by Bishop Bill Gohl

“Live in love” – Ephesians 5:2a

No fewer than thirty people have told me that I “failed” my sabbatical this summer. I was in too many places, attending to too much church stuff. While I don’t think I necessarily failed in appreciating the gift of Sabbath, I am keenly aware that I did not “go off the grid” or “disappear” especially well. To be candid, I probably worked about a third of my sabbatical time, but, that also means I did take about two-thirds of the time for more Sabbatarian pursuits. From the time Synod Assembly ended until September 10, I only entered the synod office on three occasions – mostly in the dark of night – to sign corporate documents that couldn’t wait until my return (and, on all three occasions, I was locked out of the restroom, which was being renovated, and for whose passcodes were changed multiple times. I assure you, those trips to the office were brief!).

I enjoyed not going to work, committee meetings, council meetings, call committee meetings and meetings about how to reduce the number of meetings! I kept to my pericope study for the sheer joy of Bible study. I walked at least a mile most days and cleared a goal of an extra 100 miles for the time away. I did some much-needed home improvements (though not the siding, it was too close to the electrical lines feeding our home). I swam. We went camping. I spent quality time with Arwyn and our kids. I road-tripped, visiting friends in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Ohio, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.

I did preach for two friends’ anniversaries. I baptized three children, including a set of twins born on my birthday. I conferred the Church’s gift of Ordination for two outstanding pastors of the church. I took Spanish language lessons. I attended the African Descent Lutheran Association Assembly. I went to Churchwide Assembly, kept a commitment to present to the Assembly, and then left early! I played the piano and the organ enough to brush up some skills that were fading fast. I sat in many others’ pews, including historic African descent congregations throughout our synod. And, when I was approached about anything I didn’t want to do, I shrugged my shoulders and suggested that the person might best talk to Bishop Burkat or Pastor Geleta. If I am being especially truthful, that may have been my favorite part of this holy time away!

The activity that I was most roundly criticized for tending to during this sabbatical time was the month that I spent as Acting Pastor of St. Paul’s (Newark) while their pastor was on a teaching/learning trip to Italy. That time was arranged well in advance and was, by design, part of the “renewal” piece of the sabbatical purpose. After three years of tending the work of this call as Bishop of the Delaware-Maryland Synod, I was intentional about wanting to return to a community in a congregation-based pastoral role. For three years, my preaching has been that of a “one-shot wonder;” at St. Paul’s I had the privilege of preaching for the same community four weeks in a row. Most of you know that, as Bishop, I have one children’s sermon that I repeat nearly everywhere I go; at St. Paul’s I had to come up with new material three times (the last week, I did my “bishop children’s sermon” in reverse!). I visited the hospital, brought communion to the homebound, assisted with the midweek children’s program, went to the Wilmington pericope Bible study. I was wined and dined by parishioners. I received cards and drawings from children. I witnessed the return of the University of Delaware community for the new semester. I cleaned a few bathrooms and even patched a pothole in the church parking lot. I laid hands and offered prayers for healing. I baptized a new member of the congregation and disciple of Jesus. I attended marvelous staff meetings with, frankly, a marvelous staff. Perhaps, best of all, I got to lead a weekly Bible study – quite possibly the thing I miss most about parish ministry. That time was a holy gift, and even Arwyn and my kids recognized the good things it did in me and for me as part of this sabbatical journey.

There are three key things that I learned from my sabbatical time:

+ Pastors and deacons, when they are able, should take as much of their annual vacation in one large chunk, as they are able to manage. There is a considerable lag on coming down off of one’s work, and an extended vacation gives some space for that downtime to be quality time. The pastors of my own childhood, and perhaps some of yours, modeled this by taking either the whole of July or August off each year. My intent is to reclaim this practice for the next years, as well.

+ There was tremendous value for me and for our synod in spending a month with a congregation to gift another pastor with a significant break at no cost to the congregation. I intend to confer with our Mutual Ministry team and our Synod Council about offering to do this again in the future. It builds goodwill and more closely connects me and our synod office to a particular part of our synod’s territory.

+ Finally, though I often describe myself as a “temporarily misassigned parish pastor,” I came away from both the sabbatical and St. Paul’s with tremendous new energy for the work you have called me to and this partnership we share. I recognized in the joy of parish work the reflected joy of this work that we do together as bishop and synod, pastor and people. I came away from this sabbatical time with a renewed sense of call to this ministry as pastor to our synod.

Perhaps I did, in fact, “fail sabbatical” and I certainly wouldn’t lift up my sabbatical method as being the model for pastors and deacons under call to our congregations and agencies. Still, sabbatical did not fail me, and for that and this gift you gave me, I am grateful.

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” -Ephesians 5.1-2