By the Rev. Eric Long
This summer I will do something I haven’t done in 23 years of ordained ministry. I am going on a sabbatical. While Episcopal clergy are generally afforded sabbaticals every 5-7 years, I have consistently found a reason why I could not take one. Whether it was starting a new church, leaving one parish for a new call (St. John’s), or a particularly busy or transitional season in my congregations, some issue, or maybe excuse, has convinced me I couldn’t take the time.
It might sound odd to read that I have routinely found excuses not to take a sabbatical. It is simply not in my personality to step back and be quiet, much less be still. A sabbatical requires intentionally pausing a schedule with responsibilities and challenges that have defined my entire adult life. I know this pace. I like this pace, even when it is hectic. I discover purpose in hard work. A busy life is one I understand. To break that tempo and take a sustained amount of time to reconnect with my call to ordained ministry and reflect on my life with and before Christ, is something I haven’t done since I left Memphis as a 20-year-old to start seminary 30 years ago.
Many professions don’t have a provision for sabbaticals. While we can debate whether the frenetic pace of most of our professional lives is something that should warrant an interruption every now and again, I hope that you can understand that there is something unique about the priesthood as a vocation. It’s not that we work harder or carry more stress. It is that this vocation must be initiated and sustained from a source beyond self if it is to endure and feed beyond individual abilities. The old saying in ministry is you cannot pour from an empty cup. You cannot offer what you have not received. The point is obvious: those in ministry must be nourished from God if we are to provide anything beyond ourselves in ministry.
Perhaps the greatest source of my reluctance is the realization that I need a sabbatical. In my mind I go back and forth between what I wish were true and what is actually true.
In my mind, my gifts alone are sufficient to fulfill my vocation.
But the reality is that St. John’s, like any church, requires and deserves more than I alone can provide. The Holy Spirit sustains the Church in many ways, most certainly through the work of her clergy. The clergy, in turn, must receive nourishment from the Spirit.
I also must acknowledge that I am terrible at being alone. Being on sabbatical means I will have to spend most of this time by myself.
This is true and not going away. I fear loneliness and isolation. This has caused me to steer away from silence and solitude in my life, even though it is essential. All of us must be still before God. This will be good for me but will also be my biggest challenge.
I also am concerned that St. John’s needs me to be here and that I should not take this time.
While I would hope it is true that my work is necessary, I also believe St. John’s needs me to take the time to first be the priest God has called me to be. This cannot be if I never make time to do anything but go, go, go. God has gifted our parish with a great staff and associate clergy. They are more than capable and are prepared to take this summer and its demands.
Soon I will share a good bit more about what I will be doing during this sabbatical, which will run from the end of May until mid-August. It has been difficult to know what was going to be possible because of the pandemic. Options finally seem to be coming into focus: spending an extended amount of time in the Holy Land, going to England and Ireland (I’ve never been – weird for an Episcopal priest), or tracing some of the journeys of Paul. I intend to start with a retreat and just jump-start the God-and-me-alone time right from the beginning. My family will celebrate Abigail’s high school graduation in June, and the last thing I will do before my return is take her to college at The University of the South (Sewanee). I’m working hard to finalize my schedule and will be eager to share it with you.
Please know of my deep gratitude for this time. I recognize that not everyone is afforded such a season, and St. John’s has always been such a great partner in ministry to our clergy. Thank you! My prayer and expectation are that you will participate fully in what this sabbatical offers for my priesthood.
I often say we live in an age that majors on the minors and minors on the majors. I must disrupt that pattern intentionally and keep first things first. This sabbatical will be for me the biggest such interruption I have ever thrown into my life’s patterns. My only goal is to make time to be quiet and make room for God in my life so that my life’s vocation can offer more than I can ever give on my own.
A Note from the Senior Warden about Eric’s Sabbatical
Eric’s planned sabbatical comes with the full support and encouragement of the Vestry. The stories of contemplation and rest are frequent throughout the Bible. Moses, Elijah, and Jesus spent time alone communing with God before starting their ministries. A sabbatical reinforces that God is in control—not Eric, not the Vestry, and not the congregation. St. John’s is blessed with exceptional leadership and staff. When Eric returns in August, we will rejoice and look forward to many inspirational sermons and stories.
Sr. Warden, St. John’s Vestry