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Reentry (Part 3)
Back from sabbatical. It was so radical.
I started by sabbatical on Monday, May 29. I returned from my sabbatical on Tuesday, September 5. That means that, as this post goes out in the world, I have been back in congregational life for about four days.
So let’s talk a little bit about stepping back into pastoral life. Let’s talk a little bit about reentry. Let’s talk about what it’s like to come back.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect upon my return to the church. I knew some things: I had a short list of people to be in touch with quickly because they had things happen over the summer, I knew that the parking lot had been replaced, and I was pretty confident that the building hadn’t burned down. But, while I was excited to get back into things, I was also a little anxious. You never know what might be waiting for you when you get back to work.
So on Tuesday morning, I headed out to do some pastoral visits. One out of the three that I had planned actually happened, but that’s not unusual. And at the one that did happen, the person who I was visiting told me how wonderful the communion service that some lay people from my congregation had brought to the assisted living facility was!
After that visit and a stop at another place where a visit did not happen, I headed to the church to check in with the secretary and go to a meeting. The check-in was nothing special. And, while there were some run-of-the-mill challenges that came out of the meeting, the communion service came up again: how can we make this a regular thing?
After the meeting, the rest of the day was filled with the odds-and-ends of preparing for worship this Sunday, putting together some social media, and dealing with the administrivia that had built up while I was gone.
And the week has really been like that: a calm mixture of the institutional and the personal, of seeing things that have continued or started in my absence and seeing things that I need to pick up again, of challenges that are still there and opportunities that are presenting themselves.
I will admit that the week of Labor Day is a weird time to come back from sabbatical. Monday was a holiday that I was not going to give up. Friday is still my day off (unless there is a bonafide emergency) and Saturday is still my flex day. So, if all goes well and the new week starts on Sunday, I worked for three days this week.
I think that’s probably a good thing: a sort of soft reentry.
I was talking to a colleague’s husband a while ago. They just had their second child and his wife came back—from maternity leave to pastoral life—during the summer. He told me that when they had their first child, she made a similar tradition back to pastoral life at the beginning of Advent, when the whole world is running headlong toward Christmas, the church is full of business, and the pastor is under all of the pressure of Christmas Eve. He told me that returning during the summer—during the liturgical non-season of Ordinary Time—was better.
I don’t have kids, and I don’t want to draw too close of a comparison, but a soft reentry is a good thing. I spent the last couple of weeks of sabbatical on little tidbits of getting ready. I spent this week easing into congregational life. And I can spend the next week or two getting back up to speed.
But I can also spend the next week or two observing my relationship with the rhythms of the church. I know from experience how easy it is for clergy—and I may have a predisposition to this—to get up to full speed and stay there: for every season to have all the pressures of Advent. I am hoping that sabbatical and this week will make me more mindful of the fact that there can be more relaxed times; that having those more relaxed times makes the busy times both possible and bearable.
This might be related to the fact that it was a soft reentry, but one of the things that I’m noticing is how relaxed I am. Even with the relaxed reentry, this was a busy week. It was even busier because of the holiday on Monday. I had multiple pastoral care contacts, several last-minute meetings, worship preparation and planning, the recording of videos and posting of social media, and more. But, while there have been little pockets of frustration, I haven’t felt stressed about any of it.
That means I’m in a different place than I was before sabbatical. And that makes sense.
Stress isn’t an all or nothing kind of thing; every stressful season leaves a bit of itself behind and that builds up over time. And that’s not unique to pastoral ministry or the pandemic. I have been building stress for years, through two careers and a lot of life changes, and probably for even longer. Sabbatical was a chance to clean some of that—maybe even a big chunk of that—out.
That doesn’t mean that it’s all gone, of course. I still bear the old wounds and there are still specks of stress in my mind and in my body. But enough of that has been cleared away that I am in a new and better place, restored and refreshed, and, I think, really prepared to step make into pastoral life.
And that’s a pretty good place to be.