In Emerson’s essay, “Experience,” he suggests that “The years teach much which the days never know.” As we embark on this adventure of Allegheny’s Sabbatical, let’s hope that what’s true for years is also true for months. Six months, to be precise. This retreat from the usual is a bold experiment in creating opportunity for transformation. I don’t expect to be the same minister after six months. And I certainly don’t expect you to be the same congregation. Come summer when we re-enter our ministry together, we will be empowered to go places we’ve not yet even dreamed to go before.
This congregation has an absolutely amazing volunteer and paid staff. And that extends to the cluster and district. We are blessed far beyond our means. In my absence, Jesse will keep worship celebrations flowing. Brian will keep nourishing the spirit. The Board and Core Team will keep nurturing ways for the congregation to commit to justice. Betty, the Sabbatical Team, the Pittsburgh Cluster, and OM District will keep supporting the institutional life of the church. And you, dear member, dear friend, will keep discovering new ways to grow your soul and the soul of Beloved Community here at Allegheny.
I’d like to say that we’re fortunate to have such a kickin’ team. But it’s not mere good fortune. It’s the concerted, dedicated, generous, maturing, soulful presence of the congregation as a whole and of the leadership in particular that has brought this congregation back from the brink again and again. And it is this spirit that has gotten us to where we are healthy enough to thrive and healthy enough to resist disease and infection that so often attack when an institution’s symbolic head is gone—something I’ve seen happen too often here on the North Side.
You are a blessing. You are all ministers. To this congregation. To this neighborhood. To this planet. May this sabbatical be a blessing to all. And may these months teach us and bring forth from within us that which the days and weeks never know. May we be transformed by Allegheny’s Sabbatical so that we more fully live our mission of reaching within, reaching out, and reaching out together to transform our neighborhood, our nation, and our planet. Amen!
During Allegheny’s Sabbatical, keep connected:
For pastoral care, connect with InReach Ministry: email@example.com
For leadership or religious education, connect with Brian: firstname.lastname@example.org
For worship or music, connect with Jesse: email@example.com
For organizational concerns, connect with Betty: firstname.lastname@example.org
For anything else, contact: email@example.com
Sabbatical Update: January 2014
Sitting finishing a lovely hot cocoa of a Monday morning (thanks to the care package the church sent me off with), it’s hard to believe a month has passed already. Today started, as has been more the rule than the exception, by taking the boys to school late due to yet another snow delay. We’re jokingly referring to this time as the “Snowbattical.” The sabbatical plan included a few small goals rather than one grand project. The weather made sure that I would reach at least one of those goals: spending more time with the kids.
Turns out the sabbatical is book-ended by two very ministerial projects. That may sound like work during a time to renew and recreate; but believe me, it’s renewing work. First is to prepare the sermon and “Charge to the Congregation” for former AUUC member and newly called minister, Rev. Andrew Weber, on his installation weekend. All of the members of this church are ministers, but it’s a particularly strong church that creates and nurtures people who in turn give their life to ministry. So even if you don’t know him, you can share in the love celebrating Rev. Andrew’s installation as called minister to his first congregation. Next, and on the other end of the calendar, “Summer Institute” invited me to return as morning minister for this summer’s week of spiritual exploration and growth this year at Oberlin in Ohio. Of course I was honored by the invitation; but absolutely thrilled because the main speaker (in addition to daily worship and workshops, there’s a “theme speaker” who speechifies every day) is former long-time member of the a capella musical group, “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” Dr. Ysaye Barnwell. My cup runneth over.
So for the first month, I’m steeped in reflections on the relationship between called minister and congregation; while in the last months, I’ll be preparing worship for an exploration of what it means to create a “vocal community” through singing in the African American tradition. (Honestly, instead of a “staybattical” or “snowbattical,” this is beginning to feel like a “blissbattical.”)
Sabbatical Reflections: February 2014
Greetings from Rev. Andrew Weber and Isabella! Andrew was a seminarian and a member of Allegheny, and he and Isabella were married at this church. Andrew generously invited me to offer a “Charge to the Congregation” at his installation at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Newark, Delaware (UUFN). It was a great, celebratory, inspiring day!
Spending the first month reflecting on the relationship between minister and congregation offered a fitting way to begin my first-ever sabbatical. UUFN has a complicated history with ordained ministry. Through severe and severely complicated experiences (including parting with a valued minister with serious mental health challenges; and a beloved minister who, they both concluded after the fact, had “stayed too long”), UUFN turned a corner. Now they feel ready to share ministry creatively, respectfully, soulfully.
Called ministry not only provides the vitally important “inside-outsider’s” perspective; not only does it offer somebody who has dedicated their life’s work to a deeper understanding of the faith and of the spiritual life of the church: it installs a relationship that itself is deeply important and, if the congregation allows it, transformational. This relationship reflects the best the congregation has to offer. If the relationship is compassionate and caring, outsiders will feel it. If it’s abusive and disrespectful, they will feel that, too, and may well conclude, “If this is how they treat their minister, the person they brought here intentionally, how much worse it will be for me who just walked in on my own!”
This life-saving gift that is The UU Way is too precious to turn people off. Our emphasis on being true to what you really, truly believe, fosters the authentic life. An authentic life is a life saved from emotional poverty, intellectual sickness, and spiritual death. We are all, truly, worshiping and meeting and arguing and giving and sitting and working and exploring and teaching and shoveling snow and balancing budgets and growing and singing for our lives. “Hold on to this relationship (to this faith, this fellowship, and this called minister) as if your life depended on it,” I preached to UUFN, “because some day it just might. As it already has for some of you. As it will for others. Some of whom have yet to walk through that door.”
Of course, I tried to avoid the “seminarian’s mistake” of trying to pack too much into one message. (A lot builds up after a month of not preaching.) So it was this: Grow Your Soul.
I was told by an elder colleague that there was a period of time when officials in the UUA sought to purge our churches of Christians. Yes, even Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist Christians. It’s a sad chapter in our history. At times since, Humanists, Earth-Based Spirituality practitioners, Republicans, Climate Change Deniers, and others have variously felt they were being purged from UU’ism, too. My challenge to the church: to purge only that within the institution or within you that refuses to grow. “Grow your soul.” That’s the Charge to the Congregation. That’s how the relationship and church and faith and life will flourish. “Grow your soul. Grow the soul of beloved community. Grow Andrew’s soul. That is how we will become the life-saving, life-giving, life-transforming force we are called to be and become.”
Whatever good comes from the church, whatever words of wisdom, whatever inspiring music, whatever acts of kindness and generosity, whatever justice making, whatever platform for transforming lives and transforming society, it will come from people grounded in the soul-growing work of connecting: connect to the best and highest within, connect to others along the journey, connect to the blissful and broken world we live in, connect to the planet transformed by our care or by our negligence, connect to the greater whole of which we are a part that some are audacious enough to call “God.”
The neighborhood and the world need this faith. This faith and this church need you. Grow your soul. Live a life worth dying for. May it be so. Make it so. Amen.
Sabbatical Reflections: May 2014
We’re well past the mid-point of Allegheny’s sabbatical and I hope you are enjoying the fruits of this sabbatical season. You have every reason to feel good about your accomplishments. You have created worship for each another. You have supported each another pastorally. You have supported staff and leadership in their flourishing as they in turn support the flourishing of this community. You have kept warm the hearth and spiritual home. Even when the ceiling falls in.
I was talking to a colleague friend who has a few sabbaticals to her credit. She said, “When some asked, ‘So what did you do?’ and my response was, ‘Not much,’ the people who get it—who get what it means to be a minister and what it takes to support and nurture a long-term ministry—got it. And they knew that that was exactly what was needed.”
Husband Tim tells me that actually I’ve done quite a lot: Deepened relationships with my family, not least our two grade-school sons: Given my body more regular attention at the gym: Added depth to my spiritual practice: Kept the household humming. And then there have been the online courses, long-owned books finally read, sabbatical projects attempted, advanced, abandoned, or deferred, and collegial and personal friendships strengthened. I hope it has been a good balance of action and reflection, challenge and renewal.
Post Script: I can’t be writing here on the 21st of May, 2014, without mentioning another “sabbatical exception.” In February there was the death of my brother-in-law. Then there was the congregation’s sudden, personal loss of Linda in March. Today there is an undiluted happy reason to make an exception to the sabbatical firewall between me and ministry: Pennsylvania law has finally caught up with God’s law of Love. Marriage Equality has come to the Commonwealth! So I’ve been fielding a flurry of requests to officiate weddings. And even if by the time you read this the gates of marriage equality have already come crashing shut; know and remember that for this moment, euphoric even if it turns out to be ephemeral, we enjoyed the feeling that all really are created equal with equal access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This is a great time to grow a soul. And this community is a great place to do so.
Sabbatical Reflections: June-July 2014
The big message from sabbatical continues to be: how precious is this place. How precious Unitarian Universalism, yes. How precious church is as a place where people gather to explore the deeper experience of life, yes. But how precious it is to have here in the North Side a place of spiritual openness where we grow our souls by reaching in, reaching out to one another, and reaching out together to bring healing and hope, justice and compassion to the neighborhood and the planet.
Of course I was enriched by the retreats and the online courses and the visits to other churches and the conversations with colleagues and the time spent with family and friends and the movies and the books and trips to the gym and meditation and prayer. But returning from sabbatical, I’m struck most deeply by appreciation for the institution we call “church,” and for how church is lived at Allegheny.
Talking with long-time (longest-time?) church member Martha Brethauer about the church, she offered, “We’re still here. And that’s something.” We are “The church that stayed.” The church that stayed in the wake of the Great Depression, the church that stayed despite ministerial malfeasance, the church that stayed in the face of a serious and threatening Red Scare, the church that stayed with a generation of lay leadership, the church that stayed in spite of White Flight, the church that stayed against the express wishes of and direct pressure from the Association, the church that stayed by giving away its budget boldly and wisely, the church that stayed through conflict and change.
It’s an obvious yet profound statement that people who stay create the church.
At the end of this sabbatical, I envision my ministry as creating together a place where people come not only for the experience of God in worship, not only for Religious Education, not only for music, not only for the beautiful architecture, not only for even the people—wonderful as you are: I envision our ministry together as creating a church that lives its vital mission so thoroughly and deeply that people are drawn in as if by gravity. The experience of the divine, the programs, the people… they all serve the mission of moving with people, especially the marginalized, the imperfect, the wounded (not least, ourselves) to fullest possible fruition, to grow a soul.
When people are drawn to the mission, their heart and soul and body follow. Sometimes during worship you may not feel the presence of that deeply human experience that some are willing to call God. Sometimes programs will fall short of your expectation. Sometimes the music will hit a clinker. Sometimes people will disappoint by being human, imperfect, and different.
Ultimately it’s the mission that calls us out of bed Sunday morning and weekday evenings. If it doesn’t, then let’s make our mission even more vital, compelling, and gravitational.
You are blessed and you are a blessing when you show up fully and connect deeply. That’s nowhere more true than at church. When we take this church for granted, we all lose. The neighborhood loses. The North Side loses. And even the universe loses a little of its Love. Come this Sunday. And the next. And the next. Create the church of your wildest dreams and your fondest imagination. Transform yourself. Transform the world.