identity—even though during that whole time in Europe, Lois was probably the only other Lutheran within 500 miles.

 Some Details:

Financially, the cost (beyond what I paid personally) was $21,309.47. Of this, a grant from Wheat Ridge Ministries covered $7,500.00, and LCM’s sabbatical fund covered $13,809.47 (of the $15,000.00 that had been put aside for this). LCM and Wheat Ridge contributions paid for transportation, lodging, food, and entrance to historic sites for me. It did not cover any of Lois’ expenses, nor did it cover any personal items or anything not previously approved by LCM.

Post sabbatical reports were part of the agreement we had with Wheat Ridge Ministries: from me, from the Sabbatical Planning Team, and from LCM’s treasurer. One part of my report included results of a congregational survey done at worship on Sunday, December 11, 2011. Two other surveys were also conducted; one of LCM leaders and the  Sabbatical Planning Team, and the other of pastoral colleagues in the Metro South Conference, Rocky Mountain Synod, ELCA. Here are the summary results along with comments from LCM leaders:

-Survey of Council and Sabbatical Team (6) following sabbatical. On a scale of 1-5:

Energy level increased from 2.5 to 4.167

Creativity and Imagination increased from 3.5 to 4.5

Enthusiasm for Ministry increased from 3.25 to 4.667.

 

-Survey of Pastoral Colleagues (5) following sabbatical. On a scale of 1-5:

Energy level increased from 3.4 to 4.5

Creativity and Imagination increased from 3.2 to 4.3

Enthusiasm for Ministry increased from 3.2 to 4.8.

 

-Survey of Congregation (60) following sabbatical. On a scale of 1-5:

Energy level increased from 3.454 to 4.317

Creativity and Imagination increased from 3.604 to 4.25

Enthusiasm for Ministry increased from 3.792 to 4.454.

 

-Change perceived by pastor and staff.

Comments on Council and Sabbatical Team surveys:

“I would rate Pr. Rob as a constant, however, I believe the congregation grew substantially spiritually as a result of his sabbatical.”

“Prior to his leaving, I actually didn’t think Pastor Rob really needed a sabbatical. He was operating at a very high level and everything seemed to be just fine. In fact, I would have rated him a 5 for the first three questions of this survey had I not seen the change since his return. Wow! Who knew a little time off for writing and reflection could be so productive? In addition to having an even bigger smile, Pastor Rob has really taken it to a higher level since his sabbatical. Perhaps the most substantial change is the plethora of really good ideas that he has had of late, and that is saying something given his normally clever inclination. My only concern is that we, the congregation, are similar to a large, slow ship and it likely is frustrating for Pastor Rob to have such a clear vision for what we could be doing while having such an unresponsive helm. I hope he also gained patience to go along with the newfound wisdom he has displayed since returning from his sabbatical experience.”

“I didn’t see much difference immediately, but more in the last couple weeks (late Nov–early Dec).”

 What This Means for LCM:

There seem to be a couple of significant things for LCM as a result of this sabbatical. First, as I began to prepare for this sabbatical, I did some reading about the concept. What I realized from that reading was that I was coming to fit into the category of a burned out leader. My imagination and energy level were waning; my sense of call was coming into question; even my faith was beginning to stifle. The constant 24/7 demands of pastoral ministry were taking their toll regardless of my efforts (which have been largely successful) to keep healthy boundaries between personal and professional life.

Studies reveal the benefits to a congregation of a long-term pastor, including momentum, clarity, and deeper ability to change. LCM history doesn’t include the benefits of having a long-term pastor. In our (almost) fifty years, we haven’t had a pastor much longer than seven at a time. In April, I will have been serving with LCM for fourteen years, almost double any previous pastor. We are in new territory here, and a sabbatical—though not part of our history—was necessary for me; therefore for LCM as well. When a sabbatical isn’t provided, often pastors will simply take a call to another congregation as a way to start over. This sabbatical provides me with much the same thing. LCM gets an invigorated, healthier pastor without having to start over initiating a new one.

The second significant thing for LCM is our Lutheran identity. In the overview above, I stated that in the lands of Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans, I have gained some clarity around our identity as Lutherans. To be a Lutheran means to be part of a family. We share something wonderful with our brothers and sisters of the ELCA; and an even closer relationship with those right here in the Rocky Mountain Synod (RMS) and especially with our own Metro South Conference. Not just a heritage and not just a set of doctrines, we share a common understanding of God’s mission and a wonderfully unique perspective of our role within that mission. As Lutherans we are open about our brokenness, which leads to a deeper experience of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. We emphasize God’s desire to enter our world—our very lives, and thereby we come to understand the need for Word and sacrament, the means of grace. We are joined together as part of a family with our own traditions, stories, faults, and graces. Though by nature ecumenical, we share something with the Lutheran family that defies complete understanding or definition.

Like with any extended family, we know some members better than others. We like some better than others. But family isn’t who we decide it to be; it is who it is. We have a lot to offer our ELCA sisters and brothers, but we have a lot to learn from them as well. LCM is not an island; we are not in ministry alone. We are part of a network of congregations and ministries that live and breathe with a common language and story. I’ve become more aware that we can gain tremendously from those relationships.

A serendipitous blessing of this sabbatical experience for me was the deepening of my own awareness of that Lutheran family relationship. It means more to us than I thought. It benefits us more than I thought. It benefits the rest of the Lutheran family here in the Rocky Mountain Synod more than I thought. Whether we realize it or not, we are joined together in some enriching nuances of ministry with our sister congregations in the RMS and the ELCA. It is to our advantage to claim that relationship and deliberately enter into it more fully. We can use the support; and we can offer the support.

It is with this appreciation that I hope we can grow in our Lutheran awareness, identity, and relationships. I plan to identify the ways we already live our Lutheran identity in Christ, to offer new opportunities for us to grow in the already-existing relationships we share with our RMS sisters and brothers, and to help us step even more deeply into this beautiful, gracious, redemptive story that is the ELCA—a gift from God.

 Yet to Come:

I am in the process of putting together an interesting (hopefully!) travelogue of this sabbatical time in Scotland and Ireland. Though some of it was posted in real time on the travel blog that many of you followed online, I’d like the opportunity to share with you this experience and show you some of the places I visited. It is scheduled for Friday, February 17 with a pot-luck dinner. Watch for details on this.

Again, my most sincere thanks to Lutheran Church of the Master, the LCM Sabbatical Planning Team, and Wheat Ridge Ministries for allowing me this once-in-a-lifetime experience. We’ll continue to see mutual benefits. They are still rolling out, grace upon grace.

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