Sabbatical Reflections

by Jaco B. & Barbara W. ten Hove, co-ministers
Paint Branch UU Church
June 20, 2004

[Follows a performance of the Bill Staines song, "River."]

Barbara: As the song says, we’ve been to the city and back again; we’ve been moved by some things that we’ve seen. Spending almost three months in the intensely academic and urban environment of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood was exhilarating. Day after day, we walked the city streets and marveled at the diversity, the energy and the architecture of place. (Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Robie House was on our block!) As spring burst into bloom we, too, found ourselves renewing and growing in many ways.

Jaco: In telling you some of our experience away on sabbatical, let us begin for a moment at the end: the graduation of umpteen UU students from Meadville Lombard Theological School, where we were ministers-in-residence for this past spring quarter. This particular event occurred two weeks ago today, and after the formal commencement ceremony, at the reception, there was another annual ceremony, during which the continuing student leaders presented graduates with certain symbolic gifts.

They used as their motif an abiding image called "the Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism," which was the organizing theme of an important essay called "Guiding Principles for a Free Faith," by one of the foremost UU theologians of the 20th century, James Luther Adams. Each graduate received the gift of five smooth stones, each stone representing great meaning in that context, which was heightened even more by the historical fact that James Luther Adams had also been on the faculty at Meadville many years earlier.

For our purposes today, we will also use the Five Smooth Stones motif, but we will cast our own meaning on each of them to express to you some of what this time apart has been about for us. (And we will invite a young Paint Brancher to come forward when we get to each new stone and help us by dropping it into the bowl of water here.)

This weekend we have been on retreat with your newly elected board of trustees in Southern Maryland, and before most of the trustees arrived, I wandered along the Chesapeake Bay beach down there carefully collecting a good handful of smooth stones.

B: Then, as part of our opening process, each of these stones was chosen by a board member to represent a significant part of their Paint Branch experience that has blessed them. We re-collected the stones, vibrating with quite a bit of good energy from your trustee leaders, and we will now offer five of them as symbolic gifts to you, in appreciation for our sabbatical…

J: …Which, you should know, is not only appreciated by us, but also by the entire school of Meadville Lombard. They wanted us to thank you as well, for loaning us to them for a quarter, to share our experience and our style of ministry, which seemed to be quite welcome there among students preparing for the UU ministry, as well as with the faculty and staff members who help them along on their paths.

B: The first stone is one of RETURNING. (Young Paint Brancher—Montana Monades—drops a stone into the bowl of water.)

RETURNING is an activity that often provides the gift of great perspective on life, and what really matters. We are happily returning here now, but three months ago I was returning to Hyde Park and Meadville/Lombard, from which I graduated 22 years ago. In some ways it felt like a homecoming to be back there.

In 1982, I started my path to ministry living in the same house Jaco and I lived in this spring as ministers-in-residence. Almost every day, something would remind me of that time long ago. We would pass a familiar landmark, such as the local elementary school, and I would remember the kids of my fellow students who were children there—and be shocked to realize that they now are old enough to have kids of their own!

Mostly, however, I was reminded of what it takes to become a minister, and how those years at Meadville were, for me, some of the most formative of my life. I kept seeing the ghost of young Barbara, exactly half the age I am now: 22 years old, scared and cocky and so eager to learn. Going to Chicago for seminary in 1982 was my first time away from home, and in that nurturing soil I grew up.

But what a process that growing up was for me! Returning now, at age 44, I was haunted daily by the memories of my naïveté, my energy and my emerging understanding of what it meant to be a minister. I have no regrets—not one—that I chose this path. But being surrounded by physical landmarks of my past impacted my current studies.

For I needed to remind myself each day that I wasn’t a minister in formation any more, I was an experienced minister in search of deeper meaning and connection to my work. The contrast at times felt huge. But I left Chicago and Meadville this time with an extraordinary gift: the reminder that my call to ministry, felt at such a young age so many years ago, was a true one.

J: Which brings us to the next stone, of MENTORING. (Young Paint Brancher—Eva Miller—drops another stone into the bowl of water.)

A second gift that being ministers-in-residence gave us was the opportunity to be on-site role models for new colleagues just growing into their own ministerial identity. It was very heartening to have the time to be able to mentor these bright and intriguing individuals who want to be UU ministers.

B: I remember when I was a student how important it was for me to meet a young woman in ministry, who was minister-in-residence during my second year at Meadville. I had never met a woman who began in ministry in her 20s, and her mentoring of me was extremely re-assuring as I moved closer to graduation and the start of my first ministry at age 25.

J: Our third floor walk-up apartment was right next door to the main school building. This allowed us not only to let our car sit for days at a time, but we could attend all sorts of gatherings and be available for lots of impromptu conversations, which we invariably enjoyed.

Also, early in the quarter we conducted two of the weekly Wednesday evening worship services, called Vespers, so folks could get to know us better and more quickly. Barbara preached at the quarter’s first Vespers service, which we were prepared for, and then I was asked to step in when the third week’s leader had to cancel out suddenly. I did not have a sermon with me to offer, but Barbara suggested they hear plenty of those, anyway, why don’t I do a service of and about music.

So we did. We gave the organist the week off (although he came to hear us anyway), and we played and sang and talked about nine songs all told, most of which you’ve heard here. It seemed to go well enough, but later we got a thank-you card from one of the students, a guitarist himself. He called it "the most mind-blowing vespers service I’ve attended at Meadville! You have both, in your own ways, provided new models of ministry for me. Your fusion of yourselves with your music and visions I see as a pivotal point in the way I’m going to approach my own ministry."

Well, that’s enough to warm the heart of any minister-in-residence. Happily, we seem to have provided a helpful presence to numerous others as well, and, as we know here at Paint Branch, music can really make a difference in the life of a community, so I think we showed them some of that, too.

B: While much of the mentoring we did was informal, some of the students intentionally sought us out, not only for ideas about and experiences in ministry but also for things they were doing in their classes. One of the most interesting afternoons I spent was when a young, first year student interviewed me for her theology course. She wanted to understand my systematic theology. I assured her my theology was perhaps completely unsystematic! But the conversation was extremely enriching, as much for me as for her. It reminded me of why groups like our Spirituality Circle here at Paint Branch are so important.

We humans need to talk about "things that matter" with people who care. Sharing my deepest felt beliefs with this student drew me close to her and got me thinking about why I feel so profoundly about such things as God and spirit and hope. I can’t wait to read her paper and see what I said!

J: These kinds of encounters lead us to the third stone, of GROWTH. (Young Paint Brancher—Keara Miller—drops another stone into the bowl of water.)

Yes, we may well have facilitated some growth in the students, but we also sought learning ourselves, to be sure. As I had planned, I finished three books (and am in the midst of a fourth) that consider a liberal religious approach to the Bible and why this matters. I did this study to improve my Biblical literacy and am thinking about convening a book group this winter, perhaps called something like "The Bible for Non-Christians." Let me know if you’d be interested in such a group.

I also scheduled a trip to Ottawa, Ontario, for a five-day training program on an exciting philosophy/consulting technique called "Appreciative Inquiry," which is based on the fairly logical notion that whatever you put your attention on is what will grow. Traditional "problem-solving" approaches often tend to grow more problems, but if you inquire appreciatively about what has been working well and elicit comments about positive aspects of any system, it seems that the whole culture grows in ways that minimize problems AND lift spirits. Very intriguing—and effective!

Unanticipated growth also came my way, certainly, such as a few new chords taught to me by that same mind-blown guitarist/student mentioned earlier.

B: Meanwhile, I had planned to further the growth of my Doctor of Ministry program while in residence at Meadville by completing two independent studies and taking a spring quarter course on site. But this led to a peculiar challenge I faced during this time in Chicago: I wore many hats. I was a minister in residence, also a teacher (we got faculty ID cards and I taught a day-long seminar on worship plus a number of other short sessions), and I was a student in a residential class.

I have a small head and wearing so many hats at once was demanding. I particularly found it hard to be a "regular" student. In the course I took there (called "Liturgies for Liberation"), I was the only Doctor of Ministry level participant. While the other students were bright and fun and creative, they were not yet ministers. They were new ministers in formation, and few of them had much professional experience in the parish. I kept wanting to talk about you—about this very real church and our ongoing, shared ministry. The other students were reflecting on work they might or would do do someday, whereas I had to consider work I am doing and have done—a subtle but significant difference.

At times, this made me feel out of place and unsure of what I was supposed to be learning. But ultimately, I discovered that for many of the other students, my practical experience was helpful and provided valuable perspective. And I learned that I still have a lot to learn. I came away from this course with a deeper appreciation for ritual. I discovered new ways of looking at our worship life that I anticipate sharing with our worship associates and through them, with you. And I learned to trust myself in this new course of study. Unlike in my early days, how and what I learn is really and truly up to me now. That lesson in itself was worth the price of tuition!

J: Our fourth gift is a stone for PLACE—in this case, Chicago and the Hyde Park neighborhood where we were temporary residents. (Young Paint Brancher—Montana Monardes again—drops another stone into the bowl of water.)

We were transported, as it were, out of our regular routines and locales for a while, into this wholly other zone, in the Midwest, no less. I had visited briefly but never stopped for long in this fertile urban environment, or anywhere in the Central Time Zone, for that matter. On sabbatical, time itself was ordered differently for us, especially for me.

We couldn’t come close to seeing all the sites that one should see in this vibrant city, but we got around some:

I also had an excellent time visiting regularly with one of my dearest friends, a buddy I went to UU summer camp with back in the 60s. He and his Hyde Park family were very good touchstones for us (and Barbara learned even more stories about me from "back in the day").

B: We chose to be in Chicago in the spring partly because of the weather. (Who wants to go to Chicago in the middle of winter!) But being a part of Meadville Lombard at the end of the school year was really just right for us. As the students and faculty moved closer to graduation and all the changes that would bring, we had a chance to walk with them. It turned out to be a rather difficult time in the life of the school, as finances and re-organization caused a number of painful choices to be made. Having just been through our own difficult period at Paint Branch with the fire, we felt particularly able to be there for folks who were upset and hurting.

We found that our pastoral role with staff, faculty and students felt very real, despite our short time among them. A number of people told us how glad they were that we were there during this hard season. We were glad, too. As we have learned here with you, and in the other congregations we have served, ministry is never only about the exciting and happy times. Ministry often happens most profoundly when we are in trouble, sad or afraid.

As we offered ourselves to this school community in Chicago, we felt blessed to know that you here continued to minister to each other in such profound ways. Even as we spent these weeks in an institution devoted to the professional training of religious leaders, we remembered, again and again, that ministry never belongs just to the ordained clergy. We are all called to offer our gifts to the world. Thus I call to mind the fifth and final gift we received from our time away, the stone of HOPE. (Young Paint Brancher—Eva Miller again—drops another stone into the bowl of water.)

Surrounded as we were by these emerging religious leaders, we could not help but be inspired by their vision and dedication to liberal religion. They came to Meadville\Lombard because they believe deep in their souls that they are called to ministry. Despite the relatively small size of our denomination, despite the fact that they will never get rich in this career, despite the state of our nation and world, these students have hope.

Hope in themselves, yes, that they will have the internal resources and cultivate the necessary skills to do this work. But they also have hope in people like you, folks who come to our congregations week after week because you believe, as they do, that the world needs leaders who will preach and teach and live the gospel of love and hope in a hurting world. Their hopeful spirits inspired us, and we come home to you with fresh ideas and new energy toward living our faith in community.

J: In stepping up to the challenges wrought by the fire last December, you Paint Branchers have been raising your commitment to this local embodiment of Unitarian Universalism, offering ever greater leadership, attention and dollars, manifesting ever great hope in the future. For a time this spring, we got to live among future leaders of our movement who were also raising their commitment, and we also found in them great hope for the future. One of the Meadville graduates, Nancy McDonald, will be taking up her post as the new minister called to serve our congregation in nearby Manassas, VA, and we are very excited to have her talents and personality in our local area.

The wider UU realm is vibrantly alive with great people and inspiring activity and profound hope for our planet even amid all the demanding challenges we face. Some of us will be going to the annual UUA General Assembly next week in California, to interact with this larger tribe and get wonderfully over-stimulated by the vast array of offerings and exhibits that converge for a week each June.

You may have gotten a glimpse of the wider UU world this past winter when Paint Branch received so many tangibles expression of shared hope in the form of so many generous contributions to our Fire Fund from all over the country (which continue to arrive even still).

Well, we happily stepped into that wider realm for a while this spring, and as we now continue our walk with you in this vibrant liberal religious community, let us Sing out praises for the journey, pilgrims we who carry on, searchers in the soul’s deep yearnings, like our forebears in their time.

Those words by Mark DeWolfe begin our next hymn, #295, which was one of the more popular ones at Vespers during our time at Meadville/Lombard: Sing Out Praises for the Journey.

CLOSING WORDS —

Today we have gathered here, in one strong body, to re-connect and re-member the gifts we give and receive in our shared ministry.

May we give thanks for the many ways we learn and grow, together and apart—ever moving and winding and free, but running down together as on a river into the sea.

As we go forth this day, may we sing out praises for the journeys that take us to many places, but hopefully always bring us back to community.

And may we honor the great Spirit of Life that moves in and through each of us, and blesses us on our way. #123…

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