Pastoring the pastors

Renewal program allows ministers and priests to recharge their spiritual batteries

For most pastors, the ministry comes as "a calling." That leads not only to deep dedication, but often to giving every waking moment to the job. Dramatically changing times, the growing numbers of Americans who are unchurched - as well as unexpected crises - only make the job more demanding.

The Rev. Kennedy McGowan, for example, has spent 10 "passionate" years working to "manage change" and encourage revitalization with his Presbyterian congregation in an increasingly young and multicultural Long Island community.

The Rev. David Riebeling took up his post with the United Church of Christ in Valmeyer, Ill., with a commitment for a sabbatical in six years. But 12 years later, with his church still rebuilding from the devastating 1993 Mississippi River flood that destroyed the town, the prospect for a breather remained bleak.

Now both men, still committed but in need of a respite, have found one. A new National Clergy Renewal Program sponsored by the Lilly Endowment is providing their congregations - and 116 others - with the resources for them to take time off to rejuvenate their energy and vision. The competitive grant program gives up to $30,000 per congregation for a period of renewal and reflection.

Great enthusiasm

The pastors' plans reflect their enthusiasm, including joining archaeological digs in the Holy Land; traveling to retreat centers in Scotland, France, and Colorado; studying other congregations; writing poetry and plays; reconnecting with their families; and exploring the natural wonders of the world.

The Rev. Kent Harrop of the First Baptist Church in McMinnville, Ore., for example, plans to go sea kayaking with killer whales off Vancouver Island in British Columbia as part of his four-month spiritual journey.

The Community Church of California City, Calif., is sending their pastor, the Rev. Ronald Sparks, off to Egypt to do archaeological research for a month. Mr. Sparks appreciates the break to pursue his deep interest. "The nature of the problems we are dealing with at the pastoral level now," he says, "are much greater than when I entered the ministry 30 years ago."

The congregations in 33 states were selected from hundreds of applications received last year after a nationwide solicitation by the Indianapolis-based endowment. The program is open to any Christian congregation whose pastor has a master of divinity degree, and the pastor and congregation work together on the proposal, showing how the program will also help strengthen the congregation on the pastor's return.

"We care deeply about the health and vitality of congregations," says Craig Dystra, a vice president at the endowment, which supports funding for religion, community development, and education. And the pastors are "buoyed by the demonstrable support of their congregations."

Mr. Riebeling had hesitated to even suggest the sabbatical because his church's finances were so tight. St. John United Church of Christ was still in the middle of the second phase of reconstruction. The flood was so destructive that not only had 118 members lost their homes and the church building been destroyed, but the entire town had to be rebuilt on the bluffs two miles to the east.

"We had to figure out how to build a new church building without any assets," Riebeling explains. "We only had $90,000 of flood insurance because there hadn't been any flooding for 50 years since the federal levy was built three miles from town."

The church went through many difficulties, as not all community members wanted the new town to work, he says. But the "unbelievable determination of others brought a transformation. We have come through amazingly well."

His church board, not surprisingly, was very supportive of the renewal program. He and his wife will head off to the 13th-century Iona Abbey off the coast of Scotland for a retreat. They'll join a two-week counseling retreat in Colorado for ministers who've been through crisis situations, and attend a spiritual direction seminar on the East Coast.

He also plans some "marriage enrichment" work that he can bring directly back to Valmeyer. "The flood crisis drew people together," he adds. "But it also created some terrific stresses in people's lives."

Dealing with current needs

Mr. McGowan's sabbatical plans have a lot to do with what's going on at his Brentwood United Presbyterian Church. Once a marginal, older congregation, the church now has more younger members, and is focused on reaching out to the unchurched in the highly diverse community with large populations of Hispanics, African-Americans, West Indians, and Caucasians. They are willing to try innovative approaches that require adapting the congregation's culture. "We are developing a new structure of ministry teams to run everything and respond quickly to new ideas," he says.

"To be part of a church that is excited about being salt and light in the world is tremendously fulfilling," McGowan adds. At the same time, it's a "constant challenge to manage change. The world is changing rapidly, and churches for many people become the refuges from change."

To help foster it effectively, McGowan will spend a large part of his four-month sabbatical traveling to cities in the US and England to study churches that are doing innovative things, particularly those reaching out to Generation X and located in multicultural settings.

Then he heads to Guatemala for a month of Spanish study to become more fluent so he can "engage with those in the community who aren't yet comfortable in English, and perhaps design a service that will reach out to them."

For interested congregations, applications for the next round of grants are due in July. Send e-mail to clergyre or call (317) 916-7302.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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