On Having a Sabbatical

August 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

I tweeted last night that I was having a fabulous time on sabbatical. A friend who helps clergy on their sabbaticals asked if I could say why. Here then are a few thoughts.

Planning and Permission
Many clergy are driven by a desire to serve. A sabbatical can feel very selfish. I had to get over this, especially in a parish setting. Let others tell you how important a sabbatical is, believe them, then give yourself permission to plan for a fabulous time. It may only happen once.

Working from Rest
I’ve been ordained 24 years, and this is my first sabbatical, so the key thing was to change gear, and that has meant permission to do nothing. It is, after all, a sabbatical. The freedom from daily demands is the essential joy, and not doing too much has been the best gift I could give to myself. I have not filled ‘free’ days with too much. This is a space to remember who you are, not what you do – or at least to recognise in what ways the two are linked and feed off each other.

Taking Enough Time
How long should a sabbatical be? I felt initially guilty, especially in a parish setting, about taking too much time ‘off’. A wiser friend counselled that I should go for the maximum possible. I worked on the basis that a sabbatical is 12 weeks, and I added the 3 weeks we are advised to have as a holiday.
Another wise friend said that, as a Bishop, he often felt that clergy should have three months off and then have a three month sabbatical. That was echoed by an American friend, planning his sabbatical. The norm there is 6 months, and he was going for 7 if he could.
Take as much time as you can.

Time It Right
It is a commonplace among clergy that you go on sabbatical, come back, and then leave the parish. I guess that’s because sabbaticals are often taken seven or ten years into a particular job. The clergy realise how much they are valuing not being there, and the parish realise that they are quite enjoying it too. So be it…but my circumstances have prevented an extended break until now, less than three years into my time at Beverley. I was keen to say that this was to energise the next few years here, not to prepare to leave.

Genuinely Leave the Day Job Behind
I guess this is the most difficult thing for parish clergy. I am very blessed in having a parish with assistant staff and lay employees, where parish life is filtered through a separate office. I planned the time so that my assistant staff would be in a position to take the reins (and indeed appreciate the opportunity – or that’s what they told me), and tried to make sure that there were no major events (so after Easter and before September…though the arrival of the Olympic Torch and then the Paralympic Flame were not on the radar when I booked it!).
No one calls the Vicarage anyway, and a stern ‘Out of Office’ on the email has meant that I have genuinely been left alone. Not everyone will be able to stay in the Vicarage without the ‘day job’ intervening, so do some creative planning beforehand to give yourself real freedom.
Even with all this the best thing I did was to leave the Vicarage the day the sabbatical started and not return for six weeks. It reminded me that the parish was not about me – perhaps the best lesson to learn. I couldn’t have interfered even if I wanted to.
You need to convince yourself that all is fine ‘at home’, even if it’s not, and that stuff can be dealt with when you get back, however tempting it is to sort it now.

Do Stuff You Wouldn’t Otherwise Do
It seemed important to use this opportunity to engage in things that a normal break wouldn’t allow. For me it was going to Israel for an extended time – four weeks. I was also able to visit places closer to home which I wouldn’t want to inflict on my family as part of a normal holiday. And we’ve tried to make our holiday time slightly more special by going to more events we both like – we might not have done as much without the sabbatical as an excuse.

Don’t Do Too Much, But Have an Aim
In other dioceses there is an emphasis on justifying this time away by studying, or doing something which will have an immediate impact on your parish or the diocese. Some call it ‘study leave’. That wasn’t the impression I got in York, and I’ve worked on the basis that having an aim, or a theme, is good, but not to overcook it.
I thought that ‘sacred place’ might give me the excuse to travel, and would link to the day job in that Beverley Minster is much visited, and remains a shrine and sacred place to many.
I’ve read a little bit, and tried to reflect on this at some of the sacred places I’ve been to (where is more sacred than Jerusalem, for example?), but have not been obsessive about it. And as one who has an (exaggerated) reputation for ‘always’ being on social media and blogging I made a conscious decision not to write too much about what I was doing or thinking day by day. Wise advice from Israel was not to promise exhaustive diaries, as the situation out there is so complex that your immediate responses may not always be helpful. That has worked for the sabbatical in general.
But…I’m determined to let the lessons I’ve learnt ‘seep out’.  A session with a wise friend and counsellor at some point will be a good idea, and the sabbatical will be complete when, perhaps in a few months, some considered reflections emerge.

Get Enough Funding
I couldn’t have done the Israel thing without separate funding, and it felt a whole lot easier to ‘indulge’ myself knowing that there was less financial pressure. Thanks then to the Diocese of York, CFI, Ecclesiastical Insurance, the Boniface Trust, my own PCC and one of my other churches, and our local Methodist Circuit (a surprise and gratefully accepted gift), for their grants.

Get Back To Work
I’m not there yet – 13 days to go. But there will need to be a re-entry (deliberately on a Monday, not a Sunday…). The team here have been good in coping with loads, and there has been just the right amount of communication to let me know what I can expect.
For fifteen weeks there has not been a Vicar of Beverley Minster, and, inevitably, some things will be happening differently. I’m keen not to make everything ‘revert’ to what it was, so there will need to be some adjustment on my part.
And I will be different too. A sabbatical reshapes you. I can remember 17 years ago when a significant event (a family bereavement) reshaped my priorities in ministry, and in some ways there has been a similar reshaping in these last weeks. It’s something about discovering what is important, not just required, and underneath that something about being fully alive rather than just efficient and good at the job. So the parish will, I hope, see something of a change. We’ll all have to adjust.

A simple thing for me will be to make sure that planned time off – a day, a free weekend, a retreat, a holiday – will be another version of this extended time. Permission to rest, to enjoy, to wonder, and to live.

The Kyle of Durness

Rules for Reverends – the Xtra Factor

December 21, 2011 § 2 Comments

Greetings Ruleteers. A couple of seasonal ones in this week’s top ten.

111. Christmas happens on December 25th every year. It is amazing the number of times you will not realise this until it’s too late.

112. If you have the NRSV on your smartphone you can update your Facebook status during worship and pretend you’re reading the Bible.

113. There is probably a way of remembering which of your robes is in which of your churches, or your house. If you’ve discovered it, please let the rest of us know.

114. Never be afraid to admit that part of you is in it for the dressing up.

115. There is absolutely no way you can look at your watch when in a deep pastoral situation without the other person noticing.

116. Most church problems are sorted out by the people who know in the car park afterwards. Not worth having the original meeting at all, when you think about it.

117. Visitations are only made by Angels, Archdeacons and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Not all Visitations are the same.

118. At least with Alpha you get food.

119. Everything is fair game as a sermon illustration. Especially your children. They’ll love you for it.

120. Store up the questions that only God can answer on the other side of death. There’ll be plenty of time to get them answered. Or maybe they won’t need to be.

Rules for Reverends: The Next Generation

December 15, 2011 § 2 Comments

Somebody stop me…

101. On paper Carol services look like they are going to be really long, but are shorter than you think.

102. Work out how you respond best to conflict, because there will be some. The Body of Christ is made up of human beings, after all. And the Holy Spirit doesn’t help. Look at Corinth.

103. No, the compilers of the Lectionary didn’t know what they were doing.

104. If you buy a thick cassock because all churches are cold, you will only ever work in warm ones.

105. There is no such thing as a quiet toy.

106. Never overestimate the power of a lone bagpiper to evoke a sense of lament.

107. If your worship group has a drummer, pray that they are the most musical person in the building.

108. People who have worshipped in the same church for decades have rarely looked around it properly. Preach about the windows or a carving. They will be amazed.

109. Church bells must be divine. Humans ring them. God knows why.

110. Don’t mess with the Flower Arrangers.


Rules for Reverends X

December 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

We’ve made it to 100. Should there be more?

91. It’s only when you’re in the pulpit and coughing that you realise you’re not sure whether the jug and glass have been there for five years without being changed.

92. Gardening is only therapeutic when your parishioners can’t see you doing it. When they do they think you’re taking too much time off.

93. Answering machines are superb, but you do need to listen to them.

94. If you need a decent policy for something, ask your friendly Methodists. They’ve got loads of good ones.

95. No surprise is more pleasant than a letter from the Bishop by return.

96. Never underestimate the power of a nun to get conversations going. Especially on public transport.

97. Fill in attendance numbers carefully, and review them year by year. Some trends take time to make themselves felt.

98. Never handle any cash. If you have to, get a witness.

99. People are very coy and very careful about their giving. Be coy and careful back, but make sure they know they are appreciated.

100. Working harder at this job won’t get you any more money. Unless you become a Bishop, a Dean or an Archdeacon. And who wants to be one of them?

Rules for Reverends IX

December 13, 2011 § 2 Comments

Can’t stop now…

81. There is probably a very good reason for Deanery Synods.

82. There will be one key which unlocks the drawer which has all the other keys to the building and safes in it. This key will be in plain sight somewhere.

83. There is nothing clergy like better than following other clergy in a procession. That the one at the front knows where they are going is taken a matter of faith by those behind, and is a proof of the existence of God.

84. Most people’s worst nightmare is a Vicar with a guitar. This situation is helpfully relieved by saying ‘I know. I am your worst nightmare. A Vicar with a guitar’. When tuning up, give them a bit of All right now (Free) or Thunderstruck (AC/DC). It works for me.

85. There is nothing so very wrong with wedding photographers. When there is, do give them some feedback.

86. Take great care over finances, and learn to read a balance sheet. The level of giving as a barometer of the spiritual life of the congregation.

87. Being on the committee of another organisation is a good way of realising that perhaps the PCC isn’t so bad after all. Or recognising that, actually, it is.

88. The law of buffets is that the optimum arrangement of food and plates has not yet been discovered, and that all the other ones are achingly slow.

89. Loud shoes in stone floored churches are much to be encouraged.

90. The contents of the flower cupboard are a mystery, one not to be explored without prayer and fasting.

Rules for Reverends VIII

December 12, 2011 § 1 Comment

Where does this stuff come from?

71. Under no circumstances agree to judge a fancy dress competition where there is any possibility of you meeting any contestant, or any member of their family, during their lifetime.

72. If your church has lots of needy people, it’s probably because it’s doing the right thing. But that doesn’t make it easier to handle.

73. Choristers have to work very hard to make sure they have the right stuff to sing at the right time. They might not, therefore, take in what else is happening in your brilliantly crafted act of worship. Give them some input another way.

74. Some people will never ever be satisfied. Find out who they are, and spend as little time as possible trying to sort things out for them.

75. The preferred communication style of most churches is osmosis and telepathy.

76. Decide which practical things in your church you will know nothing about. This could be how the clock is wound, or the way the boiler works. You do not have to do everything, only the stuff you have to do. Discovering what this is will be your life’s work.

77. Look carefully at the retired clergy around you. Find a happy one, and ask them how they did it. Start planning to do the same. You could be retired a long time.

78. What they don’t teach you at theological college is how to hold a plate and a glass of wine and a fork at the same time. They should.

79. You may not be designed for small talk. Watch a master, and steal three phrases which will help. Asking people about themselves is a good starter.

80. There might be loads of clergy at the cathedral, but they do work hard. It’s just different to what you do.

Rules for Reverends VII

December 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

On a roll…

61. The length of a PCC discussion about money will be in inverse proportion to the amount discussed.

62. No, the Diocese does not know what it is doing.

63. If you want something to thrive, threaten to abolish it.

64. Some organisations do die. Give them an honourable and joyful funeral.

65. It is impossible to overestimate the impact on your ministry of using clear consonants and not dropping your voice at the end of a sentence.

66. Just because the microphone is there doesn’t mean everyone will automatically hear you.

67. The notice sheet exists so that people can happily ignore its contents.

68. If you can’t be omniscient you can give the impression of being omnipresent. And you don’t have to stay to the end.

69. If the whole team is last minute you’ll get on well with each other and your church will learn what faith is all about.

70.Yes, it’s frustrating not to be able to join in at Choral Evensong. Just let go, and let the office pray you.

Rules for Reverends VI

December 8, 2011 § 3 Comments

Getting going now…do let me know if these chime or if I’m just going mad.

51. Some people have very noisy coats

52. The tiptoeing thing people do when they are late into church doesn’t work.

53. When you go to see the Bishop about your future, bear in mind that he might have said his prayers that morning. But then again, he might just have a gap to fill.

54. You drink more Communion wine than anyone else. You owe it to yourself to make it decent.

55. The Press has a memory shorter than a goldfish, and works on whims and timescales more rapid than a toddler in a toyshop. You will not change this.

56. No church hall booking system ever works.

57. Common Worship was written so that people previously at enmity with each other could have something to moan about together.

58. No one is ever happy about car parking arrangements.

59. Account very carefully for special collections, and write within nano seconds to the donor and recipient.

60. People who light a candle when they say a prayer are not being superstitious. The Holy Spirit is helping them with sighs too deep for words.

Rules for Reverends V

December 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Seem to have started something here – a few more then.

41. No Year 1 assembly will survive if you mention the word ‘Christmas’.

42. You can always tell a Bishop but you can’t tell him much.

43. Services are better when planned with other people. Your week will be better if you don’t have as many meetings. In the middle of this tension God is to be found.

44. Each one of your parishioners is made in God’s image. You just need to look harder at some of them.

45. Annual Parochial Church Meetings would be enlivened if people could be voted off rather than on. But you might be first.

46. The person at your door asking for money and food might be a prophet. But they just be dangerous and frightening to your family and you have to be careful.

47. The recycled sermon you use in desperation will be the only one someone remembers from the first time.

48. All pews are sacred.

49. Sending a text at the right time can be a deeply pastoral act.

50. Hardly anyone will refuse if you offer to pray for them.

Rules for Reverends Vol III

December 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

21. Every Vicar’s surplice has a darker patch where it’s been slammed into a funeral director’s car door.

22. There is never a pen in your cassock pocket. Even when you know you left one there the last time you had it on.

23. There is a ‘right’ tune for every hymn. It’s just not the one you chose.

24. You should never take your diary with you to church.

25. Visiting on spec is a waste of time because no one is ever in during the day. Except for the people who are.

26. Everything stops in September. You thought that’s when it started, but that’s when your congregation (who are all retired) go on cruises.

27. You don’t have to make an emergency dog collar any more if you’ve forgotten the real one. Just say you agree with Archbishop Sentamu’s stand on these things.

28. People have long memories, and everyone is related to everyone else. Be careful.

29. The DAC is your friend, and the Faculty process will save your life (Anglicans only).

30. Who else can pronounce a blessing on people and say it’s work?

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