Sabbatical Epiphanies

15 Jan

A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church on January 11, 2015

Reading Excerpts from Turtle by Gayle Boss


“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he is not the same man.” This wisdom comes to us from the greek philosopher Heraclitus, around 2500 years ago. As old as it is, I am feeling it in a new way right at this moment. I am not the same minister that stood here six months ago, and you are not the same congregation. And yet here we are, with me putting my foot in the water once again, getting a gauge on the temperature, the current, the turbidity. And boy-howdy, this river did NOT stay still while I was gone. As I have heard over the past few days, and as many of you saw in the wonderful videos shared in the service last week, this congregation’s current carried it along at a healthy pace – not too fast and wild, but no chance of getting stagnant, either.

But I am getting ahead of myself, which I hope you will forgive since I am a bit out of practice at this. Since today is the first Sunday of Epiphany in the Christian tradition, it is fitting to share and celebrate our revelations with one another- particularly those of a spiritual nature. So I would like to begin by talking about my understanding of where I was six months ago, then share not only what I did on sabbatical, but what I learned, and then explore briefly about where we are now and what moving forward might look like.

There is a saying that if you want something done, ask a busy person. Not only because a busy person likely has issues saying “no” to things, but also because a busy person knows how to get things done. They are already moving sixty miles an hour, so bumping it up to 80 isn’t as difficult as it would be for someone who is cruising along at a more conservative 30.

But just as going faster in cars means fewer miles to the gallon and a shorter distance until it is necessary to refuel, so too do busy people need to be attentive to creating space and time for refueling. By the time June rolled around last year, my fuel tank was empty and I was running on fumes. My inner resources had been depleted to the point that my creativity was gone, my enthusiasm was gone, my ability to think outside the box was gone. I did what needed to be done, checked tasks off my to-do list, but experienced very little joy in it. I wasn’t sleeping well, I wasn’t eating well, I wasn’t exercising and taking care of my body. After five extremely satisfying, growth inducing, challenging, wonderful, thrilling years with this congregation, what was once a groove had turned into a rut. I had hit the point where I needed to refuel. And so it was that I took a deep breathe and swum deep, burying myself in the mud, like the turtle in our reading.

But going still does not come naturally to me, and so it took some time for me to figure out how to apply the breaks. I know some of you are wondering what I did on sabbatical, not just what I learned, so let me give you the scorecard, of sorts, to show you what I mean:

I traveled. In the course of the sabbatical, I traveled to the Arc of Appalachia Nature Sanctuary, to the Washington, DC area; Atlanta; Kingston, TN; Dayton, OH; Charleston, SC; and Des Moines, IA. That doesn’t include the family vacation we took prior to the sabbatical beginning!

I learned. About policy governance, about family systems and creative leadership, and about the history of race and racism in our society and in our congregations. I learned about cortisol, the stress hormone, and the damage that it does to our bodies and the damage that we then pass down genetically to the next generation. I learned about third places, endocannibinoides, neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, and about microaggressions. And I learned about the changing religious landscape in our country, and what it means for traditional brick & mortar congregations.

I wrote. I wrote 10 chapters in a book I am working on that takes my experience playing roller derby and uses it as a lens through which to look at various sociological, psychology and theological aspects of life. And I wrote 13 blog entries – many of them looking at how the way we “do” church needs to change as the old ways no longer work.

I ran. I have always hated running, but in early July I read something about how many runners hate running. Once I realized it was really a mind game, I decided to try it. Prior to sabbatical, I had never run anything more than a 5k in my entire life. In November, my sister and I ran a half marathon together – 13.1 miles.

And I focused on my family. We ate dinner together almost every night. I cooked healthy meals. Our eldest started a new school and we loved it so much we moved our youngest over a few weeks later. And we enjoyed this strange concept of weekends that I had heard so much about.

I traveled, learned, wrote, ran, and focused on my family. In the beginning of the sabbatical, I created a structure for myself. I wanted to write two chapters and a blog entry every week. And so that is what I started doing. I knew that I had a tendency to be addicted to my to-do list, but I learned that I have a tendency to be a slave to my goals, as well. When it comes to achievement of goals, I can be a force of nature. This has a good side, but as with most characteristics, it has a shadow side as well. By the time October rolled around, I was just as tired as I had been before I went on sabbatical! A dear friend said to me, in the way only dear friends really can “Good grief, Dawn! If you return to church and aren’t rested from your sabbatical, something is wrong.”

Her words went straight to my heart. So I put down the book, and the goal of writing each week. My new goal was to practice living a less structured life. To slow down. I began to practice slacking off – something I had not done for over 20 years.

It takes a lot of energy to go from 0 to 80 miles per hour, but I had been cruising along at 80 for a long time and so any slowdown felt strange. I learned that it takes quite a bit of energy to slow down – something that the engineers understood who created my hybrid vehicle, which recharges the battery whenever I break, but that I hadn’t quite gotten my head around. So it took time for me to learn how to slow down, to learn how to relax. As I did, the focus of my sabbatical shifted.

I began to read more. I read 17 novels in the last six months. For comparison sake, the previous year before that I had read about 3.

I nested. Without a million bajillion things hanging over my head, I was able to tackle little projects that called to me. I organized the pots and pans cupboard in the kitchen, and I organized the ubiquitous junk drawer. I weeded the back yard and painted and ran the electrical for a new home office space up in our attic.

And I rested. I resumed practicing guitar. I took up coloring mandalas. And I slept. A lot. I learned that my day goes so much better when I have time to just lay in bed, stare at the ceiling, and think for 10-20 minutes before I am forced to get up.

Like the turtle, slowing down was my work, and deep within at the heart of my stillness, I trusted that one day the world would warm and my energy stores would be refilled and that I would be able to return to ministry. And so it became. It wasn’t my writing or my learning that refueled me, but the radical simplicity of rest.

I stand before you here today, rested, rejuvenated, excited to be here. I have already seen the shift within myself – I am once again able to think creatively, outside the box. I have energy around planning and preparing worship. I have hopes, ideas. And more patience. And deeper compassion.

So now what? Do we just go back to the way things were before the sabbatical? I don’t want that, and I don’t think you do either since you have learned and grown during this time as well. So how do we navigate this new territory?

John Cummins, who served First Universalist Church in Minneapolis for 23 years, spoke to several of us seminary students years ago. He shared with us students (who could never imagine serving a church for 5 years, much less 23!) that over the course of his time at First Universalist, he served not one church, but several. And that he was not one minister that whole time, but several. There is much wisdom in this understanding.

Six years ago, I had my first interview with the search committee here and I fell in love with this congregation. I came as an idealistic new minister, still a bit green around the edges. You were looking for someone to help you out of a difficult time – for over a decade the congregation had been in conflict and transition. You needed someone to love you to pieces and that was absolutely something I was prepared to do.

Over those first years together, we worked out a system to our relationship. I think it was a system that was necessary to get us through one crisis after another, one fire to fight after another, but it was not a sustainable system. It burned me out and left you lacking confidence in your own ministry.

And so it is time to together again to begin a new chapter in our shared adventure. I come to you today as a different minister than I was 6 months ago. Calmer. More grounded. I have a greater understanding of how I use goals and busy-ness to distract me from the real, difficult work of reflection and contemplation. And I come with an appreciation and desire to continue to do “big picture” systems thinking. You are more confidant in your own abilities to handle details, to put together inspiring worship, to take care of yourselves and one another. We get to start over, taking the best of what we had and writing a new chapter together.

Truth be told, it probably won’t be easy, as happy as we are to be back together again. There will be bumps in the road. If we don’t want to resume our old ways, it will take intentionality and work. For instance, I know I have a habit of picking up details I shouldn’t. I would appreciate your help as you continue to handle details, and your help in calling me on it when I try to do what is yours to do.

It is exciting, and maybe a little nerve-wracking, as we renegotiate our relationship. My colleagues have shared with me that returning from sabbatical is often more difficult for the minister and for the congregation than the sabbatical was itself! Some of you might want me to pick up where I left off, with a massive to-do list and I won’t be doing that. My job right now is not to jump right in and start all these new programs or take on any work that has been waiting for me. My job is to reconnect with you, to listen to your experience, your learning, your hopes and your dreams. Your job is to keep doing your vital ministry, and to formalize all the amazing vision that is here into a plan that will give insight in how best to prioritize our time together. Our job together is to build a new relationship, taking what we like from the old as we find a new balance that incorporates all the epiphanies we have had and that will take us to that new place where we can live our mission more fully.

What a gift a sabbatical is – for a minister and also for a congregation. We reunite now, re-joined in common pursuit of our mission to one another and to our world. We bow and bend towards one another, because we know that this is a relationship that is full of love and delight. It is a pleasure to be back with you. I can’t wait to see what the future will bring!!!

One Response to “Sabbatical Epiphanies”

  1. Shannon January 15, 2015 at 6:20 pm #

    Thanks for sharing. Claire told me how much she liked the turtle reading.


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