Word of the Week

Last week, I was having lunch with a friend who I'd hadn't seen in years. As we were catching up on life's ups and downs, she stopped the conversation to make a bold statement: "I'm tired of being a spiritual guide for everyone else."

My friend, a veteran minister with a thriving campus ministry under her leadership was speaking to the weariness that had become her own life. She went on, "There are times when I have to remind myself that I'm not just a spiritual tour guide, helping others creating meaningful experiences with God when I don't allow myself to stop and have some of my own." She then told me about the things she's recently added and subtracted from her schedule to make this possible-- growing in her own faith journey again.

I was convicted and encouraged by her honesty of this friend, especially as I'm now in month #4 of my own sabbatical from playing the role of "spiritual tour guide" for a congregation.

Don't get me wrong-- the role, the privilege and the opportunities that come when others entrust you to lead and guide their faith-- is a high and wonderful calling. It's a blessing to those of us who have found or do find ourselves in this role in our communities. And, being a "tour guide" is never a completely serving only others activity. For there is much to learn as you abide in the deep waters of relationship with others.

But, should this be a role we are in for life? Many ministers I know, think so. But, I'm just not sure.

We've all got to take time outs.

I know that what I'm suggesting is nothing profound-- for there are entire centers, book series and support groups of all kinds that encourage personal well-being for those in serving roles such as ministers. Clergy-care is something seminary folks and denominational folks, and foundation folks like to talk about, give money to support and even set up conferences to encourage.

But, the simplicity of my friend's statement: "I want to create spiritual experiences for myself" I think really gets at the heart of what the conversation is missing. And, that is the point of clergy care.

As a pastor, I remember going to conferences where it would be preached to me to :
spend time alone with God every day outside of sermon prep,
put my family above the church as much as I could,
take all of my vacation
never miss a day off (the deadly sin of clergy care!).

I did these things as a pastor (well, a lot of these things). I was proud to take all my vacation and visit a spiritual director once a month and even dream with the leadership about a Sabbatical at some point (funny how I got one sooner than we all would have thought!).

But, even in doing these things, I have to tell you I missed the point.

I never got around to creating spiritual experiences for myself. I never saw myself outside of the role of pastor (a.k.a. spiritual tour guide for others). I rarely made it a priority to position my life to let God speak to me without it having something to do with a Bible Study I needed to lead or a sermon I need to preach. I did the best I could. I know that. And, after all, I had a job to do with deadlines and people who "needed me." I was paid to lead.

Yet, now where I sit now as a disciple of Jesus without tour group, I have to say I'm learning much in this tour group of one.

I'm learning how much I liked my title and role at the church-- though I know now how little such impressed Jesus or made me a "better" or more "faithful" Christian than anyone else.

I'm learning much about prayer-- that the Holy truly wants to abide with me in everyday life, not just the parts I think are holy.

I'm learning much about community-- that "church" can happen very often outside the walls of any building.

I'm learning how to be supportive to my former clergy colleagues-- even when it means playing the part of "Judas" at the last-minute at a Maundy Thursday service (yes, this really happened for this friend).

I know I won't be in this space forever. But, for now, I continue to be grateful for it. I know that even in the uncertainty of what each day ahead holds, I'm still ok as a tour guide in an time-out.

Sabbath-RestWhen most pastors leave congregations and don't have another official job to go to, it is for one reason: burnout. They've worked too hard. They've shepherded congregations through major change which has taken a toll on their own health. They've made the church a greater priority over their family or own emotional wellbeing and simply need to re-prioritize. Or, they're simply bone tired for a thousand different reasons. And they can't imagine setting foot back in a church building for a really long time (for the sake of the church's wellbeing many of these folks don't need to). In fact this article has been all the buzz with my clergy friends over the past several days as one high profile pastor has left his post for not taking care of himself or his family over the long haul.

But, as I stand (or sit on the couch in all accuracy) on this my first week officially off duty-- when I'd normally be getting the swing of the Epiphany season at church and now am not there, I need to say that I'm in this place of life not because of burnout. Sure, I needed some rest from the craziness of balancing this huge tradition for our family with Kevin's new job and living a part for some time, but burnout, no.

I really liked being a pastor. I really liked my job. I left on great terms with the congregation. And, as much as I know my leaving WPBC at this time was the right thing to do, I still miss it. (I really didn't know what to do with myself yesterday when there wasn't early church responsibilities to get up for. All I knew to do was try to enjoy the break by eating waffles and watching my favorite political news shows, thanking God for the chance to be in my pajamas at 11 am-- something I never, ever get to do). Then, as I was listening to the radio on the way to the gym this afternoon, I heard a song and my first thought was, "That would be a great piece for a call to worship." (And I teared up a little thinking that I no longer had anyone to suggest that we sing it to).

So, what do you do when you are not in a church by choice-- or any 9 to 5 job for that matter-- for a chunk of time when you aren't experiencing a burnout?

Though I'm sure many would say things like, "volunteer!" "get busy making connections for your next job in your new town" or even "hurry up and get back in the saddle because you don't want to lose your relevance," I just can't make myself do any of these things.

I don't want to rush into filling my days with thousands of lunch appointments or extracurricular activities-- even if I could.

I don't want to rush into commitments for work to come.

I don't want to have to be asked to have a spiritual word for anyone other than myself for a while-- even as much as this I'd really rather not go down this silent path.

I need to work on my book long project-- but I'm not even pushing myself back into this yet. "Breathe, Elizabeth, breathe" is what wise ones have been saying to me.

We all need Sabbath. And apparently it is my time.

I've always been a much better do-er than I have a wait-er or rest-er. As a child, I hated dates off from school like federal holidays because they really seemed to throw me off of my routine. I begged to go to school even as my parents thought I was crazy. I really wanted something to do. I couldn't stand to be idle.

And on this day, I need to tell you that I really want something to do. Please don't roll your eyes at me when I say, it's so hard to rest! In fact, as more as I've gotten into it, I've realized that I'd rather not have Sabbath. I'd rather hide behind work. I'd rather avoid myself. I'd rather avoid God. But, I trust that Sabbath will be good for my soul and the future souls of those in whom I care for, so I will try.

I will try to see what Sabbath teaches me about my value and worth-- and from where it comes.

I will try to see what Sabbath teaches me about the gift of time-- what it is I really need to do and what I don't.

I will try to see what Sabbath teaches me about calling-- what is the best use of my gifts and what is not.

Most of all, I will try to listen. I will fight the fear that my voice will be weakened if I don't use it for awhile. I will try to remember this is only for a season. I hope you can too-- in the Sabbath moments of your life schedule that find you this week.

So, if you don't see me blogging as much as I normally do, you know where I am: breathing in Sabbath. Remembering that my value is not based on what I produce. I promise, I'll share with you whatever I learn when I return in a couple of weeks or whenever . . .

You are out of words.

People seek from you what you don't have anymore.

You plan retreat and they come and find you.

Pray for me, pastor.

Visit me, pastor.

Solve my problems, pastor.

What do you do?

With compassion, you keep going.

You get out of bed.

You bathe.

You get dressed.

You show up.

You keep trying.

"The peace of Christ be with you."

You search the far corners of your heart, hoping there is some gem there.

You hope your morsels are enough to feed the five thousand sitting at your doorstep.

And, you plan vacation again.

You count the days.

You look for light.

You run toward it.

And you hope when all is said and done that there will be a good story to tell.

A really good one.

A story of unbelievable grace.

A story that feeds the five thousand with your morsels that have become loaves of bread.