I have three more Sundays at church before my sabbatical. I know; I’m spoilt rotten (just wait till you hear where I’m going with it!). I know how fortunate I am to have an agreement with my parish which nods toward the ancient and holy rhythms of sabbath. After six years of service, and during the seventh, provision is made for an extended period of spiritual renewal. Provision made how? you may ask. I’ll come to that. Sabbath rest doesn’t happen without advance planning, whether it be the blessing of a family dinner or the blessing of a two-month break from the usual routines.
This can be a time of renewal and creative energy for the parish, too, though; a chance to look around and take stock of where we’ve come together. An opportunity to imagine something new. An avenue to explore different voices, different roles, a diversity of bodies in the pulpit and at the altar. A stirring up of good and holy trouble.
It can also be difficult to envision how such an adventure will be funded, supported, and sustained. That’s where a little inspiration and a good dose of collaboration and collegiality come in handy.
The inspiration came, believe it or not, from a Facebook complaint. “I’ll never be able to take a sabbatical,” a fellow priest mourned. “My parish just can’t afford it!” Oh dear, I thought; we are also small and strapped for cash. But I think that if we believe in the rhythms of the holy calendar God has called us to – work and rest, wrestling and renewal, research and reflection, prayer without ceasing, play interspersing in a roughly six-to-one ration (except that play gets a pass to intersperse at will, since it serves many purposes) – well then with all of the creativity that such a calendar implies, we should be able to work something out.
A friend had served a neighbouring parish for about as long as I have been here. Our congregations are similar in size. They share a deep faith and some slight but perennial concern about finances and the future. Neither could sustain a traditional sabbatical with months of supply cover. Both have the desire and the love necessary to find a way forward.
So I proposed an experiment. Each of us would take a modest, two-month sabbatical. While my colleague was away, earlier this year, I alternated Sundays between the two parishes. Wherever I was, we celebrated Holy Communion. Wherever I was not, lay leaders read Morning Prayer, and lay preachers either brought their own sermons to the pulpit, or read out the one I was preaching a few miles away, having found it in the handy-dandy Google docs folder set up for the purpose of sharing the same. I was the on-call priest for both parishes. It went really well. Next month, and in November, my friend and his congregation will return the favour to me and mine.
Of course, the possibilities for deepening this partnership and its potential blessings are endless. Some parishioners suggested that the whole congregations alternate between one church and the other (we thought that might be a stretch for our first outing). Our neighbours hosted a picnic over the summer to compare notes and offer advice for Round 2. Lay worship leaders and preachers were able to stretch their skills and test their vocations a little further and a little oftener than usual. The corporate imaginations of both congregations were challenged to think beyond their own buildings, and reminded bodily that their worship was shared beyond their sight, out of their earshot, with generations that they had not yet met.
When I sang in a choir, long ago and far away, we were taught to stagger our breathing through long, sustained notes. As long as we didn’t all do it at the same time, each of us could take a breather from the music, replenish our oxygen exchange, without the note wavering or failing its audience. As long as we supported one another’s rest, no one need gasp for lack of air, and the music (the service, the worship) would continue unabated.