I have received a gift. A gift I had asked for but, nonetheless, a gift.
I’d begun to think about it eighteen months ago, when ministry became more painful than it had ever been. Around about that time I finally accepted what had been staring me in the face for the preceding few years. My heart and my strength were being depleted. Slowly, yes. But depleted all the same. And one day it would come to the time when I had nothing left to give. I would be out of ministry. All that was in question was how long it would take and how it would happen.
How it normally happens is sin or sickness – or deep bitterness of heart which infects a person’s relationships with people and with the God they serve. That I began to think often of how others had stepped out by sinning and that I had begun to understand why that sin might have become attractive as guaranteed ministry escape route told me one thing. I was coming too close to the line of burnout. And though I might have lasted another five or even ten years at this gruelling, emotionally draining pace of ministry, one day I too would be out through sin or sickness or bitterness.
Rarely does a minister step out before the end to take rest and opportunity for renewal. Sometimes they don’t because they can’t see what is happening to them or what could help. Often they don’t because they don’t have the support of their church to do so.
For me, the exit would probably have been sickness. I’m not saying it couldn’t have been sin but the depression that has dogged my steps over the last ten years, four of them without let-up and then another three month period about a year and a half ago, is too obvious a candidate to ignore. I quite possibly would have ended up in a place where I just couldn’t hold it together anymore. Then everything might have unravelled. And though by that point I would have come to hate ministry, I would also have hated what was happening in my failure to keep loving well the people whom I serve. Because I do love them. Deeply. Make no mistake about that.
So what I have received recently is gift. The church has agreed to give me a sabbatical.
I will be out of ministry for a little over four months. Technically it’s only point four of a sabbatical since I only work point four of a week for church. I do so many other things – research and teaching mainly – that it’s not been possible simply to opt out of all of it for that period. But I think this will be enough, a space to breathe again. A space to hear the voice of God and be renewed for ministry. And, in fact, I believe that the research and teaching preparation will be part of my flourishing in this period. That it will feed me in the deep places which crave simply to look long on God and his Word and the theology of what it means to walk before him as one who is fully human. That as I grapple with my doctoral thesis I will be wrestling, in fact, with my own theology of ministry, laying the groundwork for many more years of strength.
I am looking forward to this time so much. I have reservations about it. It is not a full-time sabbatical. Peter will not be released from ministry with me as we cannot afford to be that many leaders down at church. I will miss the church and, right now, cannot even imagine what no contact with them is going to look like – in a community such as ours, this is like simply deciding to cut your family out of your life for four months and who does that?! So, yes, there are reservations but there are also great hopes.
In my last coaching session, my coach asked me to list all the benefits I anticipated from this time out. The photograph is of the notes he made of my one minute splurge of answers (though, JD, if you are reading this: I don’t imagine the exact phrase ‘radiant spiritual security’ came out of my mouth – the concept may have been mine but I suspect ‘radiant’ is a bit too flowery actually to have been mine in conversation!! I liked it enough to nick it for the post title though, you notice!).
I’ve printed out this photograph and left it in several places to remind me what the next few months will be about when this sabbatical formally starts in just under a month’s time. Because I want to use this time well. Or, at least, to submit to God using it well for me! I want to break the technology habit, to learn to walk slowly again (and not just figuratively speaking, either!). I want to learn to be present where I am present and absent everywhere else. I want to listen hard for God’s Yes in my life so that I can say the Amen to that and the Nos to everything else. I want to make space for the creativity which will be the foundations of the next stage of my research.
I want, in short, to focus on the roots again. And I would value your prayers to this end during the coming time.
What about you? Has this post made you think about your own finiteness in ministry? (I know: the right word is probably ‘finitude’ but it sounds seriously pretentious!) What might you start to do about ensuring that you will finish well?
This is a post in my sabbatical series.