Last Sunday, we had a parish meeting to discuss my upcoming sabbatical in May -July 2015. It was a very well-attended meeting with many good suggestions and ideas. I felt very supported in this, even though anxieties were expressed by both the congregation and me. Someone had asked if I would post the sabbatical proposal we sent to the Lilly Endowment in order to receive the grant we received. This gives you an idea of what we envision this sabbatical to be, not just for me but for the whole St. Nicholas congregation. This narrative is truly a group effort which included work by David Johnson, Linda Sawyer, Patty Hamilton, Amy Buchanan, Dave Halmrast, and myself.
Summary Statement He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God; many shall see, and stand in awe, and put their trust in the LORD. Psalm 40:3 St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Hamilton, Georgia is a diverse group from cradle Episcopalians to unchurched seekers and all between – Methodists, Baptists, Non-denominational and Roman Catholics. As a result, our music program uses selections from these varied congregants. We are also working for more eclectic selections such as material from the ancient roots of liturgical music, both pre and post Reformation. Many hymns, both from the Episcopal Church and other denominations, reflect the life of our church. Some hymns from our own hymnal that reflect our life together are “Lift High the Cross,” “Amazing Grace,” “Be Thou My Vision,” “Let Us Break Bread Together.” All of this music tells the story of our faith, tells the stories of our congregation and our rector, the Rev. Jeff Jackson, our unique and wonderful partnership. As Fr. Jeff approaches his sabbatical, both he and the congregation hope to renew our mutual ministry by exploring the deeper octaves of the spiritual song inside each one of us.
Pastor’s Perspective: When has music not been a part of my life? Neither of my parents were musicians, but music was always present. In the car, on our home stereo, and in church, music hung in the air and blew out of our mouths. I have collected a variety of music for the past 20 years. When my sister’s college boyfriend handed me a mixed tape of various college-pop rock music, I was hooked. I had to get my hands on more. In high school, the contemporary Christian folk songs of summer camp penetrated my very soul and moved me to tears and joy. This led to actually listening to the words of the ancient hymns sung in my Episcopal church. These hymns are like mirrors for me. I first learned I could carry a tune as a summer camp counselor. One doesn’t know these things unless others tell them, and I was told by many; it became apparent that God had put a song in me. I picked up a guitar in seminary and haven’t stopped playing and singing since.
This was always secondary to my call as a priest, of course, yet the more I have suppressed it into a hobby, the more it bubbles up as a vocation. This has happened because of my ministry at St. Nicholas. The parish profile made no mention of their “song,” nor did my resume mention mine. Yet the Holy Spirit has connected this congregation, with its varied and earnest love of music, to this priest who shares that same love. In dreaming about a sabbatical, it is clear to me that music has to be integral, not just for my renewal, but for the continued joy and vitality of St. Nicholas. We both need this as we proceed into the future of God’s leading. If awarded a Lilly Grant for my sabbatical, it would give me a chance for rest and renewal. Added to this is the unobstructed communion I will have with my wife and four children, without which there would be no real peace, no rest. We will travel to Scotland, England, and Ireland as a pilgrimage to connect with the music of our biological and spiritual ancestors. First, I hope to spend extended time on the holy island of Iona, where I want to learn from the Iona Community how it draws inspiration for writing hymns and prayers.
From there, I wish to settle near London, to deeply dive into its volume of musical history. I want to explore the cathedrals and holy communities from Canterbury to Salisbury to Oxford and into the English countryside. I dream of walking in the footsteps of many musicians from the pilgrim choirs who have sung at Canterbury Cathedral to the Beatles who walked across Abbey Road. I want to sit in pubs and listen to the folk music of everyday people. This pilgrimage will then point me to the west country of Ireland, where there are traditional Irish Music Workshops. There, I might learn how to better draw community together with music that speaks to the symbols that lie dormant in our hearts. Too, I’d like to learn a new instrument of the olden order, like the mandolin or dulcimer. In addition to the travel and study, I plan for times of quiet, of relaxation, as well as adventures with my wife and four children. As my children have also exhibited musical fascination and talent, I want to expose them to a wider world where God dances on the end of a fiddle bow and in the voices of a gathered choir. In such a setting, we will hear the voices of the holy places themselves. I want to return refreshed and inspired. I want to bring St. Nicholas closer to God’s one song that is so deeply rooted along the paths all pilgrims have walked, so that the parish too, can be refreshed and inspired. Along with our music director, I plan to initiate a church school program for adults on the history of our church music incorporating my recent travel experiences. I hope to utilize my recently acquired musical interests and skills to bring more and different concerts to St Nicholas including a jointly sponsored event with our African American sister church. I want to share my knowledge with our youth including singing and playing new instruments.
Congregation’s Perspective: Father Jeff came to St. Nicholas after the long illness and death of our beloved priest, Beverley McEachern, who was the first Rector of our newly created parish. She managed the building of our church, but the stressful process, along with her illness, left our congregation not only in mourning, but struggling with resentments and conflicts. With the help of consultants, the congregation began to heal and develop a profile of the qualities needed in a new Rector. Jeff Jackson, an exuberant and obviously gifted young priest, accepted our call and brought his wonderful wife, Molly, and two beautiful children to St. Nicholas. Jeff knew he was coming into a small church with limited finances, located in a small town and into a congregation that needed healing and renewal. He immediately reached out to the people at St. Nicholas who were hurting. He offered new and exciting opportunities for growing in faith for adults and youth, with a special emphasis on young children. He and his family have become a powerful presence in the community. He did this without an administrative assistant. In fact, it was only during the past year that we were able to afford a part-time assistant to share some of Father Jeff’s workload.
But Jeff brought more than pastoral, interpersonal and preaching skills — he brought his love of all kinds of music. He, along with his guitar and a big, joyful voice, have changed the worship experience at St. Nicholas. We brought a Diocesan music leader in to create a two day workshop interacting with the congregation and broadening our understanding of music in worship. This was most successful and led to the hiring of an exceptional music director who shares Jeff’s passion for a vibrant music program. A choir which helps us in celebrating our renewed love for music for all seasons is now in place. Taize, folk, spiritual, gospel along with the beautiful traditional hymns of the Episcopal church can be heard on any Sunday. Beyond the Sunday service music, St. Nicholas has become a center in Harris County for performing musicians and singer/songwriters. The “Second Saturday” series of local and nationally-renowned musicians has been sold out for the past six months and new performances are eagerly awaited. The success of this program is the fruit of Jeff’s outreach. During Fr. Jeff’s absence we will follow him through presentations from music professors of Columbus State University, a nearby State university noted for its music program. Topics may include Medieval liturgical music, formal post Reformation music, plus Irish, Scottish, and English cultural chants and songs of the people. Each Sunday the service will include at least one piece of music relating to Fr. Jeff’s then current travel location.
We look forward to Jeff’s return to St. Nicholas—rested, refreshed, renewed and with an abundance of new travel, study, musical and life experiences to share with us. Our expectation is that he will inspire us to walk with him through his Sabbatical experiences so that we also will feel a renewal.
Activities & Timeline (originally we thought the timeline was going to be from June to August, that has since changed) Proposed dates for the overall program: May 4, 2015 to August 5, 2015 My first week of sabbatical will be transitional, getting used to not going to work, packing, and making provisions for me and my family to be gone. We plan to fly from Atlanta to Edinburgh, Scotland, where we will stay briefly before heading toward the holy island of Iona. I plan to spend two weeks on Iona resting, praying, exploring, walking, and taking a program at the Abbey on Celtic spirituality and music, focusing on the writing of hymns and prayers. From Iona, we plan to rent a flat outside of London for three weeks while we take day trips to explore the musical history. Our pilgrimage would take us to Salisbury Cathedral to hear visiting choirs and to the White Cliffs of Dover, the first stop of European pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. Of course, we will worship at Canterbury Cathedral, as well as journey to Oxford where there is a renowned live music scene. No musical visit to England would be complete without stopping at the sites in London where John, Paul, George, and Ringo revolutionized music forever.
From there, we will cross the country and catch a ferry to Dublin, Ireland, where we will stay briefly on our way to Galway. We will rent a flat in Galway for two weeks, taking day trips to Kerry, Cork, Limerick, and Dingle, as well as participating in a weekend Irish Music workshop in County Clare. After this, we will return to the States. My children will have to return to school the second week of August, which gives me a few weeks of personal reflection on how to draw all that I’ve learned together. I will be home for 10 days resting until my wife and I will go on a weekend trip to Berry College where we met to celebrate our 14th wedding anniversary. My last trip will be to North Georgia for one week to do some camping with my best friends, who are also priests. I will come back for 3 days before I return to work.
Benefits – Clergy Perspective In 2013, I am celebrating 10 years of ordained ministry. When the time comes for my first sabbatical in 2015, I will certainly need to have an extended break. My time at St. Nicholas has been extremely fruitful. Our average Sunday attendance has grown from 62 to 91 in just four years. We have completed a capital campaign and are embarking on a new building project. We have developed new programs for children and adults that are feeding them spiritually. We want to expand our music programs. We have joyful and thoughtful worship with one another. Many wonderful and healthy things are happening and we want to keep it that way. The sabbatical will be good because it will allow me time to breathe. It is our hope to complete our new building before leaving for sabbatical. That will be a good marker for our seven years of ministry together. It will be beneficial to step back and evaluate what the next step might be for my ministry there and for the ministry of St. Nicholas in the community.
My hope is that this will be a renewal for St. Nicholas as well. I hope to see them take a similar time in allowing music to shape them. I hope that an interim will come and teach them new and effective ways of doing ministry. I want to see them grow in faith, in leadership, and musicality during this time.
Benefits – Congregational Perspective Fr. Jeff has always included music in his ministry; he often, with his guitar, leads in the singing of hymns during services. We are excited about his sabbatical itinerary and the plans he has of bringing his musical and cultural experiences back to us. While he is gone we will echo his experience weekly with music associated with the path he is following. We will grow in our understanding of music through our planned formal programs. Too, we will learn more about ourselves in the absence of this special person through insights we have for one another and our visions for the future of St. Nicholas.
Covering the Pastoral Functions St. Nicholas plans to hire a supply priest to handle all ministerial functions during Fr. Jeff’s three month absence. Projected costs for a full time person are approximately $15,000 which will be financed by the Lilly grant. We also have lay members qualified to assist in the leading of Morning Prayer if needed in almost any circumstance.
Communication Upon Fr. Jeff’s return, we hope he will provide a series of forums in which he presents findings from his trip: pictures, stories, and most especially, songs. We hope that the music he uncovers will be integrated into our weekly worship, along with new visions of opportunities to widen our collective gifts of music to the surrounding community. Our dream would be to see this sabbatical trigger ideas from the congregation about how to expand our musical offerings through inviting guest musicians, starting new music programs for children and youth, and increasing the role of our parish musician. We also hope to share with Fr. Jeff our own insights gathered from our time away from him and provide feedback and resources for how we might move forward with our dreams.
Congregational Process The congregation, after serious discussion and support from the Vestry, enthusiastically support submitting an application to the Lilly Foundation Clergy Renewal Program. Fr. Jeff’s transition into St. Nicholas four years ago following the death of our first Priest was most difficult. Yet, he was able to quickly energize a saddened parish with his sincere, exuberant, and refreshing charm, wit, leadership and musical talent. He did this alone, accomplishing a robed, talented choir under the leadership of a new professional director, a re-energized children’s program, a 50% increase in average attendance, a balanced budget for the first time, and an approved and partially financed facilities expansion effort. Given the culture of our congregation and the way it functions, we feel certain the day-to-day activities and responsibilities of the church will be carried on with little disruption during Fr. Jeff’s leave.
So there you have it. Some of the details of the proposed trip have changed and will likely evolve as we approach the sabbatical, but the general idea is still present. At the parish meeting on July 27, we encouraged everyone to find a way to participate in this sabbatical. First, we need your participation in attendance on Sundays as well as on committees to make sure every aspect of our common life is covered while I’m gone. Contact our committee chairs or Vestry if you want a list of ways you can participate. We want to make sure this sabbatical doesn’t slow our progress, but only encourages it. Also, as time goes on, you will hear of more ways that you can help. Please stay tuned as we continue to build excitement for this adventure.