One of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever had (and that’s saying something!) was the time I decided to surprise my then-fiance-now-wife with a day trip to King’s Island for her birthday. We lived in Nashville at the time and King’s Island is almost exactly 300 miles away from Music City – a five and a half hour drive according to Google. We were in college, and it seemed like a great idea to my young, smitten self. Had we spent the night in Cincinnati, we might look back at this as one of Adam’s successful birthday surprises. Instead, we look back and wonder in awe at my stupidity.
The trip there was full of excitement and anticipation. While we enjoyed our day together at Kings Island as a young couple in love, it was hard to ignore the impending long car trip that we knew awaited us. We had left Nashville early that morning, and we knew it was going to be a long, late night of driving after spending a full day at the amusement park. We hoped to leave earlier than we did because we were having so much fun – well, and because we were young and dumb.
When it came time to head back home, we stopped for a quick dinner, and headed south. The first few hours of the trip passed pretty quickly, but as the late summer sunset gave way to the darkness of twilight we got tired. Really tired. I feel like in those times when I am fighting back sleep behind the wheel of a car, I have a pretty good sense of what it must have been like for Peter, James, and John in the Garden of Gethsemane. Once sleepiness and fatigue begin to afflict your body its power is overwhelming.
Somehow, God saw to our safe return home in the wee hours of the morning, though we had at least two sleepy, dozed-off swerves into the shoulder. That ride home was the most tired I have ever been. I have come to realize, however, that there are different kinds of tired.
About a year and a half ago, I realized that I was really tired – but it was a different kind of tired. I was entering my fifteenth year of full-time ministry. I had been fortunate to serve that entire time at the same congregation – the same congregation where I still serve. It’s a small church and we’ve been through a lot together. As the only minister on staff, I dabble in every corner of ministry. I have come to love the diversity of my responsibilities, but I have also come to realize that the breadth of ministry was taking a toll on me. Fifteen years of ministry had made me tired. Tired more deeply than I was that night we drove back from Cincinnati. More tired than the word “tired” conveys. My body was tired. My spirit was tired. My soul and emotions were tired. I was more than tired – I was weary. I was a weary pastor. I am a weary pastor.
It wasn’t that I was feeling called to a new ministry. It wasn’t that our church was having major problems or falling apart. We could use more people. We need more money. There is conflict within the church. But these problems exist everywhere, and overall we were in a healthy place. I didn’t want to run away, and the church didn’t want me to run away – but I needed a break. I was beginning to experience the collective drain that is life in ministry. The incessant pouring out of myself into other people, the constantly being there for others, the devotion to preaching and teaching the Gospel from deep inside my bones, the pursuit of authenticity and empathy, and the increasingly difficult juggling of family life all were building an affront on my spirit . Paul might have said, “Don’t get tired of doing what is good” (Gal. 6:9), but I was on my way. I needed rest. My soul needed nourished. Our family had a nice vacation last summer, and it was refreshing, but only to a point. It helped cured the tired, but I still felt weary.
At the beginning of last year I began to explore the idea of taking a sabbatical. In our tradition the whole concept of sabbath is largely ignored, and the practice of a pastoral sabbatical is rare. So is a minister sticking around for 15 years. A weary pastor is not an effective one, and I believed a sabbatical would provide the refreshment that I needed to rejuvenate my soul and rekindle my passion for my current ministry.
Since around 2000, the Lilly Endowment has offered churches and their pastors what is known as the Pastoral Renewal Grant. The grant is for up to $50,000 to be shared between the pastor and the congregation. The beauty of the grant is that each applicant is encouraged to pray, dream, and create a custom and unique sabbatical experience. Approximately 150 grants are awarded to churches throughout the United States each year (many more are offered to churches in Indiana since Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis oversees the grants).
Early in 2018, I began the application process for our congregation to receive the grant for 2019. I found the application process itself to be life-giving and refreshing as I began to dream and pray and tend to my neglected soul. I worked hard on the application and met with a 2018 award winner who happened to live in Columbus too. He was generous to help and provide advice. I was convinced that whether I received the grant or not, the application process turned out to be a rewarding and worthwhile experience. I refused to get my hopes up too much as to stave off disappointment and focused on the positive experience that applying had been. The distraction of this opportunity was beginning to give this weary pastor some refreshment.
It was with a trembling heart that I pulled out a large envelope from Christian Theological Seminary out of our church’s mailbox in early September. I tried to keep my excitement at bay, but I immediately convinced myself that a consolation envelope would have been much smaller. Patiently, I decided I would wait until our family was around the dinner table that night to open the package that determined our fate together. Around our dining room table that night, we learned that we had been selected to receive a $50,000 grant, and that our family would be spending ten weeks in the summer of 2019 in Europe on a spiritual pilgrimage. My weariness was already beginning to fade.
One of the things that Joel (the local minister who received the grant last year) told me about his sabbatical experience was that it opened up so many doors and put countless things in action that he could have never foreseen. My relationship with Joel was an obvious one, but in the months since receiving the good news, I have met new people and we have had new experiences as a result of this grant. One of the things I really hope to do is to make more and more people aware of the Lilly grant opportunity, and also bring attention to the weary pastors across the country – particularly those in the Churches of Christ. I know of only one other minister in the Churches of Christ to have received this Lily grant. I know there are many of us who work in small and often thankless churches. We keep our noses to the grind and stay busy about our ministry. Our networks are small, we are seldom asked to speak at conferences, and we go relatively unnoticed. Those of us serving at churches with less than 100 members don’t find ourselves on the front of many brochures, and yet there are more of us serving these churches than large ones, and our challenges are different than what often get addressed.
I have started a blog to document the experience of applying for the grant but also for addressing the heart of the weary pastor. Whether I received the grant or not, I was going to have to do something to address my weary soul. I know there are many others out there in my shoes, and I hope these blog postings can be a blessing to you. As exhausting and tiring as driving back from an amusement park can make you feel, years and years of ministry take their toll on us in a more penetrating way. May your weary soul find rest.