Archive for August, 2010

August 31, 2010

I Missed Church

This past Sunday, Kevin and I were not in worship at Washington Plaza. We took the Sunday off not because of a holiday, family obligation or sickness, but just to get away and be. It was such a special treat and I can’t tell you how much we enjoyed the gift of time.

But, regardless of what a good time I had, I missed church.

I was thinking about all of you when my watch said 10:30, 10:50 and 11:25. . . . (to which Kevin said: “Stop looking at your watch!)

I missed going to and being a part of worship more than I thought I would. It just wasn’t the same coming into the office on Monday morning. I heard about the weekend’s events through the lens of others, not through first hand experience. I felt a sense of separation from my church family here.

It’s amazing that I could feel this way, I think, after only one week, but it is true: our Sunday worship is the center of our life together as a community. Without participation in it, I began this week without the same level of connection that I normally feel toward those in this place.

People tell me all the time, “Pastor, I didn’t come on Sunday, what did I miss?” To which I want to reply, “You missed everything!!”

While of course there are countless other ways besides Sunday worship to be involved at Washington Plaza, truly our Sunday worship time together IS the heart of all we do.

Worship on Sunday is where we find our spiritual grounding for the week ahead through scripture.

Worship on Sunday is where we connect with friends or otherwise known as our brothers and sisters in Christ, in ways that transcend the “normal” of what it means to be human.

Worship on Sunday is the place where we remind ourselves that our gathering is different from a civic club, a charity group or an association meeting: we gather to praise, thank and adore our God because it is God who is Lord of all. 

 Sure, we have to be gone from time to time. Sure, there are other obligations and priorities in our lives other than just church. Sure, there are countless other really good things that we could be doing on Sunday morning other than coming to church. But, how might our community life change if each of us envisioned our week with worship on Sunday mornings as a priority?

If you are attending other events at the church, but missing worship, I want to take this opportunity to invite you back this week at 11 am. Even though this weekend is Labor Day (and thus many of you will be away),  I look forward to whatever Sunday’s gifts of being together will offer those of us who gather. I’ve missed YOU!

August 25, 2010

August Family Fun Night

And the best Family Fun Night award goes to . . . . all those who came out to hang out with us this past Friday night on the Plaza!

Friday’s Festivities were the best yet! It was a joy to see so many kids in the Plaza playing games, eating hot dogs and singing along with Mr. Derby, the children’s entertainer. And, then to see even more kids in the Plaza Room of the church playing more games, enjoying making sand art, and interacting with Rainbow the clown and getting their face painted.  We can’t wait to do this again next year and already have ideas about how to expand it. Watch out, Lake Anne friends, the fun has just begun!

 Thanks to all the volunteers, especially to those members of the outreach comittee who have really taken the lead on this important effort.  As you can tell, we all had a blast and the hard work to make this great event happen didn’t feel like work at all– just a lot of fun!

August 23, 2010

Who Are We?

There has been a conversation shift among the leadership of Washington Plaza folks recently. As plans are made for the fall, there is a question that is on all of our minds, “What is God’s vision for our church?”

We seem to be asking it everywhere recently– in the finance committee meetings as we have been preparing the stewardship promotional materials for the upcoming campaign, in a focus group that Moderator, Jane led in my home last Tuesday, in the Land Use Committee meeting that was held on Saturday in my office.

For, we as a congregation have reached the point where we as a pastor/ congregation have settled into one another. The church, I believe, understands what they can expect from me in terms of style of leadership, preaching, administration, etc. And, I have been the process of “really, really” knowing the folks who I serve here with me.

So, now is the time to move, but to do so intentionally.

The first question that we’ve begun discussing a lot is: “Who are we?”  Or, “what makes us special in this community?”

Answers I’ve heard around the church recently have included:

  • We’re a loving fellowship of people who needed to see the church in different way than they’d experienced it before
  • We are diverse, open-minded and inclusive
  • We are good at hospitality
  • We try to follow the teachings of Jesus in helping other people
  • We like the intimate size of our community and the possibilities this has for truly knowing one another
  • We are afraid of what growth might do to the “feel” of our church
  • We don’t want this to become a _______ church (you name it and it has been inserted: we don’t want to be a mega church. We don’t want to be a gay church. We don’t want to be a conservative church. We don’t want to be a liberal church, etc).

I’ve generally agreed with all I’ve heard.  We are loving, diverse and inclusive. This does make us quite unique in the roll call of Reston churches.

But, my fear is that we might be too comfortable with what comes natural to us and unwilling to stay on the journey toward all that is lies ahead in our future.

No, I don’t see mega church status in our future. But it doesn’t mean we have to be afraid of growth or the type of people in particular that are brought our way (whoever they are).  Yes, there will be folks who will naturally find us as a congregation, but that doesn’t mean that we should be stopped from sharing our story with those who need us just as much but might not be as self-motivated. This is the call of evangelism to which Jesus himself gave us.  (But not the scary kind you are thinking of).

If I were answering the question of “Who are we?” as a congregation these would be some of my additions to the list:

  • We are a church that takes the Bible seriously and seeks to be theologically grounded in the experience of scripture, tradition and what it means to be the church
  • We want to do something useful for God in our local community and beyond
  • We want to do justice by the example of how our community interacts with one another, not through public displays or protests
  • We are really good with adults, but learning to how to be welcoming to children
  • We have members from all political parties and theological spectrums, but seem to currently draw in those who are socially liberal but theologically conservative. We are a place where folks can “re-learn” how to embrace the “Baptistness” of their upbringing.
  • We are so committed to our ideas sometimes that we’ll go at projects alone, even if no one supports us

The hope is over the next couple of months, we as a congregation will begin to more precisely tell our story as it is now and as we hope it to be told in the future.  Because as much as we want to rush to off to the action steps of “doing” what is next, I believe it is just fine for now to stay with the question of simply, “Who are we?”

What do you think, Washington Plaza friends did I get any of this right?

August 23, 2010

Blessing the Covenant of Marriage

While the joy of beginning a new relationship can often be fun and easy, building mutually beneficial lasting relationships are hard work. This is especially the case when a marriage covenant is involved.

Saying that you want to spend the rest of your life loving another person in the best way you know how is quite difficult, if not impossible without a lot of grace and support from those who love you.

It’s trying to the soul when people change, life’s bumps hit your path, and there are so many forces both internally and externally that seek to pull you a part from the person whom you thought you could love so easily forever.

But, this is where I believe gospel community comes in and has the power to shape the journey of those who have made a covenant of marriage together.  For, if we are going to continue to hold weddings in our sanctuaries and do marriage counseling in our offices,  is our responsiblity as a church family to do everything we can to support those who have covenant to partner for life.

Ellie and Chad, a couple recently married who is a part of our congregation recently returned from their wedding in another state and honeymoon. We wished them well, but many of us were sad we could not be a part of their ceremony.

To begin this process of seeking to be blessing in their life and marriage, we shared a special time with them yesterday at the conclusion of the service.

It was a modern marriage reading taken from I Corinthians 13. I originally got the idea from Baylor University’s series called Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics (Marriage).  And, I used it in my own wedding ceremony. Then, my friend, Amy copied me and began doing this reading for couples recently married at her church. I thought this was a great idea and so Sunday at Washington Plaza we did our own version of this.

My hope is that all couples present would be strengthened in their understanding of the ups and downs of what it means to be married.

Here is the reading and some actions shots from yesterday (Thanks, Alex for the pictures!):

Pastor:  As a community of faith with those among us who can testify to the journey of love in marriage, we come this morning to bless you, Chad and Ellie, as you have made a marriage covenant to each other.

 Chad: Love is bliss!

Ellie: Love is exciting and easy!

Chad: Love is losing myself in you.

Ellie: Love is wanting to be together 24 hours a day.

Chad and Ellie: Love is wonderful! Yes, love is divine!

(Brad and Bobby, a couple recently married) 

Brad: Love is hard work!

Bobby: Love is not always liking each other.

Brad: Love is sometimes a struggle.

Bobby: Love is figuring out who I am and who you are as well.

Brad and Bobby: Love is lonely sometimes. Love is exhausting.

 (Craig and Mary, a couple married almost 12 years)

Craig: Love is accepting you just the way you are.

Mary: Love is knowing that I can’t change you.

Craig: Love is working out our disagreements in a timely manner.

Mary: Love is knowing my life is better with you in it.

Craig and Mary: Love is making commitment to get through whatever life brings our way.

 (Cal and Thelma, a couple married nearly 54 years)

Cal: Love is patient; love is kind.

Thelma: Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

Cal: It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.

Thelma: It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoice in the truth.

Cal and Thelma: It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

 All couples together in unison:

Love never ends. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love!

Pastor: Ellie and Chad, above all, we desire to support you, listen to you and do everything we can to uplift you in your commitment to one another as you learn throughout your lifetime what it means to love each other. AMEN

August 17, 2010

The Voices of Prayer

It is a custom during a weekly worship service at Washington Plaza that all have an opportunity to share their prayers of request or thanksgiving. It’s one of my favorite parts of the service because of its intangible quality of authenticity each Sunday. There is nothing people won’t ask prayer for. Our prayer time at Washington Plaza is  more than a “sick call;’ it is time spent every week participating in real life. If someone is going to jail, we pray. If someone is having a difficult time with their children’s behavior, we pray. If someone is grieving the loss of a pet, we pray. If someone finds a job after a long search, we celebrate!

Some weeks its short and some weeks it goes on and on causing me to re-examine how many pages of my sermon there are .  . . the unpredictable nature of the prayer time can drive you crazy as pastor, but it can always be equally wonderful.

Last Sunday after the “Prayers of the People” concluded,  what would have naturally occurred was a pastoral prayer. However, instead of just hearing my voice (as is the custom) we tried something different. “Difficult Family Relations” was the theme of the service. We were talking about God’s gift of community and how it means we are to be a family as a congregation, lifting up the concerns of those within our church family as if they are part of our biological family.

So, I asked everyone to pray aloud for some of the prayers mentioned earlier or whatever was on their hearts. And, to do so all at the same time. I reminded everyone that “God would hear them even if the rest of the congregation could not.”

I have to say that this experience of prayer was a little bit of heaven.  As I prayed some myself and then listened to the rumbling of voices praying within the congregation, I couldn’t help but want the corporate collection of prayer voices to go on for a long time.  (I mean, did I really have to preach a sermon?)

There was beauty in those moments of not only knowing that we are a praying church, but in experiencing it in worship.  I truly felt connected to God in those moments with a heart of thanksgiving for the fact that the saints of God were among me. I hope those who were present felt the same as well.

We won’t do this exercise every week, but I look forward to trying it again. Heaven you know, is just too exciting of a place not to experience, when the opportunity presents itself. It’s a blessing to know even with all of the difficulties of our life journeys, we are not alone. The voices of prayer (no matter if we actually hear them or not) are interceding on our behalf now and always.

August 16, 2010

The Wisdom of Staying Put

Last week while Kevin and I spent some time in Georgia with his family, I had a chance to catch up on a bunch of reading I’d wanted to do. One of the books I finished was by a former classmate of mine at Duke, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove called The Wisdom of Stability.

Jonathan makes a strong case in this text for the spiritual discipline of investing your life in a particular place. He calls to question the practices of our mobile and always on-the-go culture, suggesting that the “Let’s move in 2 years if we don’t really like it here” might not be the best approach to Christian discipleship.  Jonathan points out that this is why many of our communities, churches and relationships suffer– lack of committment to stay and truly invest in people around us.

I was challenged at many points to re-consider many of the ways that such cultural practices like, “No need to get to know these neighbors, we are moving in 2 years” or “My house is my sanctuary from the outside world” or even “We could always move . . . ” have infiltrated my own life. I spent some reflection time considering how my level of investment needs to take increase a notch or two in the neighborhood where I live and the faith community where I serve.

But, at the same time I felt that much of what Jonathan advocates for is nearly impossible to live out unless you live in a monastery (like many of the examples came from) or in an intentional Christian community (like Jonathan and his family do).   Even the most community centered of all churches still really struggles in inspiring the type of investment in its members which would make them say, “I am here for good.” The cultural pull toward mobility is just too strong.

But, then, as I was reading, I opened my eyes and remembered where I was: the small town of Sylvania, GA.  I was in the house where my in laws have lived for over 40 years and where nearly all of  my extended family lives on the same street.  They’ve been there for a long time and they don’t plan to move anytime soon (if ever!).

Their lives together in community as a family and with their surrounding neighbors (in contrast to the fast paced impersonal nature of my life in DC) is really what the wisdom of stability is all about. No one goes hungry in the surrounding area for their always an extra plate on the stove. My mother in-law has an open door policy and during any given hour you just don’t know who is going to walk in . . . a neighbor visiting to share the latest news, the preacher coming to pray with my mother-in-law after a doctor’s visit, a cousin coming from the next town up for an afternoon conversation. It’s chaotic and wonderful all at the same time.

 It’s a life that does not tire of doing and seeing the same things every morning. It’s a life that values the land, hard work and being together without any fancy occasion. The fruits of community just are there naturally.

I’m thankful for the witness of Jonathan and the intentional Christian community called the Rutba House where he lives, but I’m also even more thankful after reading his book for my own family’s witness of stability. I grateful to them for all they’ve taught me and will continue to teach me about the goodness of life coming to you IF you’ll just stay put long enough to recieve it.

August 8, 2010

Deacon Nomination Has Begun

In the spirit of re-beginning a NEW tradition at Washington Plaza, we began taking nominations for deacons this Sunday in worship. But in an effort to fully understand what we might be calling deacons to do, this is the sermon I preached today. I share it here for the benefit of those who missed worship today. Read it, pray about it, and share your nomination in of who you feel God is calling to the ministry of the diaconate this year. I know this ministry is going to be a wonderful addition to our church fellowship!

Deacons Needed!  Acts 6:1-9 

There’s nothing like a good church fight to get God’s plans for a community moving in the right direction isn’t there?

Though when many of think of the title of “deacon,” nice and hallowed images come to mind of saintly folks who serve in leadership roles of the church, today we get to wrestle with how all the business of deacon hood came to be.  And, it wasn’t pretty; it wasn’t pretty at all. The role of “deacon” within the church community evolved out of a conflicted situation that only some attention to administration could fix.

The church, as it began was centrally located in Jerusalem, found itself at a moment of crisis as our scripture passage opens for today.  Yet, previous to this lection all was well in paradise. New believers emerged almost daily, somehow the original 12 had somehow convinced everyone that living in the way of Jesus met communal life with holding all processions and finances in common, and powerful healing and teaching was regularly part of daily life.  However, all was not well. Conflict was brewing under the surface of things: conflict that could not be easily silenced or controlled by the 12 apostles unless time and energy was given to its origin.

When communities are filled with diverse people, conflict is inevitable. It is important to note that the community of believers in Jerusalem had never been homogenous from the start. Remember that Pentecost occurred on a day, after all, when faithful Jews were gathered from all parts of the known world at the time, speaking more languages than just one.

After powerfully encountering Christ through the coming of the Holy Spirit, many of them stayed in town to be a part of this exciting new religious movement. Language and cultural barriers did not suddenly go away. Consider this:  there were Jews who once lived in Jerusalem but had spent many years away from the city living in Greece who recently returned.  Their experiences abroad had changed them to the degree that that were no longer a part of mainstream in Jewish culture in the city center. Instead, they were known as “Hellenists.” While traditionally Jews, their dwelling places were in more remote parts of city. They were harder to visit, harder to understand when they spoke, and marginalized from the rest of the community without much effort.

Above all, some members of the community spoke Greek, some spoke Aramaic. Natural distinctions led to patterns of poor communication, mismanaged expectations among community members, and unspoken resentments . . . . sound familiar?

Specifically, those widows who lived outside the city center of Jerusalem felt they weren’t receiving the same treatment as those who lived closest to the 12 apostles.  The murmuring of complainants became so loud that a church town hall meeting seemed necessary. “What were the apostles going to do to fix the problem of the marginalized widows?” People demanded to know!

The answer emerging from this communal dispute was the birth of the diaconate: a group of selected, trained and ordained believers who felt a call by God to the service tasks of the community, specifically caring for the often neglected widows, orphans, powerless, and destitute. Though the word “deacon” is not mentioned within this text explicitly, it is a term used in other places in scripture. Deacon comes from a Greek word, diakonos which means servant or helper.  The deacon’s role was attending to the ministry of service in the community.

But, before you start rolling your eyes this morning, thinking that this scripture is just so typical of what happens in the church: “You have a problem and the solution is always to start a new committee and give the group a special name,” I suggest the connection is not so simple

For, what was going on in Acts 6 was the development of how Jesus-centered community life could flourish in the long-term.  It was about an organization with an “ineffective infrastructure” that needed rebuilding before it could move forward to the next level of God’s best.

And faced with this kind of decision-making, the text serves as a crossroad moment in discernment for those who cared so much about the good thing going on with the gathering of believers. And this is the discernment question: would the church be “ruled” by a select few with assumed superpowers to do everything OR would the church be a place where gifts of service of all could be celebrated and utilized for the greater good?

Depending on what church background we were raised in or experienced before coming to this church, we all might have different ideas of what deacons are and what they do.

If we came from high church traditions like found within the Catholic Church, we might imagine deacons as those who serve in official capacities under the priests, preaching, assisting with preparations for communion, wearing holy vestments. Deacons as persons set aside as servants for the church, usually as pre-cursor to ordination to the priesthood, a position which is set above the congregation in terms of calling and expectations for leadership.

If we came from churches like the Presbyterian and the Methodist tradition, deacons are often present in the congregation but you may not even know that they are there. Often taking a servant role of caring for the needs found within the congregation, these persons might only be known to you if you or your family experienced a time of great need. They are often ordained, but never for administrative tasks of governing the church, only of service.

If you grew up as I did in traditional Baptist congregation, most likely deacons existed in the community for several purposes, but mostly in an “elder” role of being the gate keeping board of persons who instruct the pastor on how he is to do his job. Sometimes deacons are asked to administer caring ministries of distribution of benevolent funds, etc, but usually deacons in most Baptist churches are the elected leaders.  Most famously, the deacons are the persons, everybody recognizes on the day the Lord’s Supper is served.  (I have many a childhood memory of the precise, almost military-like formation of deacons at the communion table where covering cloth is removed, folded and then the meal is served to the congregation).

While I celebrate the diversity of church tradition and interpretation of this scripture text, what really were the first deacons asked to do? What was their intended role in community life?

Well, despite all of the modern-day confusion, the first deacons weren’t asked to sit on the church council and serve as lawyers for the church.

The first deacons weren’t asked to make theological statements of doctrine about who was in the community and who was out.

The first deacons weren’t asked to pick out what color the altar table would be.

The first deacons weren’t asked to be scholars in theology before their role of service began.

And, the first deacons weren’t given special clothes to wear.

The simple answer is that the deacons were asked to serve. Specifically, deacons distributed food and all other administrative service tasks that the apostles, who were seeking to devote themselves to the overall leadership of the community and the preaching and the teaching of the word, simply could not continue to do in addition.

 (For there was no way that the apostles could be preaching the word regularly with quality presentation and conviction if they were weighted down by the worries of if the Jews on the outskirts of town not getting enough food). Deacons were the servant ministers that the church needed.

What were the qualifications for these persons? They were simple. Deacons are to be of good standing, full of the Spirit, and of wisdom.  (Notice what part I left out “men” While cultural practice of the day meant that those in line for official leadership  in the early were always men, an interpretation of this text better reads, “select from yourself seven individuals.”).

In a nutshell, deacons were to be persons who lived their lives in such a way that their sound character shone through.  Their life decisions were grounded in the spiritual discernment and they acted out of sound decision-making practices.

The emphasis was on character not if their resume could fulfill a job description of desired tasks to complete.  Deacons were asked to lead, alongside the apostles, ensuring that the gospel when forth into the community through tangible acts of compassion, care and concern.

Such a transition in community life was a HUGE step of faith for the 12 apostles to sign off on. Because if things remained as they were with the 12 of them being the only ones in charge, Peter, James, John and the rest were well on their way to becoming an all-powerful monopoly.

But, instead, by distributing the tasks that needed to be done among the diaconate, the apostles were saying yes to community. Spiritual leadership would now be shared by other members with gifts for service.  Saying in the way of Christ, there would not be lone ranger or a dictator based leadership. Instead, Christian community would be about investment from all the members, and no person being left out simply because they can’t easily attend community worship or fellowship activities.

And so too is our step of faith today as a community as we begin the process of deacon nomination. Asking for nominations from among our community about who God has equipped already for the service of the diaconate. 

Who among us is well-respected for traits of good character? Who among us is full of spiritual insight and Godly wisdom?

Whose spiritual calling in the coming years is to serve the needs of families within our church?

Who is God calling out in this body to be of help to the pastorate so that more attention can be given to visionary leadership and preaching of the word?

But, I propose that today’s scripture text is not simply about selecting deacons. While there is a strong admonition to do so, this is not all what Acts 6 is about.

Acts 6 should challenge us as a local community of Christ followers in the practices we undergo when we decide who is doing what in the church.

In a community of small membership like this one, most of us wear a dozen or more hats on any given week. We might teach a Sunday School class, bring food for one of our Sunday lunches, and take food collected to Reston Interfaith to on a Tuesday morning . We might be here on Friday night cleaning up after a renter has used the space.

It seems that the needs of the church simply are without end at Washington Plaza. Many of us have eyes to see the needs and we do the necessary tasks, even if no one sees or recognizes our contributions. In a community like this one, many of us serve the church (or have served the church in the past) like it’s a full or part-time job of ours. We go and go and do and do simply because acts of service need to be accomplished.

Washington Plaza Baptist is a community of doers—doers who do even if it means we have to act alone, carrying an entire program or ministry on our own.

But is this really what communal life in the way of Acts 6 is calling us to?

Remember that all the problems began when a group of widows weren’t getting their food.

And it would have been really easy for the 12 apostles to receive the complaining voices as criticism against them. They could have apologized to those who made the complaints. They could have re-arranged their schedules to accommodate just a little bit more. But, they didn’t. They said no.

The apostles said, we are called to the prophetic work of teaching and preaching the word of God.  This is our gift to the community. This is our calling. Now, we realize there are a multitude of other needs within the community, let’s pray and discern together who has the gifts to meet those needs that aren’t a part of what God has asked us to do.

Do you see the difference from, “Sure, I’ll take that task. Sure, I’ll lead that committee; I’ve done it for the past 5 years. Sure, I’ll lead this ministry for the 15th year in a row” TO “I feel called to this ministry within the community. This is my spiritual gift that God has given me with the expectation to use. This is how I will bring blessing to the community just as my neighbor Mr. ___ or Ms.____ needs to bring their gifts to bless the community too.”

You see when things began to get sorted out in the community, the deacons were called, and the apostles continued to go about their work, notice with me what happened in verse seven: “The word of God continued to spread; the number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem.” 

As group of people with specific callings and individuals gifts to share within the community found their place, the atmosphere of the church changed.  We don’t hear about the apostles dealing with complaints and bickering and whining about “why we don’t do this and why we aren’t like this.” Instead, we see the gospel shinning forth from this body of believers in such a way that others can’t help but join in.

 Don’t hear me saying today, “Ok, everybody you can quit all your church jobs today.” For I fear what kind of ungodly chaos would break out if such was the case all at once (I’m going out of town this week after all . . .)

But what I am challenging all of us to consider this day as we talk about ADDING something new to our ministry through a diaconate body, is that such a transition for us might require some administrative re-arranging for us as a church as a whole.

There might be some of us in this church who might be sensing God’s voice to say “No” to something we’ve always done around here that people seem to expect us to do without question in order that we might say “Yes” to those things which bring us the most joy and have the potential to bless this community with a fresh wind of the Spirit which can bring the word of God to us all in a powerful way.

I don’t know what the particular calls of communal participation and service God is calling you to here today and in the months ahead. But, what I do know is that as we embrace this season of change, of transition for all of us, exciting things are in store for us.

Of course it is easier to sit back and reason with ourselves that what we have is doing ok and not broken enough to fix, but when we are following the leading of God’s Spirit, we might be surprised who comes before us with transforming ideas of faith that will give us an effective infrastructure to sustain all that lies ahead.


August 8, 2010

A Week Away

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m off. I’m catching a flight right after worship to spend some time with my family in Georgia that will be recovering from surgery. So, as I try to be intentional about being present where I am this coming week, I’ll take a break from blogging about the church on the Plaza. Check back next Monday though for an update. Until then, feel free to click on over to my own new personal writing project called, “Re-imagine” if you miss me.  As my friend Maria would say, be well until then.

August 2, 2010

Sabbath for Pastors

Taking time off from work seems as simple as this children’s drawing doesn’t it? Step one: you don’t pick up your blackberry, your laptop, or telephone.  Step two: you participate in activities which renew your joy. Step three: you provide space in your life to care for what needs to be attended to within you, such as awareness of God. Step four: repeat as necessary.  

Yet, clergy (among many other professions) are usually so bad at it!

This has I lot to do, I believe because of the “on call nature of the job” and the fact that we just don’t get traditional weekends like other professionals.

A friend recently passed on this New York Times Article to me about what researchers are saying about clergy health and wellness.  In a month like this one when everyone seems to be taking a vacation from church and pastors are not, I thought would be a good starting point for conversation.  Do you see your pastor (whoever they may be) modeling good Sabbath keeping practice? Or do you just keep feeding your pastor in an effort to keep him or her happy through the burdens of the day-to-day?

Taking a Break From the Lord’s Work

Published: August 1, 2010

The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.

Public health experts who have led the studies caution that there is no simple explanation of why so many members of a profession once associated with rosy-cheeked longevity have become so unhealthy and unhappy.

But while research continues, a growing number of health care experts and religious leaders have settled on one simple remedy that has long been a touchy subject with many clerics: taking more time off.

“We had a pastor in our study group who hadn’t taken a vacation in 18 years,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, an assistant professor of health research at Duke University who directs one of the studies. “These people tend to be driven by a sense of a duty to God to answer every call for help from anybody, and they are virtually called upon all the time, 24/7.”

As cellphones and social media expose the clergy to new dimensions of stress, and as health care costs soar, some of the country’s largest religious denominations have begun wellness campaigns that preach the virtues of getting away. It has been described by some health experts as a sort of slow-food movement for the clerical soul.

In the United Methodist Church in recent months, some church administrators have been contacting ministers known to skip vacation to make sure they have scheduled their time, Ms. Proeschold-Bell said.

The church, the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, led the way with a 2006 directive that strongly urged ministers to take all the vacation they were entitled to — a practice then almost unheard of in some busy congregations.

“Time away can bring renewal,” the directive said, “and help prevent burnout.”

The Episcopal, Baptist and Lutheran churches have all undertaken health initiatives that place special emphasis on the need for pastors to take vacations and observe “Sabbath days,” their weekday time off in place of Sundays.

The Lilly Endowment, a philanthropic foundation based in Indiana, has awarded grants of up to $45,000 each to hundreds of Christian congregations in the past few years, under a project called the National Clergy Renewal Program, for the purpose of giving pastors extended sabbaticals.

And while recent research has focused largely on mainline Protestant churches, some Jewish leaders have begun to encourage rabbis to take sabbaticals.

“We now recommend three or four months every three or four years,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, a past executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis. “There is a deep concern about stress. Rabbis today are expected to be the C.E.O. of the congregation and the spiritual guide, and never be out of town if somebody dies. And reply instantly to every e-mail.”

Some nondenominational evangelical Christian ministers have embraced a similar approach, outlined in two best-selling books by the Rev. Peter Scazzero, pastor of the New Life Fellowship Church in Elmhurst, Queens.

Mr. Scazzero, 54, is the unofficial leader of a growing counterculture among independent pastors who reject the constant-growth ethic that has contributed to the explosion of so-called mega-churches.

In the books, “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” and “The Emotionally Healthy Church,” he advocates more vacation time for members of the clergy, Sabbath-keeping, and a “rhythm of stopping,” or daily praying, that he learned from the silent order of Trappist monks.

Mr. Scazzero said that depression and alienation from his wife and four children prompted him a half-dozen years ago to try living more consciously and less compulsively.

“It’s hard to lead a contemplative life on Queens Boulevard,” Mr. Scazzero said. “But the insight I gained from the Trappists is that being too ‘busy’ is an impediment to one’s relationship with God.”

Clergy health studies say that many clerics have “boundary issues” — defined as being too easily overtaken by the urgency of other people’s needs.

Dr. Gwen Wagstrom Halaas, a family physician who is married to a Lutheran minister and who wrote a 2004 book raising the alarm about clergy health (“The Right Road: Life Choices for Clergy”), described the problem as a misperception about serving God.

“They think that taking care of themselves is selfish, and that serving God means never saying no,” she said.

Larger social trends, like the aging and shrinking of congregations, the dwindling availability of volunteers in the era of two-income households, and the likelihood that a male pastor’s wife has a career of her own, also spur some ministers to push themselves past their limits, she said.

The High Mountain Church of the Nazarene in North Haledon, N.J., started with 25 members 10 years ago and grew to 115 before its pastor, the Rev. Steven Creange, noticed strains in his marriage and decided to slow down.

Mr. Creange said he and his wife feel lavishly rested — and much happier — since they began observing Sabbath days on Fridays and making occasional weekend getaways.

“I just don’t go to every graduation and every communion anymore,” he said. “And people accept it.”

In May, the Clergy Health Initiative, a seven-year study that Duke University began in 2007, published the first results of a continuing survey of 1,726 Methodist ministers in North Carolina. Compared with neighbors in their census tracts, the ministers reported significantly higher rates of arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma. Obesity was 10 percent more prevalent in the clergy group.

The results echoed recent internal surveys by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which found that 69 percent of its ministers reported being overweight, 64 percent having high blood pressure and 13 percent taking antidepressants.

A 2005 survey of clergy by the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church also took special note of a quadrupling in the number of people leaving the profession during the first five years of ministry, compared with the 1970s.

Roman Catholic and Muslim clerics said the symptoms sounded familiar.

“We have all of these problems, but imams are reluctant to express it because it will seem like a sign of weakness,” said Imam Shamsi Ali, director of the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens. “Also, mosques do not pay much and many of them work two jobs.”

Catholic canon law requires priests — “unless there is a grave reason to the contrary” — to take a spiritual retreat each year, and four weeks of vacation.

That vacation regulation has led Msgr. Gus Bennett of Brooklyn to take a camping trip on horseback in the Wyoming wilderness with friends every year for 30 years.

Monsignor Bennett, 87, a canon lawyer, now semi-retired, who spent most of his working years setting up and managing the pension plan for priests and lay employees of the Diocese of Brooklyn, says he has always felt his religious side to be most alive during those nights in Wyoming, “sleeping on the ground, under the whole of creation.”

He does not know how it affected his health. “I just know it made it easier to come back and jump into the books,” he said.

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