The following sermon was shared at the July 3, 2016 worship service at Chalice Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
In October 2007, I was living in San Diego (where I was born and raised), and I had been attending First Church, the big UU church in Hillcrest, for three years. I came home from a church women’s retreat and told my partner, Peter, that I thought I would like to attend seminary to become a UU minister. This was something of a bombshell. We both understood that my attending seminary would mean that we would have to move—our two UU seminaries are in Berkeley and Chicago—and my clarity about my call to ministry came, of course, at a time when we had finally felt that we were settled down, we owned our own home, we were finally getting just a little bit ahead financially, enough to start thinking about things like travel. My calling to become a minister turned our lives upside down.
This decision was stressful on my relationship with Peter. He was very happy at his work, in particular, and was not happy to have to quit and move. He asked me if I could wait a year, and I said no.
Friends, witnessing our stress and distress, suggested that perhaps we could make things work long distance. Peter could stay in San Diego, and I could move away and fly home on weekends, and we could somehow make that work.
Although that was certainly an option, and many couples do make long distance situations work when they need to, Peter and I never seriously considered this idea. In spite of the stress on our relationship, and Peter’s unhappiness, and all the uncertainty that came with leaving our house and our jobs, we were clear that our relationship is founded on the idea that we want to be together. That our relationship is about sharing a home, and sharing chores, and coming home to each other at the end of the day. We did NOT get into a relationship in order to be apart.
And that’s how I feel about being your minister, and how I feel about sabbatical. I didn’t become a minister in order to leave my congregation, and to be apart from you for months at a time.
Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to be going on sabbatical and am looking forward to it. I haven’t had time off like this—substantial time off without stress or worry—since childhood. But I consider the taking of sabbatical to be one of the disciplines of being a minister.
In 2010, the New York Times reported that “Members of the clergy…suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants [had] risen, while their life expectancy [had] fallen.”
The New York Times article goes on to report on the importance for clergy—like all of us—to take time off. And I have been very disciplined about taking my regular vacation and study leave. One of the challenges of the minister’s schedule is that I only have one day off a week—Monday—and so taking my vacation and study leave is very important just for getting through the regular church year.
But sabbatical is something different, and it’s something different in religious life than it is in academia, where we’re most familiar with the idea of sabbatical. In academia, sabbatical has a PURPOSE; it’s considered an investment in the future of the institution, and professors are expected to return to work with something to show from their time off: having written something, or studied something, or collaborated on work with others.
But in religious life, sabbatical simply means “rest.” The word “sabbatical” shares etymology with the Hebrew “Shabbat” and its Anglicized term “Sabbath,” days of rest. Literally, these words mean “ceasing.”
Like a field needs rest, needs to simply lie fallow in order to return to productivity, so do we.
It’s hard to articulate why this work of the minister is so demanding, so stressful. I’ve said before that the parish minister does the work of a scholar combined with the work of a caregiver. Either of those roles—scholar or caregiver—would require time for rest and contemplation. Combined together, they take a toll.
But that’s not really it. The truth is that as your minister, I’m in relationship with each of you, some 200 or so people who are members or friends or regulars here at Chalice, and I care about each of you. I worry about each of you.
You may think, “She doesn’t mean me,” but I assure you, I do. If you are a first time visitor, I worry about what hurt or yearning brought you here, and I worry you will give up too soon, that if you don’t make friends right away, you’ll retreat, and you’ll miss out. I could make a list for you of people who’ve come here once or twice, or even regularly for a while, and then drifted away, and I worry about all those people.
If I know anything about your life, I worry about you. I pray for you. I worry about your spiritual health. I want what’s best for you. I worry about your children and your parents, your relationship with your partners, your friendships with each other. I worry about your resistance to change. I worry about your anger and your grief and your fear.
This is what it is to be a minister: to carry in my heart at all times your wounds and your struggles and your challenges. And to carry these knowing they are not mine to bear or to resolve, but merely mine to witness and, when the time comes, when you invite me and let me, they are mine to tend to, not to try and cure, but simply to care for, in brief windows of time.
This work of being your minister is a greater blessing, a greater joy, than I could imagine when I decided to attend seminary. Looking back, I know I hardly understood ANYTHING about what I was getting myself into. That is the nature of a call, I suppose; you hear the call, and you respond. (The one thing I knew for sure is that I could NOT imagine preaching.)
I couldn’t imagine being present at the moment of death. I couldn’t imagine someone asking for me when they knew they were dying. I couldn’t imagine ever saying anything that would be helpful to someone in their time of crisis. I couldn’t imagine my voice being a comfort to a grieving grandmother. I couldn’t imagine that people would take trips and think to bring me back a spiritual memento. I couldn’t imagine that people would send me birth announcements, like I’m a member of the family.
And I could never have imagined that witnessing the joys feels like the same privilege as witnessing the sorrows. My heart is full all the time. My heart aches from the fullness of how you let me be part of your lives.
This is something precious, you know? Most people don’t go to church. We are antiquated. Most people don’t HAVE a minister anymore. Someone they trust, in some way, shape, or form, to be some kind of companion or guide. Someone they’re willing to listen to sometimes. The fact that you’re here, listening, is a sign that your heart is open, open to connection, open to relationship, open to the idea that there may be something you don’t already know. It doesn’t mean you think I’m an expert, though you might. But it does mean that you’ve invited me into your life for this window of time on Sunday morning, and I feel the privilege of that invitation.
Yes, we are antiquated. People don’t trust institutions much these days. We don’t trust government or banks or the media. We don’t trust corporations or the criminal justice system. A recent Gallup poll shows that confidence in almost all American institutions is dropping. Confidence in religious institutions is lower than it has been at any previous time in the past 40 years.
In the year 2000, when Chalice formed, 56% of people surveyed reported having a “great deal” or “a lot” of confidence in religious institutions, well over half of the people surveyed. 16 years later, that number has dropped to 41%, considerably UNDER half. Maybe more tellingly, in 2000, people who reported having “very little” confidence in religious institutions was 14%; that percentage is now 24% of those surveyed.
Most people don’t wake up on Sunday morning thinking about going to church. More and more, they don’t miss having a minister because they don’t know what it’s like to have one.
And I worry about them, all the people who don’t come to church. Worry for them fills my aching heart too. They don’t have a minister, and more importantly, they don’t have a COMMUNITY of care and love. They may not have any support systems. They don’t have somewhere to go with their grief or their anger or their fear.
It is no wonder that ministers need more than a day or two at a time to lay these burdens down. Like a field needs rest, needs to simply lie fallow in order to return to productivity, so do we. So do I. My aching heart needs rest.
I think religious institutions are important. What we do here is important. When we sing together at the close of each service—we drink from the well—these aren’t just poetic words. Here is where we come to fortify ourselves for the work of making the world a better place. This is our base camp of spiritual rest and nourishment, where we huddle and hug and then re-commit. We re-commit to compassion, to forgiveness, to patience, to righteousness, to justice, to authenticity, to vulnerability. Here is where we lean on each other. Where we confess our doubts and uncertainties and then re-commit, again and again, to returning to the world engaged and curious.
Because the world needs us to pay attention. To stay present to what is broken, to what is wrong. To be allies to the disenfranchised. To advocate for change. To vote for reforms.
Yes, what we do here is important and the blessing to me, after four years as your minister, is that I know you will be fine without me these coming months. It is true that I did not become a minister in order to be apart from my congregation, but it is also true that I did not become a minister for you to be dependent on me. Chalice is a healthy congregation, and you will be fine while I am away.
So…it’s a strange and wonderful gift you’re giving me, these four months off. I have been careful not to abuse the gift by scheduling myself with plans and tasks. But I’m sure I will return to you in four months with stories to tell and lessons to share. I look forward to rediscovering who I am when I’m not worrying about you.
I want to close with a reading by Rev. Jack Mendelsohn. This was read as part of my ordination service three years ago:
A Unitarian Universalist minister is a person who is never completely satisfied or satisfiable, never completely adjusted or adjustable—a person who walks in two worlds: one of things as they are, the other of things as they ought to be—and loves them both.
Ministers are persons with pincushion souls and elastic hearts, who sit with the happy and the sad in a chaotic pattern of laugh, cry, laugh, cry—and know deep down that the first time their laughter is false or the tears are make-believe, their days as real ministers are over.
Ministers are people with dreams they can never wholly share, partly because they have some doubts about them, and partly because they are unable to explain adequately what it is they think they see and understand.
A minister is a person who continually runs out of time, out of wisdom, out of courage, and out of money; a person whose tasks involve great responsibility and little power, who must learn to accept people where they are and go from there; a person who must never try to exercise influence that has not been earned.
The minister who is worthy knows all this and is still thankful every day of life for the privilege of being—a minister.
The future of the liberal church is almost totally dependent on these two factors: great congregations (whether large or small) and effective, dedicated ministers. The strangest feature of their relationship is that they create one another.
In our time apart, may you know that you are a great congregation, may you remember me as effective and dedicated, and may we all look forward to a happy reunion in November. May it be so. Amen and blessed be.