By JOHN FLEMING
Grace UMC Sherman
It was over five years ago that I encountered
the concept of a clergy person taking
time away from the ministry setting for
and spiritual renewal.
At the time, I was
one of about a dozen
pastors called together
by Texas Methodist Foundation from several
around Texas as part of
a Clergy Development
Group. The two-year program gathered us
for several retreats each year, including time
for mutual support, peer learning and seminars
from varying perspectives on church
growth and development.
For one of our retreats, our group’s convener,
the Rev. Georjean Blanton Rehnquist,
had invited a clergy colleague from another
conference to share her reflections on a
recently completed renewal leave made
possible by an Eli Lilly Foundation grant.
By the time she finished speaking, I was
convinced that I would someday follow her
lead. And when I got home from the retreat,
I immediately shared my excitement with
my wife, Rona.
It wasn’t long before we had identified
a time we hoped to pursue the opportunity:
Summer 2014, when we would celebrate
several milestones in our family’s story.
Though the plan changed over the
years — an appointment change to another
city meant I would be asking a brand new
congregation to support my request for
extended time away — I am grateful to have
been given the chance to take eight weeks
for renewal leave during July-September.
It took a great deal of preparation and
reflection to get ready for such an important
event in my ministry and the life of my congregation.
I have to offer my great thanks
for the dozens of people in my church,
including lay leaders and staff, who offered
support and guidance. Without the Center for Leadership Development, whose interim
pastor initiative provided my church with
excellent leadership during my absence, it
would have been impossible.
In retrospect, there are aspects of the
experience I would have done differently.
For example, despite my best efforts
to help the church prepare, not everyone at
Grace felt included in the process.
The most important lessons I learned
I would attribute to the same basic principle
— you really can’t plan what the Holy
Spirit will do. By the time my renewal leave
began, I had identified what I and the church
were supposed to get out of it, but it turned
out to be something quite different.
I would dearly love to see us build a
church culture in which congregations seek
this experience on behalf of their pastors,
so that pastors don’t reach burnout and
their families know there will come a time
when they will have uninterrupted access.
I believe with all my heart that this is an
essential aspect of church without which we
cannot be fully blessed by the Lord.
Even Jesus, after all, took time away
from the crowds and the disciples. He even
started his ministry with 40 days in the
desert. And the gospels tell us that he was
driven to do so by the Holy Spirit.
Of all the things I learned on my
“summer vacation,” this is perhaps the
most important: that a church or a pastor
unwilling to unplug from the ordinary
routine of ministry is not completely open to
the Spirit’s leading.
What I Learned About Renewal Leave
Here are some of the most
important things John Fleming learned
about renewal leave.
Renewal leave is not vacation:
I’m good about taking vacation each
year, but this was something different.
Ministry isn’t the only occupation you
take home with you at the end of the
day, but it may be the only one that
has a longstanding tradition of leaders
removing themselves for no other
reason than to renew their connection
to the one who called them.
Renewal leave is harder than
it looks: I was unprepared for the
sense of isolation. I had decided in
consultation with our lay leadership
that I would use the time to build
relationships with people who have
no church. Instead I became a person
who had no church. I’m thankful for
the uninterrupted time with my family,
something I have not had even once
since I started my ministry. Removed
from that setting, however, there was no
“busy-ness” to keep me from reflecting
on my relationship with God.
Renewal leave is not “getting
away” from something: It was a
serendipitous conversation that helped
me realize that I didn’t wait to take a
renewal leave until I needed one. By the
grace of God, I left a job I deeply love
and have yet to feel as if I want a break
from doing in order to keep my sanity.
Renewal leave is good for the
goose and the gander: I’ll be honest.
I began to seek a renewal leave for
self-focused reasons, mainly time with
my family. What I see now is that it also
helped renew aspects of congregational
ministry and leadership that wouldn’t
have happened in the same way
if I had been present. My absence
required staff and lay leaders to step
forward and assume authority, which is
something I’m not sure I do the best job
Renewal leave requires trust: I
love my congregation and my work,
and choosing to leave for even a time
as short as eight weeks made me
highly anxious. I knew the church would
survive without me, but I wanted my
church to thrive, not just survive. Taking
renewal leave meant coming to grips
with the fact that the church does
not succeed because of me, and only
trusting the ministry to God could help
me see that fully.