November 11, 2016
Recently I’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor, and have been down-right shocked by how encouraging it is. There are so many alternative voices and pressures out there; so many odd and competing ideas about what a pastor should be. But here is a guy who gets it. So I was especially glad to find and finally steal a brief article by him on the mysterious little thing we call ‘sabbatical.’ Once again, he gets it.
SABBATICAL IS NOT STUDY LEAVE
Eugene H. Peterson
The sabbatical is an entrenched tradition in academia. University professors, committed to the life of the mind, get them regularly every seventh year. And well they should. This life of the mind, teaching and thinking, is strenuous. The mind tires, grows stagnant, begins to repeat itself. The annual invasion of students, their curious and questioning minds strangely mingled with ignorance and sloth, constitutes a formidable challenge to a professor.
Academia exists to protect and develop knowledge, but knowledge is not a dead thing in a book. It's a living dialectic; it requires fully alive professors to maintain it. If knowledge disintegrates into cliché‚ or soddens into data, intelligence is betrayed and the mind dulled. And so the schools provide for regular renewal of the professorial brain cells by providing sabbaticals.
But pastors, committed to the life of the spirit, a life at least as strenuous, if not more so, than the life of the mind, rarely get sabbaticals. I wonder why, for the spirit also tires, grows stagnant, begins to repeat itself. The weekly assembly of Christians, their hungry-and-thirsty-after-righteousness lives strangely mingled with sin and sloth, constitutes a formidable challenge to the pastor. The sanctuary exists to protect and develop holiness, but holiness is not a packaged attitude that can be sold to Sunday god-shoppers. It is life at risk before God, dangerously and awesomely at risk, and it needs fully alive pastors to represent it. If the life of faith is reduced to a church program or into jargon, the gospel is betrayed and the spirit dulled. Yet churches make little provision for renewal of spirit in those they set as overseers for the renewal of their spirits.
The omission impoverishes the church's spiritual vitality. Pastors enter their ordained work centered in prayer and alive to grace; after ten, twelve, thirteen years they find they simply don't have the energy for a life of prayer, of spirit. One after another and year after year, they abandon the terms of their ordination and settle for running churches.
A curious irony has occurred in the midst of this. Churches have, of late, been giving pastors study leave. In my denomination it is required-two weeks each year. But why "study"? That, surely, is not my central work. I stand before a congregation each week not as a lecturer in dogmatics but to lead them in prayer, bring them the sacraments, and guide them in listening to God. Intelligence, and the cultivation of intelligence by study, is not to be slighted in this work, but it is the life of spirit that is my forte. It is the prayer, contemplation, and proclamation to which I am guardian. The sanctuary, not the classroom, is my demesne.
I think I know what happened. Several centuries ago, the university took the practice of the sabbatical from the church and then altered it to suit its purposes. Recently, the church glanced over at the university and noticed this wonderful practice and thought a sabbatical might be a good idea for pastors, too. And so we started taking it back. But instead of taking back what they took from us, a time for renewal of spirit, we are taking back what they turned it into – a renewal of mind. The all-but-universal practice is for pastors to go to universities and seminaries for these bastard sabbaticals and take academic courses. They return to their congregations with starched and in-fashion ideas, but their spirits as baggy as ever.
If we are going to take sabbaticals, let them be real sabbaticals: a willed passivity in order to be restored to alert receptivity to spirit – prayer, silence, solitude, worship. It is outrageous that we acquiesce to the world's definition of our word and let our unique, biblical sabbatical be put to the use of career advancement, psychological adjustment, and intellectual polish – with all the prayer and contemplation laundered out. The original intent of sabbath is a time to be silent and listen to God, not attend lectures; a time to be in solitude and be with God, not "interact" with fatigued peers. If help is to be given to the pastor in midcourse, it is not going to come by infusion of intellect but by renewal of spirit.
Leadership Journal Winter 1988 pp.74-5.
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