A year ago today the minivan was loaded up with camping gear, and I began my trip out west for the August portion of my sabbatical. It is hard to believe that sabbatical was one year ago already. In a way, sabbatical saved my spirit. Before sabbatical I had served as curate in West Virginia for 1.5 years, rector in southern WV for 5.5 years, and as rector of A&HT for 8 years for a grand total of 15 years serving as a parochial priest. The new norm is for clergy to take sabbatical every six years, so to say that I was overdue is an understatement. Most days I cannot imagine doing anything other than serving as a parish priest, but I’ve found that after fifteen years as priest I was losing my identity as one of God’s beloved children. After fifteen years I forgot that it wasn’t my job to keep a church’s doors open. After fifteen years I slid into valuing my worth through the approval rating of others, how I felt about the latest sermon I had preached, how effective I thought the last Vestry meeting went, the number of “fips,” fannies in pews, how the last conversation with the most cantankerous parishioner went, and/or how the parish budget was coming along. Now, don’t get me wrong. Life wasn’t always as miserable as the above run-on sentence appears; however, before sabbatical I was seriously considering how to tell my spouse that it was time for me to move on to another parish setting.
Sabbatical gave me a chance for a fresh perspective without worrying about the parish I serve. I had an entire three months away from church meetings, planning sermons, funerals, challenging parishioners, budget cares, etc…I explored this beautiful country of ours. I did what I what I love; camped, fished, played a ton of guitar, exercised, drove, read, wrote, drank delicious coffee, meditated, went to twelve-step meetings, watched movies, and all in all, trusted that the church would be there when I went re-entered from my extended sabbath.
What I didn’t get to do a lot of was spend time with my family. I live in a beautiful rectory next to the church, and I knew that when I was at home my mind would be on the life of the parish. So, I intentionally planned most of my three months to be away. All of my travel time was wise. There were a few times when I was home for several days, and I quickly learned that the longer I was at home, the more I started to think about work again. And yet, even though all of the travel was good for me, I desperately missed being with my wife, two growing boys, and Labrador retriever.
So, where am I emotionally one year since the start of my #sabbathsojourner? Well, up and down, to be quite honest. The joys of ministry and the struggles of ministry are all still present as they were before sabbatical. For a period after my return I practiced healthier boundary setting, but I still occasionally slip into lapses of overwork. Today, though, I catch myself when overworking or worrying, and I do something about it sooner. I talk with my spouse. I focus on progress, not perfection. I tend to my spiritual growth while remembering that it is up to parishioners to choose to focus on their own spiritual growth. I remember that all things come and go. We’ve had several funerals, and I am pretty tired of funerals, but I have also had a few weddings, and I am open and looking for baptism opportunities, too.
I don’t know what tomorrow holds for the church I serve. That has to be ok, because I don’t really know what tomorrow holds for me personally, either. I know I have parishioners who will work for common sense gun reform, and I know I might lose some parishioners for being “progressive” as I acknowledge on blogs and social media that I support common sense gun reform. I have to be all right with that, and today, I am ok with that. It isn’t my role as priest, preacher, or pastor to keep folks happy and content with the status quo. To turn a deaf ear to the hundreds on innocent lives lost is to be complicit in their murders, and I cannot in good conscience be complicit today. All I can do is to be responsible for the kind of follower of Christ I want to be today. I can lovingly lead myself, my family, and the faith community I serve as best I am able, and then let others choose for themselves who and how they will serve. Naturally, I want for folks to follow Jesus with me, but everyone has their own choice to make. I am only responsible for my choice.
And so, one year out from the start of my sabbatical, I still hurt for those on the margins of society, and I am willing to speak out on behalf of them and in solidarity with them. I won’t slam those who disagree with me, but I also don’t need to walk around on my tiptoes, either. Today I choose to be the most authentic and loving dad, husband, and priest I am capable of being. I will mess it up repeatedly, but God’s grace is in the mess ups and in the healing, in the recovery, in the dialogue with God, self, family, and church. I remain rector my parish because of the sabbath I experienced over sabbatical. I remain sane and emotionally healthy today because of the care I take for myself and acknowledging that the church is in God’s hands, and I am simply the current steward of A&HT’s rector’s office. I won’t always be, but tomorrow isn’t any of my business, and I am ok with that.
I am blessed with an awesome family, a group of parishioners who want to move forward in growing closer with God, an altar to celebrate Holy Eucharist and a pulpit to preach the Good News from. I don’t know what tomorrow brings, but I know that I am a work in progress, and that’s just fine by me.
In God’s Grace,
Eric L. Miller+