When I became the director of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs in 2012, I inherited programs that had already been running successfully for 12 years. Application and adjudication procedures, wisdom about how best to walk alongside applicants in these competitive programs, legal matters – all of these things came having withstood the test of time. This included the tagline to the programs: “What will make your heart sing?”
Being a somewhat somber sort (theologically and otherwise), I admit that I struggled with that tagline at first. It seemed a bit… sentimental. Florid, even. Out of keeping with the lofty and serious goals that I ascribed to the programs. There is so much over-sentimentalized talk of the heart in Christian circles that my natural suspicion as to how profound it could really be kicked in.
This is the story of how I learned to love it.
The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs (one in Indiana and one that works across the United States) give grants to congregations of up to $50,000 to support their pastors taking a renewal leave, generally of three to four months. Up to $15,000 of that money can be used by the congregation, both to cover costs of pastoral supply during the leave and also to pursue programs related to the leave themselves (since a number of congregations need grant funds even to take care of their own needs while the pastor is away, much less help send the pastor on her or his activities). The programs came about in 1999 when the Lilly Endowment, as part of its goal of strengthening North American Christian congregations by strengthening pastoral leadership, decided to provide funds for pastors to step away from the daily demands of parish ministry in order to reconnect with relationships, activities, spiritual practices and other sources of life that would allow them to return to their ministry contexts renewed and revitalized.
Here’s how I like to describe the programs to pastors and congregation members: “Picture your congregation three months from now. The pastor walks into her office feeling ready to go: energized, spiritually rooted and creatively inspired. The congregation, similarly, feels like it has gotten a new injection of energy and insight. The question is: What would have been happening in the three months prior to get pastor and congregation to that state? What would work for you all to get yourselves there?”
The answer to that question is, of course, highly individual for pastors and congregations alike – no two would answer it the same way. And that is the beauty of the renewal programs – they encourage variety. Some pastors travel the world with their families. Some go deeply into their studies and read and write for pleasure instead of deadlines. Some make art, or take on new physical and spiritual practices. Some bring along spouses and partners, others bring along seminary classmates and friends. Some grant monies go to pay for plane fare to Asia or to pay for dog-sitting in order for pastors to travel. The variety in sabbatical planning is as vast as the variety within ministry itself, and indeed, to ask a question about the heart (What are the hopes and dreams that fuel pastors as people and as proclaimers of the gospel?) is an intimate and sacred invitation that we are privileged to shepherd.
The stories are myriad. The pastor who wanted to experience the need for hospitality and thus traveled to several countries in Africa in order to displace the comfort of her own sense of belonging and gain greater appreciation for what it means to be hosted and welcomed. The Orthodox priest who wrote compellingly about how spending a month binding antique books would allow him the kinesthetic space to think about God’s salvation of the world. The filmmaker who wanted to film acts of reconciliation from Amish communities to South Africa.
It is easy for people to hear this and assume that the pastor is going on an expensive three-month vacation. But the work of renewal is much deeper and more spiritually profound than that. Pastors and congregations undertaking renewal leaves are invited to engage in the life-giving activities that will allow them to carry forward their shared mission together in ways that far exceed simple recreation. The “work” of Sabbath is discipline, wise discernment and a letting go in order to trust in God’s abundance. It is a theologically intense and missionally powerful act, one by which the congregation honors the pastor and the pastor rededicates herself to service in the congregation.
Heart songs are diverse and varied, and many of them have the sort of gritty edge that is characteristic of actual truth-telling as opposed to treacle. Parish ministry in the 21st century is a challenging reality on economic, political and spiritual fronts. No superficial song can reach the ears of pastors and congregations that seek spiritual solace in a world that seems torn apart by noise and discordance.
Into that space of heart song comes dreams – dreams of relationships with spouses and loved ones restored, physical and spiritual health gained, creativity awakened, gratitude for a life spent in ministry rekindled. Congregations, too, dream of honoring pastors with sabbatical opportunities, receiving a renewed pastor who brings fresh vigor seasoned with experience in their context and other sorts of projects that can energize a congregation towards mission and ministry.
Dreams, of course, are sacred and often fragile things. Indeed, amidst the mechanics of the grant management on our end, the staff of Clergy Renewal are regularly struck by what a delicate and precious thing it is to hold dreams. “What will make your heart sing?” is, I realized, such an intimate question – all the more so for pertaining to deep matters of faith, life-giving relationships and a renewal of inspiration for the calling to public ministry. The longer I direct these programs, the more I find it reminiscent of the ministry that I pursued when I was a parish pastor – the work of holding space for personal spirituality, celebration of congregational innovation and courage, and astonishment at the creativity by which God’s spirit continually shapes and re-shapes the landscape of ministry across the country.
The programs are competitive; because of finite funds, we cannot fund every excellent proposal we get. That is one of the painful parts of the job. But the silver lining to that reality is that a number of pastors and congregations have reported that the extensive process of applying (generally a multi-month discussion between pastor and congregation around proposed activities, purpose, budget, etc.) is itself generative and helpful. Think about it – when was the last time you heard of a pastor and congregation sitting together being attentive to the question of “what will make our hearts sing?” The testimonies about the value of the process itself are evidence of how God can turn a reality of scarcity (such as finite grants) into abundance.
One of the assumptions that we often see, especially from people early in the application process, is the idea that these sabbaticals must “produce” something – a book, a new skill set, new insights on preaching, language acquisition. This is likely because people are thinking of a more academic version of sabbaticals, one where a given professor takes a leave from teaching classes in order to research a monograph or do field research forwards a concrete product.
But this is not true of the sabbaticals we fund. The primary “product” of the time away is a revived and refreshed pastor. The only expectations are the ones set within the application materials themselves, organically adapted and owned by the congregation and the pastor, as to what activities will bring deep renewal and joy to everyone involved in the leave.
And that is perhaps the primary reason why I have come to regard the question “What will make your heart sing?” as no light and fluffy thing. Indeed, in many respects it is a deeply countercultural question – as countercultural as Sabbath rhythms were and are in the Christian tradition. It is a question that displaces productivity as the measure of effectiveness, even as it recognizes that the most spiritually rooted and joyful pastors also tend to be in a much better position to “produce” excellent ministry. Instead, it follows the deep logic of the Christian story by locating the worth of pastors, congregations and the ministry they produce within the economy of God’s grace and God’s abundance. This economy has strange metrics for measuring success – witness Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard! Excellence from the standpoint of heaven is not measured in such earthly metrics as bodies and dollars. It is measured in abiding faithfulness and the cultivation of joy in God. To the extent that sabbaticals can contribute to pastoral excellence in this way, they are effective in the best way possible.
It is powerful to be able to honor the work of pastors through these grants; however, more powerful still is the shared work of holding heart songs together, to the benefit of ministry and proclamation of God’s grace and ongoing creative work in the world.
Robert Saler is associate dean, executive director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence and research professor of Lutheran studies at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. For the past five years he has directed the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs (cpx.cts.edu/renewal), which have been administered by Christian Theological Seminary on behalf of the Lilly Endowment.