On Tuesday, March 15, I will begin going into my sixth year of ministry with the Illinois South Conference. As is often the case in our perception of time, some days it feels like I have just begun this work, and some days it feels as if I have been doing this work for oh so long. In this ministry (much like in any ministry), what I have experienced is the waves of expectations, to-dos, and even crises that just keep coming.
And while there are ebbs and flows in this ministry, for the past few years, the rhythm of the waves has felt a bit relentless and unending. There have been moments when it has felt difficult to even catch my breath in the spaces between one wave receding and the next, which I can see quickly approaching. Most recently, I have noticed that my mind, body, and spirit are aching for a reset, a time of rest and renewal.
Starting May 1st, I will be embarking on a three-month journey of rest, renewal, and recommitment as I will begin my sabbatical. Originally my sabbatical was planned for last summer, but the timing didn’t seem right to me. I wanted to ensure we were putting as much intention and effort as we could into a successful summer season at DuBois Center after being shut down in 2020. While a sabbatical every five years is part of my compensation package and call agreement, the Conference Council supported my decision to postpone it. Strangely, even though I knew I could have benefitted from it, I must confess I was a bit relieved.
The truth is I struggle with not being busy. I struggle with taking time off, not being available, or not seeming productive. Sometimes I can carry quite a bit of guilt when I am not working, or I take time off. This guilt is not a response to my faith, rather it is a response to my fear. I was raised to value hard work, grit, and a never-give-up attitude. I was also raised in a culture (we all have) that ties our worth, our value, and even our humanity to our productivity. Yet, this is not what God designs or values.
Consider the rhythms of rest God designed for God’s creations from the beginning of time. In the creation story found in the first chapter of Genesis, we are reminded that God created and then God rested. In the eighth chapter of Exodus, we are reminded that God consecrated the seventh day as a day of rest, and God ordered all of creation to cease from work on the Sabbath. In the twenty-fifth chapter of Leviticus, we are reminded that God commanded the people to let the land lie fallow every seven years so the land could replenish itself. In the Gospels, we are reminded that Jesus frequently spent time alone for rest and renewal.
For me, the times Jesus withdrew from the crowds, his followers, and his disciples to pray, reminds me that if he needed the time to reflect on his call, listen to God’s voice, and receive strength and direction for his ongoing ministry, then I do too. I am still fully committed to the ministry to which I have been called here in the Illinois South Conference. I want to be even more engaged, more alive, more energetic, more passionate, more creative, and more Spirit-centered. Yet, to be more, I also realize I will need time to do less and simply be…so that freshness and renewal can be regenerated in me through the Spirit of God. This is the gift of receiving a sabbatical.
As it is so succinctly said in the document A Sure Foundation, which was written by the UCC MESA (Ministerial Excellence Support and Authorization), “for pastors, the sabbatical is time to nourish their relationship with God, recommit to their call, and provide renewed vision is not a vacation, but it does provide time away from the daily work of ministry. Sabbatical leave may include study or a project, but its first goal is reconnecting with one’s sense of vocation through rest, reflection, and prayer.”
In the next couple of months as I continue to plan my sabbatical, you will be hearing more about this time and what it will mean for me and you as well. In the meantime, I offer my deep gratitude that this Conference has made sabbaticals for their Conference Ministers a priority by creating a sabbatical fund and ensuring sabbaticals would also be a part of the call agreement. Thank you for your foresight, your care, and your support from which I know I will greatly benefit. Blessings, Rev. Shana Johnson, ISC Conference Minister