Isle of Iona, Scotland

Everyone needs a break. In order for us to be at our best, we have to take time for the renewal of our mind, our body, and our spirit. As much as we try to deny it, we are not created to run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We need proper sleep in a day, we need at least a day off in the week, and we need weeks in the year to reorient ourselves to the rhythm of God’s guidance.

In the church, we call these times “sabbaths.” The Creation story in Genesis chapter 1 relates how God created the world in six cycles of the sun, and then spent a day creating rest. Later in Scripture, when the Lord gives Moses the Ten Commandments, God commands a day of rest, renewal, and worship as a stark contrast to the lives of the Israelites who had gotten used to the rat race of serving as slaves under Pharaoh. 

Even today, we are called to sabbath, though many tend to forget. It’s easy to let the hectic pace of life swallow every waking moment we have. Yet if we forget, we find ourselves sleep-deprived, irritable, and burnt-out.

One of the gifts I am most grateful for in the church is the promise of a sabbatical. “Sabbatical” finds its roots in the concept of “sabbath.” In the letter of agreement between clergy and a congregation, there is a benefit to both of a sabbatical of no less than three months to take place after six full years of ministry together. This is a time of renewal for the clergy and the congregation, having spent a long season of diligent and fruitful work together.

My sabbatical is still 2 years away in the summer of 2015, but we are already making plans for it. I have pulled together a Sabbatical Committee with whom I am working on this project. Our hope is to have this plan funded by the Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program, which grants gifts of $50,000 to congregations for this purpose. This amount of money covers everything from travel expenses to hiring a supply priest for the time I will be away. Just this past week, I mailed off the grant application and it is in consideration by a committee who reads all the applications. The grant is competitive, so there is a likelihood that we will not receive it. However, applying this early means we could also reapply next year if we are not awarded it this year. If we don’t get it either years, we will make adjustments to the plans we have made, but I will still go on sabbatical in 2015.

For me, this will mean a time away from St. Nicholas, for the expressed purpose of renewal, reflection, and rest. Yet this is also a season of renewal for St. Nicholas, reflecting on the past years of ministry and looking forward to the future. We do all things in partnership with each other, so how might we share this sabbatical?

One of the most pleasant surprises in my ministry here has been the gift of music. There was nothing in St. Nicholas’ profile that expressed its sincere love of music, nor was there any mention of it in my resume or ministry profile. Yet over the years we have cultivated a mutual love for many kinds of music. This is expressed most clearly in the work our music director Sam Roney and our choir have done. It is also expressed in our annual Bluegrass Sunday, which draws a crowd almost as big as Christmas or Easter. We’ve also opened our doors to the community for our Second Saturday concert series with Allen Levi, which has consistently filled our seats each month. St. Nicholas also allows for a blend of church music in our worship from ancient hymns played on organ to modern pieces played on piano and guitar. We stretch a breadth of genres from classical to folk.

The musical aspect of our common life has fed me and sustained me in my ministry here and it is this that I want us to explore during this sabbatical.

Sabbatical literature instructs to find the thing that makes one’s heart sing. For me, there are three components to that heart-singing sabbatical.

  1. Time with my wife and children. Nothing is more important to me than my family. Taking time to spend with them making memories gives me more joy than I can possibly explain.
  2. Music. I have been a fan of music all of my life, collecting a wide variety of albums across many genres. Acoustic guitar tends to connect the most with me, and I have played the guitar for 10 years. Most recently, learning new facets of playing guitar has been life-giving for me, and I am exploring the world of songwriting. I am also blessed to have a family who enjoys music as much as I do.
  3. The United Kingdom. I have been to Scotland twice in my life and Northern Ireland once. All three times have left an impression on my heart, and I feel drawn there spiritually. England, Scotland, and Ireland all have rich musical histories as well from classical to folk music, and it is a dream of mine to be in those holy places and learn about the music there.

guitarjeffMy dream sabbatical would be to combine these three components, taking my family to the UK for a tour of musical landmarks during the summer of 2015. From exploring the birthplace of bands like the Beatles, to studying traditional Irish folk music, to spending time on the holy island of Iona where a community of Christians have developed Celtic music, there is so much to see and do. Exposing my family to these places would be a hallmark for our lives together, especially my oldest son Tai, who has developed a talent and love of composing.

I hope that while I am being renewed in this way that St. Nicholas may develop a way to renew themselves in a similar vein. Developing a program where parishioners can find their song in their relationship with God would be a fantastic way to have a parallel journey together. We haven’t even scratched the surface of possibilities.

For now, I ask for your prayers that this may be an effort that will lead St. Nicholas into the next phase of ministry in this place. Also, pray for me as I continue to do the work God has called me to do for the work of the Kingdom here. Finally, pray for all of us to hear the song that renews and refreshes us.

Jeff+