From the Minister: Thoughts in Progress

Many UU parishioners are not fond of ministerial sabbaticals. Until about thirty years ago sabbaticals were granted only to academics of a certain standing in their profession. Intense pressure by the UU Ministers Association brought them into play for ministers. Since then we have been working out how to make them possible and productive for everyone. Since it is a minister’s sabbatical that brings me here for a few months it seems appropriate to address the question of why ministers take them.

In academia a professor with some standing is given a sabbatical in order to do new research and writing. It is understood that if this professor has spent years giving lectures, grading papers, counseling with students, serving on faculty committees and honoring other professional obligations he/she will eventually need time free of all of these demands devoted to the life of the mind. Teachers who neglect this free time or never have it grow uninteresting and stale. (In fact I once had a professor who taught from the notes he wrote thirty years ago. One of the fraternities had a verbatim copy, and so every class had a student who was able to read ahead and make the points the professor was going to make before he made them. According to legend he never figured it out. In any case it’s boring to listen to a teacher who is not on fire with what he/she is teaching.)

A minister is in a similar position. Like anyone else a minister is expected to show up at work, answer emails, be available to individual conferences, attend meetings, write reports and honor professional commitments. A minister is also expected to write sermons that leave some people saying, “you know I never thought of it that way.” The minister is also expected to counsel people from a posture that is calm and reflective and not distracted by the other demands of his job. The sabbatical is a chance to find that quiet place from which fresh thought and centered thought comes and to know how to find it again.

I have taken two sabbaticals and one of them set me up for the rest of my career. I thought I would come out of it with a publishable manuscript, but though it really wasn’t publishable it has inspired and framed my thinking since then. I also came away with deep gratitude for the generosity of the congregation, which had given me this gift. Congregations that do this well use the opportunity to reassert their leadership so that both minister and congregation come to believe they have learned something. May this be true for you.

-John Nichols