By Howard Humphress, D. Min
Over my 24 years in East Ohio I have taken a few renewal leaves. They have mostly been a combination of study, travel, and relaxation. In October 2014 I enrolled in a Contemplative Clinical Practice Certificate program through the Smith College School of Social Work. It began on Smith’s campus in Northampton, MA for a four-day retreat with monthly phone case consultation and spiritual direction. The program concluded with a four-day retreat in April.
That was the study portion of my renewal that I found quite stimulating and engaging for both my clinical practice, spiritual formation programming done through Pastoral Care, and my own spiritual practice. The relaxation and off-line work portion began in early July 2015 with a 24-hour retreat at the Jesuit Retreat Center in Parma. My leave proceeded with some physical work: first with a barn makeover job on my son’s horse farm in KY, a kitchen renovation project at a friend’s house, a reclamation of a rental house with my brother and step-dad, and a week of tree trimming and grounds reclamation at my house in Canton. All of which took me out of my normal routine of psychotherapy and ministry for just a short time, and renewed me spiritually, emotionally and physically.
This is but one example of a renewal leave that was tailored to this pastor’s need at the time. As pastors, we are encouraged to practice self-care and warned of the results of its neglect. Anthony Headley in his article “Self-Care in Ministry” for Catalyst Resources says, “[The] failure in self-care often carries devastating consequences. It contributes to unmanageable stress, spiritual and emotional exhaustion, and even premature exit from ministry. Physical consequences also abound as ministers find themselves at risk for many ailments.”
Brian Sixbey recently completed a study among United Methodist clergy that uncovered physical problems such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes. Emotional problems such as depression also appeared in this group (“Clergy Peer Groups: Do They Make a Difference for Clergy Health?” [DMin diss., Asbury Theological Seminary, 2014]). “In nearly all cases, the rates for these ailments exceeded those in the general population. But the consequences do not end at the minister’s door; they tend to produce a trickle-down effect in families and congregations.”
How does one cultivate appropriate self-care? To those unaccustomed to its validity, relevance, or importance, it starts with shedding the notion that a neglect of self (and in some cases, a hatred of the self) represents good spirituality. Instead, in line with Matt 22:39, one should see love of others as grounded in an appropriate love for the self. One also needs to get beyond seeing self-care as selfish and something to be avoided. Rather, accepting God’s call to care for the good body he has created, one should feel free to engage in self-care without great reservation or guilt. Read more.
I strongly recommend pastors to take a renewal leave when they have gone through a stressful siege of ministry or heavy challenges in their personal life but ideally one should not be waiting to the point of burn-out to take time away. Our 2012 Book of Discipline encourages elders, deacons, and local pastors to take continuing education and spiritual growth leave of one week per year and a full month every four years (Par. 351.2). It also makes provisions for longer sabbaticals for our clergy (Par. 351.3).
Many models for a sabbatical [and renewal leave] exist, any one of which can fit the needs of the pastor. Some use this as an opportunity to engage in disciplined study. Others have combined study with travel. Whatever choice, a sabbatical [renewal leave] may benefit the pastor with a change of scenery and pace, a rediscovery of the gifts and graces by which God called the pastor into ministry, and renewed energy for the tasks of ministry. Read more.
I encourage you to consider a renewal leave as part of your plan for caring for the instrument of ministry God has endowed you with: YOU!
As you look ahead for the coming year and your annual consultation you may want to talk with your District Superintendent and SRPC about a renewal leave for yourself. Many have taken advantage of your Pastoral Care Office in planning and processing their renewal leaves.
Here are some resources that you may find helpful in planning your renewal leave:
Rev. David Whitt
Chair, Commission on Clergy Well-Being
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