It’s been over two years since I’ve written, yet suddenly I feel compelled to express through the written word what has been happening in my life over the last thirty days.
Last year my church approved a sabbatical policy, of which I am the grateful guinea pig. Beginning on June 1st, I entered a season of rest, refreshing, and refocussing. In order to accomplish this, I had to remove as much of my ministry life as possible. I imagine it is incredibly difficult for anyone to step away from his or her vocation. Such is the case for me. I love being a pastor. The ease with which I typed that last sentence is honestly a bit surprising.
Over the last seven/almost eight years, I have experienced more joy, pain, encouragement, hurt, confusion, learning, and growth than I thought possible. I’ve had the honor of officiating weddings, preaching at funerals, celebrating births and adoptions, grieving deaths, seeing God rescue marriages, helping families persevere through the end of marriages, make new friendships, lose friends, experience the miracle of new life in Christ, baptize many as they make their faith public, lament as some walk away from not only church, but faith in Jesus.
This has left its mark on me. Sadly, I’ve allowed it to leave its mark on my family as well. After hearing of the alarming number of pastors taking their own lives, self-destructing through poor decisions, or simply leaving ministry after burning out, I asked our leadership to start a sabbatical conversation. My desire is to humbly serve the congregation God has entrusted to me as long as He sees fit. I don’t want my actions, due to poor health or poor decisions, to disqualify me from leading.
So here we are, thirty days into a two month sabbatical. I have no idea if I’m doing this properly, but it’s the first time in twenty-five years of ministry that I’ve had the chance to pause without having to look for another job.
You might be wondering what I am doing, or you don’t care at all. In any case, if you’re still reading, you must be at least a little curious. It’s been an eventful thirty days. I knew that in order to lean into God most, I needed to be away from all ministry related activities as much as possible. That meant making sure all my usual responsibilities were covered (no problem, our staff and volunteers are amazing!), over communicating my schedule and expectations, distancing myself from social media, and creating a loose structure to the days and weeks ahead. I knew that I wanted to focus on my time with God, with my wife, and with my children.
With all the details of work and ministry covered, Anita and I started with a week in Montana and Wyoming. This is the first time either of us have been in that part of the country, or visited her sister and family who live in Billings, Montana. Michael and Christina were incredible hosts. I told them I wanted to fly fish, ride a horse, buy a cowboy hat, and shoot some guns. We did all that and more. Visiting Yellowstone and seeing Wyoming was icing on the cake. Turns out our timing was incredible having visited a week before the terrible flooding that closed the park. Unfortunately, Anita got rather ill on the third day of the trip. We would discover later what exactly was going on.
After returning to South Carolina for a few days, our oldest three children left for Centrifuge, and I left for a week in Charleston, South Carolina. Along with time alone with God, there were three intentional conversations I felt I needed to have while in town.
Curt Bradford has been a sage and mentor for me over the last fourteen years. I’ve known him since I was four or five years old. As usual, Curt’s gentle and joyful spirit were a great encouragement. There are people whose voices, no matter how much or little time you’re able to spend with them, seem to be saturated with wisdom and insight from the Lord.
Mary McCart is my ninety-eight year old paternal grandmother. Her prayers have carried me far more than I will ever truly know. This matriarch of our family set a standard of devotion to Jesus, and humility in Jesus that I’m still trying to live up to. My life has been exponentially blessed by the prayer, conversation, and challenge God has provided through her. That fact that I have spent nearly half a century of life under the cover of her love and spiritual guidance is one of the greatest gifts God could have ever given me.
Joseph Leviner is one of my most trusted and unlikely friends. Joey and I met in college. There’s no reason other than the sovereign orchestration of God’s plan that we are friends. Despite our innumerable differences, differing opinions, and the general oddity of our appearance together, we are brothers. Joey’s friendship is fierce and generous. God has and continues to use Joey’s and his wife Amanda’s voice to provide perspective, challenge my assumptions, and encourage my calling in the Lord.
Almost perfectly timed at the conclusion of these three conversations, we were informed that the dreaded COVID had finally found its way into our home. Thankfully, our experience with this virus was little more than a cold that lasted a few days combined with a twenty-four hour fever and stomach bug. As three of our four children successively contracted the virus, several of our planned trips had to be scrapped.
The first of our interrupted plans was a family trip to Charleston. Since I was already there (along with our dog Georgia), we planned for Anita and the kids to join me for five days or beaches, family visit, and time with old friends. Instead, I came home to a melancholy household grasping with the reality of an unknown timeframe of seclusion from the outside world.
Despite the good health of Rylee, Anita, and myself, our second (and much more challenging) trip to be impacted was Rylee’s sixteenth birthday cruise. Apparently, if anyone in your household tests positive for COVID within fourteen days of departure, no one may travel despite individual health conditions. By the way, the three of us (Rylee, Anita, and me) have been perfectly healthy and COVID free for well over fourteen days. Everyone in our house is now healthy and testing negative. We were supposed to board the ship on July 1. Yep, tomorrow.
Through God’s kindness we were able to get nearly an entire refund for our missed Charleston AirBNB, and rescheduled the cruise for late August (pray against hurricanes). Everyone got healthy just in time for Mac, Declan and I to see Dude Perfect in Charlotte last Sunday. The first scheduled activity not to be impacted by our brush with the pandemic.
Our interrupted schedule lead to an unplanned few weeks. I decided to steal away to the mountains of North Carolina and stay at Ridgecrest Conference Center for a few days. I’m spending a lot of time reading, hiking, and fishing. What I’ve found so far is that I don’t like being alone, but I do like be a bit unknown.
I’m reading. A lot. Well, a lot for me. So far over the last thirty days I’ve read Proverbs, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 3/4 of Psalms. That isn’t super impressive, because it takes far less time each day than you’d think. I’m pacing myself through these texts and asking God to help me see each letter in a deeper and fresh perspective.
I’m also reading a variety of literature along with Scripture.
- A Grief Observed – C.S. Lewis
- The Eight Paradoxes of Great Leadership – Tim Elmore
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
- St. Francis of Assis – G.K. Chesterton
- Sabbaticals – Rusty McKie
- The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
- The Secular Creed – Rebecca McLaughlin
- Geronimo – Geronimo
Currently, I’m reading The Pastor, by Eugene Peterson. I’ll be honest, that’s why I’m writing today. His reflections on a life in ministry as pastor has me longing to be back with my congregation, and to be a better husband, father, son, brother, servant, and friend.
As I read Colossians, Paul’s words to the believers at Colossae resonated with me in a way I don’t think I would have ever felt had I not been on sabbatical.
“For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.” – Colossians 2:5
I shared this with a few people via text, and I share it now with any of you at GCC. I am grateful for this time you have given me, and I am eager to be with you all once again. Thank you for your support and prayers.
Let’s see with the other half of this sabbatical brings.