Rev. Peter's Poem "Welcome", our monthly theme
"Reflections on Sabbatical"
Rev. Peter was on a sabbical from Feb. 1 to April 30, 2017 and has written his reflections of this time, which follow. He is very interested in hearing reactions/responses/feedback from the congregation by clicking here.
Late last summer, as I was standing on the patio behind our house with the canopy of a giant oak and a smaller maple spread over me, I found myself longing for the sky. In fact, I came inside and remarked to Irene, “I need more sky.” I was feeling closed in. Limited. Unable to see very far in any direction. Something was stirring inside of me, demanding my attention, and I knew I needed to listen to what it was telling me. My sabbatical was on the horizon, and I knew that it would give me the chance to pay attention to the “still, small voice” that some people call God. And, so, the timing of this sabbatical was perfect.
As the sabbatical approached, it became clearer and clearer to me that what I wanted, what I needed, was more clarity about what the next (and possibly final) chapter of my ministry would be about. I had abundant clarity that, with 11 years in at UUCDC and another 7-9 years before retirement, I want my ministry to be with the congregation in Media, as long as they would have me. And so, that was – and is – a given for me.
What wasn’t so clear to me is what I wanted my legacy with the church to be. What would be the lasting impact of my ministry on the institution, the culture, the people? And within the context of a new political reality, what role did I envision for myself as a leader of the congregation? These were the “presenting questions” that I reflected, prayed, meditated, and chewed on during my time away. The sabbatical was much more than a welcome break and a wonderful road trip. It was an opportunity for reflection and self-discovery.
As you will see in what follows, my “need for sky” translated into a general theme of “spaciousness” during my sabbatical, and that theme has offered me clarity for my ministry in the future. If you want to skip the “blow-by-blow” of the sabbatical, just scroll down to the “Sabbatical Learnings” section of this rather lengthy discourse.
Sabbatical Part One: New Hampshire
The first half of the sabbatical time was spent in my parents’ home in New Hampshire. (My folks spend winters in Florida, so their townhouse on Lake Winnipesaukee was vacant. In fact, the entire complex was vacant but for our presence.) This property has been in our family for 30 years and I’ve spent summers on this lake since I was 8 years old, so the place itself holds deep meaning for me. It was a place of intense quiet and natural beauty, and time moved slowly. Irene and I enjoyed two full-blown blizzards and several sub-zero nights, with nowhere to go and no one to see. To some, this might sound like a scenario right out of Stephen King’s “The Shining,” but to us it was pure bliss.
During this time, I participated in a daily spiritual practice guided by an online program in “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.” Through this program I was able to get more in touch with my body and my breath, and work to bring more awareness and intentionality to whatever circumstance I might encounter. (Although I’ve completed the formal program, I have continued this daily practice since my return from sabbatical.) The MBSR program helped me to claim, or perhaps reclaim, some of the “inner” spaciousness that I was longing for, expressed a few months earlier as my need for “more sky.”
In addition to the MBSR work, I maintained a daily journaling/reflection practice using a book titled “Forty-Day Journey with Parker Palmer.” Using a daily reading from one of Palmer’s writings, together with parallel Bible passages and questions for reflection, I would spend up to an hour reflecting on and writing my responses to the day’s message.
The time in New Hampshire was also a time of great generativity and creative “release” for me. I penned nearly 30 poems, I wrote several songs, and even authored my first short story. With the gift of time and space, I was able to access the creative part of myself that’s been emerging in the past couple of years (as evidenced by and expressed through my poetry).
During this time, I also continued with a monthly “coaching” session to discuss with an experienced executive (ministerial) coach the changes I was experiencing and the clarity I was gaining about the future direction of my ministry.
Our time in New Hampshire together also enabled Irene and me to re-connect in deep and meaningful ways, and to reaffirm the strong foundation on which our relationship has been built and sustained. After 36 years of marriage we find our commitment to each other to be as deep as it’s ever been. I note this here because, even though she’s now retired from a formal role on the church staff, Irene is an essential partner in my ministry. I could never serve the congregation in the way that I do without her love and support.
Sabbatical Part Two: Road Trip!
After spending a week babysitting for our two older grandsons (Jack, age 6 and James, age 4) while their parents went to a conference in Vancouver, and stopping by our house in Swarthmore for two days to re-pack the car, Irene and I departed on a 40-day road trip to California and back. Driving south through Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, we made our way to San Antonio to attend a UUA/UUMA-sponsored workshop designed to help ministers within the last 10 years of their ministry to understand what retirement is all about and, more importantly, to consider their “concluding chapter” in ministry and how to “finish strong.” A perfect program that, as it happens, was being led by the very coach I was working with privately!
The program in San Antonio helped to reinforce and reaffirm much of what I’d been thinking about during the earlier part of my sabbatical, and it was good to engage with colleagues in a similar stage of ministry. Unfortunately, all the drama at the UUA was unfolding while we were there (and many of the UUA Senior Staff were at the conference), so there was a fair amount of tension in the air.
After the conference, Irene and I headed northwest through Texas, on our way to Santa Fe. If I was looking for spaciousness, there’s nothing like West Texas! Thanks to Joe Miller, I’d read “Blood and Thunder” while in New Hampshire. So, Irene and I made our way among various historical sites mentioned in the book as we traveled through the mountains and deserts of New Mexico and Arizona. We were also blessed to be passing through the desert after a very rainy winter, and all the plants, some that had been dormant for a decade, were in bloom.
Without boring you with all the details of our trip, suffice it to say that every day held some point of interest or fascination. From the Mojave Desert to the snow-capped Sierras, to the plains of Eastern Colorado and the fertile farmlands of the Midwest, I was fascinated by the changing landscape of this country. And its pure vastness. And the sparseness of the population once you get west of, say, Columbus, Ohio. I exulted in the wide open spaces of the American West. Every day I got the “sky” I was longing for. I felt a close kinship to the 100-mile vistas. Here was the spaciousness, the external landscape that matched my interior longing. I felt like I could breathe in big gulps of mountain air, not the small sips of suburban Philadelphia.
We returned to Swarthmore on April 28 and I immediately went into “minister mode” to work with Dean Rishel to plan the memorial service for his husband, Larry Friedman, a service that was held on April 30. I was showered with affection when I returned to church and found out, as I had suspected, that UUCDC had survived just fine without me, thanks to its very capable leaders and staff.
Learning #1: A sabbatical is an incredible gift for which I’m deeply grateful. I don’t know anyone else in any other profession (except tenured college or university faculty) who are allowed to take an extended, paid leave from their jobs for the purpose of renewal and reflection. It’s a shame, really, and I wonder what others’ jobs might be like were they able to take sabbaticals. I am deeply grateful to the congregation for making this happen, and to all the leaders and staff of the church for guiding the organization in my absence. I thought of you all often, but didn’t worry about you a bit.
Learning #2: My ministry is and will be with the people of UUCDC. While I felt certain of this going into my sabbatical, my time away affirmed my connection with and commitment to our church. While it was nice to dream of moving to the wide open spaces of Bishop, California (at the base of Mt. Whitney) or the Heber Valley (near Park City) in Utah, both Irene and I feel “at home” in Swarthmore. I also know that, were I to start anew with another congregation in another location, I’d just be starting to establish productive relationships in a new town when it was time for me to retire. I want to deepen and improve the relationships I have (both within and outside the church), rather than starting anew. Plus, UUCDC is a great congregation and I’d be a fool to think I could find a better group of people to serve. I hope to retire from ministry from this congregation.
Learning #3: I remain dedicated to the support and well-being of my ministerial colleagues. Serving as a “minister to ministers” is tremendously rewarding to me. It’s a place where I can both add value and have an impact on our larger movement. I remain committed to serving our faith in this way, although it can be very time-consuming and emotionally taxing. I plan to continue my service to my colleagues as both a “Good Officer” and a Coach.
Learning #4: I do not want my legacy to be a building. Our last long-term minister, Judith Downing, retired shortly after the completion of construction of the Sanctuary and related structures. I acknowledge that our facility needs significant upgrades and improvements, and that we will likely engage in a Capital Campaign and construction project within the next few years. Given the timing, I may even retire (coincidentally) around the time we complete a significant building project. While I intend to lend my support to these efforts, I do not want to be consumed by them. Given my background as a commercial real estate lawyer, a Capital Campaign and a big building project will have a natural tendency to pull me back toward my “comfort zone,” and it would be easy for me to become immersed in the minutiae of the improvements projects. This is not where I want to expend my energies.
Learning #5: Running the “business” of the church is another “comfort zone” that I want to break out of. This is related to #4 above. Until Peter Cooke’s addition to the Executive Team (where he’s doing an excellent job!), I have felt like I’ve had to spend too much time monitoring and managing church budgets and finances. I can do this, but I don’t think it’s what the congregation wants me to do and it’s not where my passion is. More generally, the “executive” function is of decreasing interest to me. It’s an area where I over-function, and I need to trust others and let this go.
Learning #6: I need “more sky.” The spaciousness I felt during my sabbatical, both internal and external, has a sustaining influence on me. I need to find ways to nurture and cultivate this spaciousness to feel “whole” and to allow me to explore my need for creative expression. “More sky” translates primarily into engaging in two activities: personal spiritual practice and creative writing. Since returning from sabbatical, I’ve been meditating for half an hour each morning, from 5:30 to 6am. I’m happy with this and believe I can sustain it. Since returning from sabbatical I have also blocked off two, 2.5 hour periods on my calendar for writing. One of these is on Friday mornings, my day off. The other is on Tuesday mornings from 8:30 to 11am. While the experiment has really just begun, I’m finding it challenging to keep the Tuesday morning block free from church responsibilities. But, like any spiritual practice, this takes conscious effort and is, largely, in my own hands.
Learning #7: Local. Local. Local. I have gained clarity that I want to focus my personal social justice work locally. While the current administration in DC certainly is providing ample opportunities for resistance and action on a national scale, I feel called to do what I can to improve the lives of the people closest to me, particularly through building and deepening my relationships with the people of Chester. FUSE is the primary vehicle at my disposal, and I intend to dig deeper into my participation in and leadership of that organization. Partnering with community leaders in Chester, FUSE is building a coalition between and among local organizers to effect change to those most at risk. While I will support others in the work they do on issues of a more state-wide or national scale, I am called to the work that FUSE is doing.
Learning #8: I want to pursue a deeper, more sustaining spirituality and I want to invite members of UUCDC to do the same. This is the big “A-HA” of my sabbatical, affirmed at the workshop in San Antonio and throughout our trip out West. I could frame this in the negative, and say “I don’t want to be the executive director of a justice-seeking non-profit.” But that doesn’t explain what I want my legacy with UUCDC to be. So let me try to do that in the affirmative: I want to lead the members and friends of the church to a deeper connection with themselves and with that larger presence that some call God. I want to offer opportunities for spiritual growth and deepening in everything we do in the church, not just on Sunday mornings. This deepening and connection can and should infuse everything we do, from faith development offerings to social justice work to committee meetings. I would like my legacy with UUCDC to be nothing less than a shift in our very culture such that everything we do is done with a sense of purpose and meaning, and with the potential for growth and transformation. We say that we are a “community of faith.” I would like to help us explore what that really means and see how it might shift what we do and how we do it.
We at UUCDC are very good at “doing” stuff. At seeing a problem or situation or injustice and responding to it. We show up. We learn. We take action. What we don’t do as well is to seek out or engage with opportunities for spiritual growth. I’ve been as guilty as anyone around this and perhaps am even to blame for this phenomenon. Perhaps this is why I and the congregation are a good “fit.” Spiritual growth and deepening has not been a priority for the church and it hasn’t been a priority for me. But that has shifted in me during my sabbatical.
Last year when Bill Clinton and Joe Miller met with me to review my recent past performance, I explicitly told them that religious education and adult faith development weren’t “my thing.” I’m kind of horrified by that statement now. What I have learned through my sabbatical is that I want spiritual growth and faith development to be “my thing.” I am feeling a deep need for this in my life, and I suspect others are yearning for this, too, even if they can’t quite articulate it yet.
Let me offer an example of the type of shift I’m energized to think about: If you take a look at our current order of service for Sunday morning worship, you’ll see that it’s chock-full of different “elements.” Simply put, we try to cram a whole lot into an hour on Sunday mornings. With the exception of singing “Spirit of Life” and about 90 seconds of silence, there is literally no time to breathe in this service. We jump from one thing to the next in a head-long race to the finish. How might an order of service look were we to try and actually provide “sanctuary” in our Sanctuary on Sunday mornings? What might we do or not do to promote connection with our deepest selves and with Spirit during this hour? This summer I will be working to revamp our Order of Service in an attempt to create an intentionally calmer, more reflective experience for those who attend and participate. We’re all already too busy in our lives. My guiding question is this: What would the Sunday service look like if we saw that hour together as an antidote to that busyness?
As I move into the next and, most likely, concluding chapter of my ministry, I find myself in a place of gratitude and contentment. I continue to be grateful that UUCDC called me to be its minister, and I’m content with what we’ve achieved together over the past 11 years. At the same time, I do not want to simply “cruise” to the finish line on automatic pilot. I want to continue to challenge myself and to challenge the congregation. I see the most meaningful challenges, both for me personally and for us as a community, to be in the realm of deepening our sense of meaning and purpose, of becoming a community of faith in the broadest and deepest sense of the term. I am excited by this challenge and look forward to engaging the congregation with it.