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Thoughts on Coming Home

by Peter Thompson on November 03, 2023

As my three month sabbatical from St. Bart’s was ending, I took the time to watch Martin Doblmeier’s lovely new documentary Sabbath. Its journey through various faith traditions’ views on rest served as a fitting capstone to my own waning period of rest and reflection. I emerge from this period with a renewed appreciation for the importance of balance and stepping away, particularly in such hectic and overloaded times.

If you haven’t read my previous dispatches from my sabbatical, you can do so here. Since I last wrote, I completed a trip to Washington, DC, where I spent time in the shadows of Washington National Cathedral, my hometown church. There, I learned about how the cathedral has dramatically increased its fundraising in spite of the challenges brought on by COVID and witnessed firsthand how it successfully blended together different worship and music styles for its principal service on Sunday morning.

After my trip to Washington, I also visited Christ Church Charlotte in North Carolina, not only to learn from their leaders and their own blending of diverse worship styles but also to hear about their exciting plans for a “center for well-being” that addresses the mental health crisis in their community.

In the last three weeks, I’ve also spent time with my partner and family simply relaxing ahead of a busy November and December, and I’m glad to be back now at St. Bart’s—with you all—serving this community and doing what I love. 

What have I learned while I’ve been gone? I hope to offer some more extended observations during The Forum on November 12, but in the meantime, I’ll give you this Reader’s Digest version:

  • Work is stressful. I do love what I do—and that is not something everyone can say. I undoubtedly feel called to this vocation. And yet it requires a lot from me. As my sabbatical approached and as it began, I realized belatedly just how much I needed a break. Now, as my sabbatical is ending, I am aware that I need to be more mindful about taking pre-emptive breaks in the future.

  • Work isn’t the only thing in life that is stressful. I expected that it would take a few days to fully relax into the temporary reality of my sabbatical, but I was surprised to enter the third week of my time away not feeling carefree. True, I was doing quite a bit of traveling—something that can cause stress—and I was writing and preaching sermons, even while I was away. But, now that I no longer had work as an excuse, I became more mindful of how often I checked my smartphone. Why was I anxiously looking at it so much when I had so few immediate responsibilities? Life also has a way of intervening with plans for exciting travel and restorative rest. In the first month of my sabbatical, I got a week-long stomach bug followed immediately by several days of COVID. It was hard to relax while feeling sick. In the second month of my sabbatical, my partner’s family and my own family both experienced serious losses, significantly changing the tenor and the content of my time away.  

  • Our culture has difficulty accepting the need for rest.Over the course of the past three months, it has been fascinating to talk with people about my sabbatical. The topic has elicited more passionate—and puzzled—responses than I expected. Some clergy have proudly bragged that they never took a sabbatical in their three- or four- decade career. Others have congratulated me for daring to do what they could not. Many—clergy and lay people alike—struggled to understand how I could be neither working in a traditional sense nor engaged in a formal research project nor enjoying a typical vacation. I was scolded for working “too much” by some and seen as partaking in an extravagant, unattainable luxury by others. My sabbatical’s defiance of the standard pattern of work and vacation seemed to confuse and unsettle.  

  • The Church is changing: many of the old patterns of life don’t fit anymore. I visited a lot of churches while I was away because I was interested in how other communities are coping with present challenges. Every place I visited talked about how significantly COVID had impacted their community. Fewer people are now showing up for worship in-person. When they do show up, they don’t show up in the same ways, expecting the same things. Three of the communities I visited eliminated a Sunday worship service as they emerged from the pandemic. What used to work no longer worked quite as well. I attended two “contemporary” worship services—both of which were established years ago to speak to a younger generation in a fresh, new way—and I saw a lot of gray hair and empty seats.
  • The Church is changing: there’s a lot of opportunity on the horizon ahead. Given what I have just outlined, you may be surprised to learn that every parish I visited seemed tremendously excited about the future. Four of the communities are embarking on or finishing large capital campaigns. Two communities (like our neighbors at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church) are hiring full-time ministers devoted solely to online attendees. One parish started a weekday service (not all that different from our own Imagine Worship NYC) that has attracted a lot of buzz. Another is experiencing a noticeable uptick at its family service, which has become its biggest by far. I’ve already mentioned how one community is setting up a “center for well-being” to address mental health concerns while another community is melding together worship styles to try to speak at the same time to as many people as possible. Each community is looking to the future in slightly different ways, but in every community there is hope as well as despair as the church faces this transitional moment.

Do join me next Sunday as I speak more in depth about my experiences and share some great pictures. I’m so grateful to have been given the chance to take some time away, and I’m so grateful now to be back.


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