There's so much I didn't understand. When I first planned this sabbatical almost two years ago, I didn't understand how hard it was going to be to walk away for three months from the church I had planned for and prayed over and struggled with for 7+ years. It was like ripping out a part of myself to leave the people I loved and to allow someone else to be their pastor for the summer months. As I wrote previously, one of the most painful parts of that decision involved hiding the posts of my Living Water Facebook friends. I knew that if I read about a health scare or job loss or end of a relationship, I would want to pick up the phone, send a note, go see them. I would want to let them know that I CARE - as a friend and their pastor.
But I knew enough about the theory of sabbaticals to know that it wouldn't be healthy for me to weave in and out of pastor mode. It would be too tempting to override whatever the other pastor - Rev. Trish Winters - was trying to do with them. It would derail her attempts to be their pastor and my attempts to find out what a sabbatical is and why I needed one. So I made a clean break. What made this even more difficult in my situation is that my mother-in-law and sister-and-brother-in-law all continued to provide leadership at Living Water all summer. In addition, my immediate family worshipped there a couple of times over the summer.
It was especially difficult to decide to stay away on the day that Living Water had a special blessing for my daughter Bethany as she prepared to leave for seminary. This church, her church, gave her a study Bible and a whole pile of cards with well wishes and blessings. She preached that day. As her mother, I should have been there. As the pastor of Living Water Christian Church, I was not. It wasn't a hard and fast rule I was following. I don't think there is a sabbatical handbook that says you have to stay away the Sunday your daughter is being commissioned and blessed for vocational ministry. But I knew it would be hard for me to step into that congregation for one Sunday, to worship, to hear prayer concerns shared, and not want to respond as their pastor. Besides, one of the things that I knew had to happen while I was gone is that the church needed to discover who they are apart from me. What better way than for them to celebrate and commission one of their own into vocational ministry - and not have it be "this is Pastor Laura's daughter so we need to make a big deal out of this."
But going back has been tough, too. I am going to write a post in the near future about all the wonderful things I discovered about myself and life and ministry while on sabbatical, but for now, I'll just say that I truly felt the mantle of pastoral responsibility lifted from me for three months. Please understand - I love being a pastor. I love my church. I don't want to do anything else with my life. But the weight of carrying pastoral concerns, church financial stress, worship planning, sermon writing, etc. all day and all night for seven years had worn me out more than I realized. So for three months I didn't have to think about finding sermon illustrations or solving building repair issues or filling the calendar with fellowship and mission events. I was just Laura.
Last Wednesday night, I met with Rev. Trish Winters, and we began the passing of the mantle back to me. She filled me in on all the important news from the summer - who had been sick, who left the church, who joined the church, who wasn't around all summer, what events were successful and what events were not and on and on. It needed to happen. It was part of the plan. She did it with all gentleness. And when I drove home two hours later, the mantle was firmly back on my shoulders and I felt the weight of it. It feels heavy, but that's ok. I can carry it now. I'm ready for it. But I'm much more aware of it than I used to be.
Leaving was tough. Coming back is tough, too. I have found that it's often in times when God upsets the status quo that the Spirit speaks most clearly. This upsetting of our status quo is what we all needed - me and the church. I needed to let go for a while. The church needed to hear a new voice and their own voice. And now we are back together, ready to share with each other what we learned.
I'm not sure we did the whole sabbatical experience thing perfectly, but I think we did it pretty darn well. Thanks be to God for a church willing to let their pastor go, for a pastor willing to set boundaries, for a sabbatical pastor willing to experiment and challenge the congregation, for church leaders who dream together, for the Lilly Foundation for providing the funding for this to happen, and to God who brought all of it together for our good. Amen.