Here are my answers to the most Frequently Asked Questions about my forthcoming sabbatical!
Q: What is a sabbatical? Is it a long holiday, or something different?
A: The Durham Diocese website says this: A ‘sabbatical’ is a period of three months in which the minister is excused duties in order to engage in a project or set of activities that will promote personal and spiritual renewal. Sabbaticals are not holidays and so the three month period is over and above annual leave and is normally supervised by a mentor.
An image often used for ministry is a jug, constantly being poured out. Every so often you have to go back to the well and refill it. A sabbatical is ‘going back to the well’, a time when you can spend a significant period of time being re-filled and refreshed.
In the Bible, Jesus does lots of things and teaches huge crowds of people: but he also regularly withdraws from the crowds, and goes off to pray alone. Jesus knows that he only has anything to give if he also regularly spends time alone with his Father in prayer. Another Biblical image is of the ‘Sabbath’, resting for one day in seven – hence the word ‘sabbatical’.
Q: Why now?
A: Church of England guidelines are that clergy should aim to have one sabbatical after every 10 years of ministry. It has been found that this helps reduce clergy ‘burnout’, and means that clergy come back to their parishes renewed and refreshed (the parish often find that they themselves have been renewed in the meantime too!). I have been ordained for 13 years this summer, but I had to wait until I was well settled in here to start arranging this sabbatical.
Q: What will you be doing?
A: A mix of things. I’m having a long silent ‘Ignatian’ retreat at St. Bueno’s monastery, spending a week at the residential Gladstone’s library, and having some extended holiday time. I was hoping to go to Africa, but an old medical condition means I can’t have the jabs.
The main project that I’m going to be working on for about half the time is a piece of work on how the church has understood ‘difference’ at various points in its history. How we handle difference theologically is a big theme in the Anglican Communion at the moment, as we discuss how to cope with widely different views on things like same sex marriage in different cultures. In wider society, too, it matters how we think about difference: think about the arguments we are having about immigration, or the hijab, for example. I am hoping to help us have these debates by summarising some of the debates that Christianity has had in the past over other differences.
I’ve always found that theological and historical study has been one of the ways I have connected with God and been spiritually refreshed, so I am very much looking forward to being able to spend a sustained period of time focusing on this.
Q: When exactly will you be away?
A: We’re having a special joint service followed by a bring and share lunch to mark ‘sending me off’ on Sunday 22nd May, and I will be on sabbatical from then to mid August. I’m then adding a couple of weeks of annual leave on the end, and I will be back on Sunday 4th September.
Q: So you will be coming back?
A: Yes! And we are planning a series of coffee mornings and similar gatherings for the first week or so in September so that I can share what I’ve learnt/discovered/experienced over the summer with you all.
Q: What about the family?
A: The children will still be in school, so they will still be here even when I’m away. Phil works from home so he will be around. You may see some grandparents drafted in to help from time to time!
Q: Are we allowed to speak to you if we see you? Do we have to pretend you’re not here?
A: This question did make me laugh! I will still be living here for much of the time, so you may well still see me at the shops, taking the kids to school, and so on. Please don’t ignore me – that would feel very unfriendly! However, I would really appreciate it if you could refrain from discussing church business or sharing pastoral concerns with me over the period of my sabbatical. If you do, I probably won’t be able to put it out of my mind, and will end up worrying about it. So be friendly, but please don’t ‘talk shop’. For the same reason, I and the family will worship at another local church over the summer.
Q: What happens about services and so on?
A: All our usual church services will be covered by a rota of local clergy and lay people, as appropriate. Our regular assisting clergy and reader – Leslie, Jenny, Kate, and Patrick – will be covering many of them, and other clergy from the deanery and diocese have also generously offered to help out. The rota is already arranged right through to September (it is on the vestry wall for reference).
On Sundays, we will have one Joint Benefice Service a month, alternating between Belmont and Pittington, apart from the four Sundays of August (when so many people are away), when we will have joint services every week alternating between our two churches.
Weddings and baptisms are also being covered by local clergy, and the Revd. Alan Middleton (a local retired vicar) will take any funerals that come in over the summer. Our house communion team, Patrick and Margaret, will visit those who need emergency pastoral care.
Q: Who is in charge?
A: Legally, the Churchwardens of each parish are in charge in my absence, just as they are in a vacancy between vicars. Practically, the PCCs will continue to meet, and the ‘team’ of churchwardens, Carol Bloomfield our administrator, and Patrick our reader, will be meeting roughly weekly to ensure that everyone is OK and that all is running smoothly.