L and I went into New Jersey yesterday to visit a friend we had not seen for a couple of months. A colleague of mine for decades, he has just finished a sabbatical leave from his parish. On impulse, we got in the car and drove to see him, finding him in the office on his first day back. It was great to see him so refreshed and vital. His time off was more than time away. Sabbatical leave is meant to be a structured time away from the parish and workaday life, sure; but it is also a time to step back, reframe and revision that sense of call that drives us all forward in ministry and in life. My friend was clearly in that place.
Now, he returns to his parish and to his daily routines that were waiting for him in a sort of suspension while his sabbatical was going on. After having been to the mountain top, he now faces a real and distinct challenge: How do I communicate what I have seen to the people who were not able to go with me, who instead have labored in the proverbial vineyards, craft sheds and avenues of the parish in my absence? How do I make what "I" have seen something that "we" can all sign on to?
He gave us a letter to read, and this morning I sat down with Laura to parse it. You see, I have seen other sabbaticals for parish clergy resolve in different ways. For one priest, he came back from sabbatical, presented his vision to the vestry and parish...And eventually lost his job. The CHANGES he pointed to were beyond the parish's ability to envision without their having been more work, I presume, on the priest's part to communicate that vision in smaller doses. Or, perhaps, his discernment was an unconscious realization that the parish he was in was not the one he left his mountain top experience away to seek/build. Other parishes experience the return of the rector as the beginning of transition. The rector and parish may work together for a while...But the reality of the priest's experience away has clarified that it is time for a change in the pastoral relationship between priest and parish. Even though those occasions can be tough to take and are hard on the heart that hurts, we all know that nothing it forever. Still, it would be nice, wouldn't it, to have one more summer in the sun, right?
My friend, at least at first glance, is entering into his re-entry with a real intention to work with his parish to fold in the insights gleaned from his mountain top experience. Going away and coming back have given him a vision of what his parish might become. But, if he hammers it in right away upon re-entry, then few will be able or inclined to hear him out. Perhaps they might not be able to hear him at all.
Now, don't get me wrong. He has not come back from his time away with an idea to tear down his historic parish hall in order to "do a new thing." Nor is he resolving to dramatically redirect the parish's essential ministries and structures. He is asking them to dig a bit deeper into the "why's and wherefore's" of what they are already doing, getting them to see with beginner's eyes what has been...And then to dream of what might be. His context in that reflection is simple: After months away, I will see this place with new eyes for a time. Join me in that effort and let's see where it takes us.
When change looms for us, either in the way we have been doing or being...Or in the way the world orders itself around us...We can too easily assume combative stances. Too much is at stake. Too little is NOT essential to our work and ministry. Sometimes, in order to retain our way of doing or being, we start to define that stuff outside as "bad" and the stuff inside as "good." In that, we lose perspective.
When my friend went away, he took on the idea of having "mountain-eyes." His view was one that relied on being able to take in horizons at a glance. That is very different from having the day-to-day eyes we tend to live with, in a moment to moment way. After any shift in perspective, it takes time to allow our eyesight to shift. From light to dark to light again, from near to far to near again, it takes time to allow real change to be absorbed.
My prayer for him is that his sense of timing is true. There is a point, as his gaze narrows and the parish's gaze widens, that he and they will be able to see things from the same vantage point. I hope they get there before it becomes a question of one perspective over, and against, another.
After all, and let's be honest, we all struggle with change. We don't like to have our routines upset or challenged. We expect consistency, or at the least a certain respect for constancy. But, like all things mortal, that is a hope that is based on borrowed time. What grew this year in our proverbial vineyard doesn't flourish now...And what might grow with grace and gusto is something we could never have dreamed up, even a short time ago.
I guess that is the universal idea I am drawing from my friend's particular situation. Bracing for change is the challenge...But being changed is the heart of the matter; because in that, we are allowing God to do God's work in, and through, us and our community.