As I have now finished the seventh month of my Sabbatical, taken after seven years in ministry in the forty-seventh year of my life in the two thousand and seventh year of our Lord, I thought it would be good to reflect on the sevens. The idea came from a Leadership Journal article from last spring entitled “Sabbatical Gifts,” where Nancy Beach reflects on what she learned from her sabbatical.
I like the way that Ms. Beach talks about her sabbatical, about holding on to the varied pieces of her life as loosely as she could, and letting God rearrange them. As I hold on the varied pieces of my life as loosely as I can, I wait, wondering how they will fit together to form the new puzzle called ministry. All I know is that it ca not look like the one before.
In a final email to the church I wrote:
I answered the call to ministry because I wanted to help people live more spiritual lives. Iwanted to help solve problems, and hoped they could be used to bring people closer to God. I believe when we accept what God has to offer, we can live more fulfilling and meaningful lives. And I wanted to worship in new and ancient ways that could help a congregation grow to new levels of spiritual fulfillment.
For the first four months I focused on the question: “Who am I apart from the church I served, “ and exercised a self-imposed worship leadership exile here. I did not involve myself in the planning or production of any worship experience. This meant that even though the need was great, I would not involve myself in preaching, teaching or a music team. I would go to worship with the expectation of meeting God.
I thought this would be difficult, as I was so ingrained in the week to week ritual (or routine) of the church. Instead, I discovered a lost joy I had not been able to do in over seven years, sit with my family in worship. Then afterwards, as we left right after church was over, listened to their thoughts about the sermon, or the music, or whatever.
This abstinence from worship leadership was, for me, an act of remembering, remembered how much I loved to worship God, and how wonderful it was to just be there to seek the presence of God. It didn’t have to be the mountain top worship experiences with great preaching and awesome music that I would find at a pastor’s conference—and often it wasn’t—but still God showed up. I didn’t have to think five minutes ahead, or problem solve when there were technical problems with the service. Sound system acting up…not my problem; preacher not show up…not my problem; music team singing flat…not my problem; not enough chairs…not my problem, OK, I could help set up chairs but troublesome people…really not my problem.
I wondered: “Who was I apart from the church I served?” I learned I was a person who still deeply loved God, and especially loved to worship God. I know pastors who, when they are not in charge, will worship at Bedside Baptist, when Reverend Sheets is preaching, but I learned that wasn’t me, and it wasn’t my family. In a new town, Church again became the center of our lives, and we loved it. Around the end of the fourth month I was asked to serve on a music team. Being the new guy, I had no influence on the selection or the style of the music. It was weird for me to be so underutilized in this way. I did this a few times until it began to interfere with my family life, or I should say the commitment to be great wasn’t there, and the trade off between practice time and family time was not worth it. Good enough wasn’t a good enough reason for me to miss out on family time.
Next I taught the Sunday School class nobody wanted to teach, in part to pay off a debt of not being able to teach for several years. I taught the 10 & 11 year olds for a month, and found it to be a fascinating, frustrating and immensely rich cross-cultural experience. After my month, I returned to worship, but found that something had changed, my family wanted to worship with me sitting with them. In that church, as many that we have attended here, children’s Sunday school meets during the service, so the kids miss much of worship, and those who teach, miss sitting with there families. Its what my family had been doing for the past seven years, and how could I ask them to do it again.
About this same time, I received an offer from another church, to join their preaching rotation. It came after a first Sunday when I was unexpectedly asked to serve communion. The pastor had just asked God to bless these “gifts of bread and wine and make them be for us the body and blood of Christ” when he said, “Would all ordained ministers of the gospel come forward to serve?” I didn’t move, nobody knew I was ordained. Suddenly Fox leans over and looks at me in his seat and says, like only a teenage boy can say, “Dad,” with that sort of mix of impatient and dreadfulness, and then motions with his head for me to move. I stand and go forward and they gave me a tray and I say a part of the liturgy I had not said in five months, “This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.”
From then on, as I prepared a sermon about every six weeks or so, I wondered if I would go back to being the same pre-sermon Steve, the one who was never really fully present to the family until after the sermon was tucked in. Some sermons I wrote, others I dusted off and changed the cultural context, but the surprising thing to me was, when I was recycling a sermon, how much of them my kids remembered. After one sermon Anna said:
“Dad, you didn’t tell the story about…, it was such a great story!” and I was shocked, not that she remembered it, but how well she remembered it from 2004. It seemed to me that the family was OK with me preaching, so I continued.
In the spring I had the opportunity to serve on a short term medical mission team. My friend Andrew had invited me as I think he might have invited many, I just happened to say yes. When we talked about the trip, it seemed that being the chaplain and worship guy would suit the mission well. Already I had been wondering about what was next for me and my family? Are we being called to be missionaries?
I have watched how well my kids have adjusted to life here, and thrived. I’ve watched Suzanne get excited about her roll at Ashesi. She says, “I think I’m called to do more than teach two classes and live a cush life.” One day she comes home and says, “If I do nothing else in our whole time here, I think I made a difference in one woman’s life.” This woman had come from a village far away and this was maybe the first time she had been on a computer. She just sat there, staring at the monitor. “Can I help you?” Suzanne asked. Suzanne volunteers in the first year seminar computer lab. Teaching Computer Science to first years is perhaps her greatest gift. Often this class is taught by adjuncts, it is an introductory class, and thought to be below tenured faculty. But Suzanne loves it. I think she sees her roll as the Computer Sciences Evangelist for young women, and that day when the young woman was just sitting there not knowing what to do, Suzanne stepped in.
“I’m okay,” the woman says. In Ghana, okay can have so many meanings. For example, when backing up a car, when the guard directing you says “Its okay, its okay” without really any urgency to his voice, he is really saying STOP NOW, but you wouldn’t know that until you back up into something as I did. If you’re serving someone food, and they say, “its okay,” but with a rather dower face (like we in the west would interpret them saying I want more), but they are really saying, that’s enough. In this case, when the young woman is saying I’m okay, she is really saying “I don’t want to ask for help” and intuitively Suzanne knows this.
“Show me where are you stuck?” Suzanne says. A command is different.
“It says download, and I don’t know what that means.” She is about to cry, she is so embarrassed.
“Oh, let me show you…” and in a few clicks she as the file open.
“Do you know what to do next?”
“No,” she says, almost tearfully. Suzanne explains very gently that this is an spread sheet shows her how to edit it, and where the help button is. The light returns to her eyes, she starts getting it, and within 30 minutes the young woman has completed the assignment, well ahead of many of the more computer experienced students.
“I think she is going to be a great computer scientist” Suzanne says, “and I did that!”
At the Lake, where I’m serving as the mission team chaplain, I have time to think about all these things at night. It is a remote place, where Ju and Andrew are beginning the life most people think of when they think of missionaries. There is little cell phone coverage, in fact there is only a three meter square spot half way up the hill that gets any reception, and near that spot happens to be a thorny tree, where, people can hang their cell phones. Usually, there is not enough signal to actually talk, just enough to send and receive text messages, IF you have an old phone. Margaret had the only one old phone on the team, so at night after worship, I would take my turn at pulling the SIM card out of my phone and putting it in Margaret’s to send and receive text messages to Suzanne.
It was good to be involved in worship again. It wasn’t like this is the only way I could worship God, or even my preferred way to, as much as it was interesting to craft worship experiences that would help people process the day’s events and connect with God. I’m not sure everyone saw it that way, or what we did in the evenings as worship, sometimes they shifted into problem solving mode. Perhaps I could have been more gentle in shifting the focus back to worship. Sometimes people got distracted, we from the west are so used to doing many things at once, and in worship, God just wants us to be, to slow down and enter His presence. You can’t enter God’s presence quickly, it takes time, and I wondered sometimes out there, what the hurry was. Ghanaians have more of a Godly understanding of time that we from the west do, especially in how it relates to worship.
For me personally, it was fun to use those pastor gifts again. It got me thinking what would it be like to live out here, beyond cell phones, internet, paved roads, stores, or public transit. Living in a place that is two hours away from a newspaper. What would it be like for my family? Where would my kids school, and what about Suzanne? What would I do out here, how could I contribute to God’s kingdom? By week’s end I understood that while I yearned for such a setting, I don’t think it is my calling right now, at least in this season of life. So what’s next?
It wasn’t that I was so unhappy in the states, or unfulfilled, it just came at such a high price, and here I have had time to distance myself from it all, and wonder, at what cost? Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Leaving Church, observes how pastoring cut into her soul. She writes: “I needed the soul’s wisdom to do my work. I needed its compassion. But I had too often failed to set it loose in its own pasture at night, where it could kick its heels and roll in the dirt. I had kept my soul so hitched to the plow that it stood between the traces even after the harness was off, oiled, and hung on the wall.”
She writes about faking it, but doesn’t use that word, saying “I could produce kindness when all I felt was fatigue.”  I wasn’t that good, and the people of the church knew it. They could see when I was tired, or bored, or just wanting out. I just didn’t realize I had a choice. I was called to the church, it was doing great, and only a fool would walk away from it all. As youngest children in our families, Suzanne and I are not used to being given a choice. We feel—at least I do—that often life’s decisions choose us and we just go along for the ride. So here we are facing a decision, one that is really ours to make. Resume our old lives, or continue the new ones?
While not making a final decision (resume or continue), we have had to make some choices, and in particular one that involves Foundation United Methodist Church at Lakewood. I have decided not to return as pastor in order that we might pursue the possibility of extending our stay in Ghana. Closing one door to leave another open. We don’t know if the Fulbright has been extended, but the possibility looks good. I’ll ask that you pray for us, as we pray for you Foundation, and for all the transitions that are beyond the horizon.
I want to personally thank Russell Fletcher, who has been so faithful in his service to Foundation at its interim pastor. Thanks for taking care of the church, our house, feeding our cats, and tending to this flock you have been called to shepherd. You and Dianne have been such a blessing to both Suzanne and I and I hope that this side of paradise, we’ll have the opportunity to fellowship again. God bless you and your ministry.