sabbatical beachI was one of those lay leaders in a smallish-midsized congregation who was on almost every committee.  I think I’d held every lay leadership position except the board in that church. Operative word being held (strangled, perhaps.)  I clutched leadership positions close to me without letting go, because with them came some semblance of control to keep the congregational structure and community just the way I liked it. I had standards.  There’s a certain way you do things.

Then one bright, sunny Sunday the president and minister called me up to the chancel during announcements.  The minister gave me a beautiful, carved chalice and the president, putting his hand firmly on my shoulder said, “Tandi, you have served this religious community well with your extended service.”  He went on to list all the committees I’ve chaired and projects I headed up over the most recent years. “We are giving you a volunteer sabbatical for an entire year.  You are not allowed to chair or volunteer for any committee.  You are not allowed to even make coffee.  This year we ask that you simply come and be fed.”

I have no idea what the sermon was that Sunday, because I spent the rest of worship trying to figure out what this “honor” meant.  They couldn’t be serious, could they? I can’t volunteer for a thing?  What will I do with this time?  What will they do without me?

Over the next couple of months I went through the classic stages of grief:

Denial:  They couldn’t possible mean it.  I mean, who is going to know how to coax a paper jam out of the copy machine for the newsletter assembly?  Who knows how to make the canvass forms just right? No one else on the worship committee really knows our liturgical calendar. And they didn’t really mean I wouldn’t co-lead the youth group, right?  That’s different.

It turns out the entire congregation was in on it.  I’d turn up to a committee meeting and I’d be cheerfully greeted and then asked to leave.  I showed up at youth group like always.  The youth didn’t even let me stay for check-in.  They sang a song about “thank you” as if they practiced it.

Anger:  You know, the youth seemed especially delighted to send me home. I bet this was their idea.  Why do they hate me? What a hateful place.  And they call themselves a religious community!  Luckily I knew enough not to spew my venom onto the other members. I made an appointment with a spiritual director when the gym punching bag wasn’t enough.

Bargaining:  I showed up to worship a little early and noticed one of the greeters hadn’t arrived yet.  I grabbed a stack of Orders of Service and slipped into place by the sanctuary doorway.  Someone came up behind me with a hug and slipped the OoS right out of my hand. “But surely this doesn’t count!” I pleaded surprised by the desperation in my voice, “It’s just a little thing, really… We don’t even need to mention this to the president.”  Our membership chair tenderly smiled and put an arm around my shoulders. “You’ll understand if I invite a newer member to fulfill this volunteer gateway position. Go enjoy the quiet before it gets busy in here.”

Depression.  And then the gloomy clouds moved in. I mean, who was I without my volunteering?  No one knew I was important anymore.  I was just… average.  I actually moped around the house and cried for a couple weeks.  Not only wasn’t I frequenting the congregational building for meetings during the week, I didn’t go to worship every Sunday.  Why bother? They don’t need me.  They probably don’t miss me.

Acceptance.  A note came from our minister that simply said, “Thinking of you on your sabbatical. I hope you’re having fun with your kids and doing all the art projects you talked about getting to someday.  I hope this is your someday.”  I stared at the note for a long time, rereading it over and over. Oh, yeah.  And there is that stack of books by my bed that I’ve wanted to read… Like a veil lifting it finally occurred to me that this is my life, my time, my agenda. I get to choose.  Color came back to my cheeks as I spent down time dancing in the kitchen with my children.  I made home-made meals and started teaching them family recipes.  I picked up my sketch pad and filled it with images for my own personal amusement.  A calm emerged and I could easily locate my center.

Another calm, energy came into the congregation.  The worship committee not only experimented with additions to our traditional calendar, they also played with the format. And I liked it even better!  Two elders joined the youth ministry team much to the delight of the teenagers who were craving older mentors.  Someone else figured out how to tame the copier. The congregation figured it all out without me.

And I figured out that I really didn’t like doing all those things. Maybe I did at one time.  But I had grown to resent them and hadn’t realized it.  All the committee work had come to feel like a “should,” not a joy.  I wouldn’t not have known this without the involuntary volunteer sabbatical.  And you know what I really missed? Making coffee and weeding the flower garden.

At the end of my volunteer sabbatical the minister and new president invited me out for coffee.  The minister leaned in and asked, “Now that you’ve had a year respite, how do you really want to serve and be served?…”  And a new story began.

What story is waiting to unfold in your life?

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Tandi Feb 2012Tandi Rogers is a thankful survivor an involuntary volunteer sabbatical.  She believes it was the beginning of her leadership formation and understanding of growth.

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author
Tandi Rogers

Comments

  1. Maria Pucillo-Dunphy

    Wow.
    I think the words that stand out the most for me in your piece are these:
    “I get to choose.”
    The involuntary behind-the-back approach they took seems to me to be very disrespectful of the gifts of time and talent that you brought to the congregation. I think that there were many other ways that they could have supported you in a quest for achieving balance in your life than the way this played out. Ways that were more compassionate than putting you on the spot in front of the congregation, taking over all control of choices in your congregational life and plunging you into a very real grieving process. My heart aches for you. (((HUGS)))

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  2. Ralph Roberts

    Thanks for sharing that story. It is a testimony to your deep commitment to the congregation and your emotional intelligence that you managed as you say to hold back on spewing the emotional venom. I think many in need of this kind of sabbatical would give into that. I imagine the people in your church already knew that about you or they would not have taken this approach But I cherish this story and hope others can gain insight from it.

    Reply
  3. Virginia Smith

    Wow! Kudos to your congregation to having the courage to carry out this intervention, and kudos to you for having the strength to put aside the perceived criticism and find yourself–and find what you truly loved doing. Ours is also a small to mid-sized church, and we worry about burning our volunteers out all the time. I wonder who amongst us would so graciously accept this kind of intervention, though… I suspect that many of those who talk repeatedly about burning volunteers out are themselves experiencing burnout and don’t even realize it–or want to acknowledge it. But even if we could convince some of our most extremely-involved volunteers to take a break, I don’t think we would do so. We’re so short-handed that even someone who shouldn’t be there–someone who, deep down, is stressed and unfulfilled by it–is a welcome hand because it spares someone else the task. You and your congregation clearly both have a lot of maturity.

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  4. NoahLuck

    Beautiful story! The way the sabbatical was sprung on you seems kind of harsh. If you had to give a piece of advice to other congregations considering a similar intervention, what might it be?

    Reply

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