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Pastor’s sabbatical explores simplicity of life


Pastor’s sabbatical explores simplicity of life

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The Rev. Jeff Edwards
Oct. 4, 2004

A UMNS Feature
By Linda Green*

In the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, the Rev. Jeffrey G. Edwards will strive for "simplicity of heart and life" when he leaves his pulpit this winter.

The pastor of Parsippany (N.J.) United Methodist Church is taking a sabbatical to reconnect with the simple life-a sabbatical made possible by a national program that enables pastors to leave their pulpits for an average of three months for spiritual renewal.

Edwards is one of 10 United Methodist pastors participating in the 2004 National Clergy Renewal Program, funded by Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment. The United Methodist churches are among 132 congregations that will collectively receive $5 million in grants to provide their pastors with opportunities to get re-energized for ministry.

The pastors of churches from Hawaii to New Hampshire will tour religious and spiritual sites, as well as visit theological centers and churches similar to theirs. They will take a break from their everyday lives to pursue significant interests, reconnect with families, travel, study and rest to enhance their spiritual lives. The program also aims to give congregations a new sense of mission and purpose as they assume additional responsibilities in their pastors’ absences.

The 5-year-old National Clergy Renewal Program awards diverse congregations grants of up to $45,000 each to plan a "well-thought-out, intentional program of renewal for their pastor and themselves," says Gretchen Wolfram, communications director for the Lilly Endowment.

Congregations from 37 states and 23 Christian denominations may use up to $15,000 of their grant money to pay for pastoral services in their pastor’s absence and for congregational renewal expenses, she says. A separate clergy renewal program for Indiana churches will provide as many as 40 congregations with up to $45,000.

The endowment’s goal is to reinforce and build on the work of both clergy and lay people, she says. Most participating pastors will begin their renewal sabbaticals in spring of 2005 and will have until Dec. 31, 2006, to complete their spiritual journeys.

Because pastors are faced with relentless demands on their time, renewals allow them to "renew the passions that led them into ministry in the first place," Wolfram says.

Edwards, who has led the nearly 240-member Parsippany congregation for 15 years, wants this sabbatical to reconnect with authentic ministry. "The simplicity of heart and life that keeps focus on the one truly needful thing is the heart of authentic ministry," he says.

He plans to use St. Francis, "to whom I have long been drawn," as a model for his renewal. "His embrace of poverty simplified his life so that in all things he could attend to the call of Christ," Edwards says. "Francis pioneered a way of life that was deeply engaged in ministry to a suffering world, while at the same time remaining truly contemplative."

St. Francis lived in Assisi, Italy, in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Several Christian traditions mark Oct. 4 as his feast day.

Like St. Francis, Edwards will take retreats into solitude to explore simple living. The day after Christmas, he and his family will depart for a two-week stay at a campground on St. John’s Island in the Caribbean. The family will "decompress and reconnect following the stress of living through a Christmas season in a parsonage and in this frenetic, materialistic culture," he says. St. John’s is unusual because two-thirds of it is a U.S. National Park, and it lacks the "high staples of the typical American fast-paced family vacation," he says.

Afterward, Edwards will spend time alone in the guesthouse of the Mount Saint Francis Retreat Center in Ringwood, N.J., reading, walking and writing a play about St. Francis’ simple lifestyle. "His frequent retreats into solitude testify to the ongoing necessity in the spiritual life of clearing away the brambles from one’s soul to keep focus on God," the pastor says. As Francis did, Edwards has chosen settings of "wilderness beauty" for his renewal leave, to recognize the "recreative capacity of communion with God’s creation."

He plans to spend time at Pendle Hill, the Quaker Center for Study and Contemplation outside Philadelphia. In a simple living workshop, he will explore some of the practical issues involved in living a simpler life relating to finances, the environment, work and community.

Edwards also will travel to San Francisco during his sabbatical. There, with assistance from a spiritual director and certified guide in wilderness rites of passage, he will take a four-day "sacred quest" to fast and retreat among the redwoods of northern California.

Congregations that participate in the renewal program know they must step up in the pastor’s absence, Wolfram says. "The congregations are pleased for the minister and their families to be able to be off, and they have surprised themselves at the success they have had when the minister is gone."

While the pastor is away, many congregations do activities that mirror their pastor’s work, says Craig Dykstra, vice president for religion for the Lilly Endowment. Numerous churches take the opportunity to learn about their denomination, study how similar congregations have overcome common challenges and concentrate on building their spiritual life, he says.

"In our religion grant-making, we hope to strengthen the efforts of today’s excellent pastors," Dykstra says, "because it is no secret that pastors who have reconnected themselves to the passions that led them to the ministry in the first place are more likely to lead healthy and vibrant congregations."

The Parsippany church has undergone growth, new construction, the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, and the deaths of members. "After shepherding the congregation through the broad range of emotions we experienced along the way, I felt drained and depleted," Edwards says.

While Edwards is away, the congregation will also focus on simplicity of heart and life in worship and personal devotions. The goal is to experience an overall congregational rejuvenation, he says.

In addition to the Parsippany church, United Methodist congregations and pastors participating in the 2004 National Clergy Renewal Program and the grants received are:

  • St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Helena, Mont., the Rev. Marianne Niesen, $45,000.
  • Park Avenue United Methodist Church, New York, the Rev. William S. Shillady, $45,000.
  • Community United Methodist Church, Crofton, Md., the Rev. Christopher T. Holmes, $44,865.
  • Grace Fellowship United Methodist Church, Katy, Texas, the Rev. James E. Leggett, $40,740.
  • St. Andrew United Methodist Church, Carrollton, Ga., the Rev. Karen Miyoshi Kagiwama, $40,525.
  • Bethany United Methodist Church, Ellicott City, Md., the Rev. Roderick J. Miller, $38,135.
  • Reisterstown (Md.) United Methodist Church, the Rev. W. Richard Harden, $33,687.
  • Providence United Methodist Church, Charlotte, N.C., the Rev. William T. Jeffries, $26,000.
  • Bemus Point (N.Y.) United Methodist Church, the Rev. Daniel G. McBride, $25,550.

*Green is a news writer for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Linda Green, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or .

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