"The test of a preacher is that his congregation goes away, say not, 'What a lovely sermon,' but 'I will do something" St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life
Returning from sabbatical is a rare gift. Few professions offer leadership the opportunity to step back from the day-to-day grind to reclaim some energy and enthusiasm for the work that lies ahead. Granted, as sabbatical is not a vacation as such, while I was away, I spent time working on a research project, and will continue to work on it for the forseeable future, although not as intensely. But even while I was doing church-related work, I wasn't engaged in pastoral visits (much), sermon-writing(much), meetings at all, or fielding phone calls, emails, and texts literally all hours of the day and night as I routinely do while on duty. It was a break, and a refreshing on at that.
One of the things I had the chance to reflect upon was how I got involved in this line of work in the first place. The idea that I as being called into the ministry sounded crazy, I'm sure, to our extended family and friends. Debbie and I had recently bought a house and had our first child. I had plenty of work to do on the house, and as first time parents, we were both maxed out, as the saying goes.
But during that time I had gotten increasingly involved at our church. The more I did at First Parish, in Berlin, Massachusetts, the more I wanted to do. Volunteering at church activities was far more satisfying than the factory job I was holding down. The people at church were certainly kinder and more pleasant to be around than the Hell's Angel wannabe types at work. Every time I took part in something at church, I felt better myself, at least in part because I know I had also done someone else some good. So when the pastor offered a slide show on Bangor Seminary that I was free to attend, I asked him if I could see it on my own. He knew where this was going, even I wasn't so read to commit. After all, there was the new baby. There was the house. And everyone we knew lived within an hour's drive.
But in 1983, with the house on the market and no clear sense of how we were going to make this work financially or any other way, off to Bangor we went. There were some very low points along the way. Jesus, of course, had lot worse to rise above. When I got into church life, it was because I wanted to do something with like-minded people, side by side. That was my understanding of witnessing, and nothing has changed.
These days, it seems the whole congregation is involved in doing something. I look around and see the children of project parents being fed at Brady Village. I see lunch and worship at Parish Cupboard, not just dropped off, but share along with prayer and song. I see individual efforts like Matt's bike ride for the Food Bank. I see group efforts like the church members efforts for hurricane relief expanding into a community-wide outreach. I see our gay pride banner tell the community that this church- the only one in town- really means that "everybody is welcome" stuff that everyone says, but often doesn't mean.
We do things here, from baptizing infants to celebrating our centenarian. Over the years, we have done many other projects. We have sent teams to rebuild after church burnings, hurricanes, and an earthquake. We have sponsored and helped re-settle refugees from Bosnia, and Somalia. Wehave hosted a Bread for the World workshop. We have learned how to keep disagreements from festering into conflicts because we can trust ad we can talk.
Sabbatical was great. Coming back is great too. Thanks for the opportunity to reflect and re-energize.
See you in church?