A sabbatical is a very old concept that connotes a period of rest and renewal. It shares the same root as "Sabbath," the biblical term meaning a day of rest after six days of labor. The observance of sabbaticals is standard practice in the Unitarian Universalist ministry and in other faith traditions, too, given the demanding nature of ministry. The typical practice is that UU ministers accrue six months of sabbatical leave for six years of fulltime service. This is our case, as well, as this is part of my annual contract with the congregation. Hard to believe, but as of next July, I will have served as your fulltime minister six years and three years as your part-time minister before that.
I will be "away" on sabbatical from September 2013 through February 2014, though I will still be here in Columbia. Some ministers take trips, read extensively, take courses, and/or go back to school during their sabbatical. I plan to write. Writing is a passion of mine that largely gets neglected because of the daily and weekly demands of pastoral ministry. Writing requires sustained concentration and large blocks of uninterrupted time, both of which are in short supply during my normal work routine. I want to transform my doctoral dissertation, written 13 years ago at Baylor, into a book entitled Jesus: A Spiritual Guide for the 21st Century. Despite my growth from my Baptist roots, I still regard myself as a follower of Jesus, and it frustrates and embarrasses me to see how far American Christianity has strayed from the life and teachings of Jesus. His teachings and parables are often treated as simplistic, moralistic sermons, but I see them as invitations to delve deeper into our souls and become more humane and more human. I'd like to share my perspectives with a wider audience.
I also want to write a book entitled Spirituality Beyond Belief. More and more people regard themselves as "spiritual" but not "religious" because, I believe, traditional religion is hung up on archaic cosmologies, creeds, and ways of thinking that may have been appropriate for the 1st Century but are now incomprehensible, if not laughable, to the modern mind. I want to spell out a spirituality that is credible, livable, and relevant. I think spirituality has more to do with becoming whole instead of holy.
So who will "mind the store" during this six-month period? Fortunately, our congregation will not have to reinvent the wheel. We have experienced a sabbatical before with our previous minister. In fact, that was when I first became involved with our congregation. I was hired, along with a retired UU minister, to preach once a month, as well as to provide rites of passage (i.e., weddings, memorial services, etc.). The other two Sundays each month were covered, as they are now when I am not in the pulpit, by the Worship Committee, who invites guest speakers from our congregation and community. During our last sabbatical, the congregation also formed a "Listening Ears" team involving counselors in our congregation who were available to members if they needed a trainer listener. I anticipate that we will take similar steps during this upcoming sabbatical.
My colleagues in ministry who have taken sabbaticals tell me of the new energy, enthusiasm, and ideas they bring back to their congregations from their sabbaticals, as well as the sense of a fresh start for both minister and congregation. They also tell me that their time away allows new leaders within the congregation to emerge and assume greater responsibility. I anticipate that this will be an invigorating shot in the arm for both myself and our congregation.