New Jersey pastor receives a simple gift that helps restore his soul
by the Rev. Tim Clarkson | Special to Presbyterian News Service
In this pandemic era, we have found ourselves walking on unknown paths, searching for something familiar and finding our souls to be weary. Tim Clarkson, a hospice chaplain and supply pastor at Union Hill Presbyterian Church in Denville, New Jersey, shares his story of death, Holy Week and restoration. This article first appeared in the Presbytery of Newton newsletter. It runs here with permission of the author.
DENVILLE, New Jersey — A couple months ago, which now seems a couple lifetimes ago, a pastor friend described an intentional day away from the tasks of ministry as a “restorative day.” It sounded so lovely … and elusive. In splitting my time between part-time roles as a covenant supply pastor and hospice chaplain, time to quiet my mind to experience presence is often hard to find. Every other weekday, I am invested full-time in one part-time role’s ministry or the other. Saturdays were usually a mix of unsuccessful attempts to tend to activities on the home front that deserve more time and attention than I afford them, and that effort interrupted by bringing my mom over for lunch. As for Sundays, my fellow pastors, you well know the creative ways we fit 25-hour square pegs into 24-hour round holes.
A “restorative day” sounded so lovely … and elusive.
Then, by mid-March, life as we knew it changed with the onslaught of COVID-19, and its implications to how we “do” church. All of us, in countless ways, were thrust into discovering new ways of making worship accessible and tending the needs of our congregations. If I had doubts about finding a restorative day before the pandemic, clearly that quest now had to be sent to a back burner in a back kitchen.
Then, on Maundy Thursday, after a week in the hospital, my mom passed from COVID-19. That afternoon, Amy suggested I invite another pastor to take my place leading the worship by Zoom meeting that night. I insisted on presiding myself — and am glad I did. It was a meaningful experience for all of us. After what felt like the longest version of “Were You There?” ever, we followed the bulletin directive to “leave in silence” by clicking “leave meeting.” I broke down crying.
I took Good Friday off from hospice, but received one call, from a new widow seeking spiritual support to walk her through saying goodbye to her husband at the funeral home, alone, before his cremation. She had no way of knowing how close-to-home that was, in that I would be doing something too similar with my mom the day after Easter.
On Saturday, we recorded the service for Easter, and on Monday, I made my trip to the funeral home for a private visitation for my mom.
I have not been one to use the term “Low Sunday” to describe the Sunday after Easter. Whether worshiping from a pew or preaching in a pulpit, to call it “Low Sunday” seemed to imply being there indicated I had somehow missed the memo instructing us to do something other than go to church that day. A couple months ago, I had not circled April 19 on my calendar or planned to request my church have someone else preach instead of me that day.
Then everything happened that I wrote above. Still, I was not thinking of taking off April 19. Not in this time of pandemic. Not when pulling together and producing worship has become so complicated. Thankfully, Amy suggested my taking the day. Thankfully, this time I listened.
A restorative day is so lovely.
When I heard the term in early March, I decided I could not find the time for such a thing. I was right. None of us can “find” the time, especially now! It is a matter of creating the time, of intentionally acting in real ways that give life — yes, give life — to any talk of “self-care.”
On Sunday, April 19, I sat with my family in our living room, attending and participating in the virtual worship of Union Hill Presbyterian Church of Denville, listening to the sermon of my friend from seminary, Mark Terranova, as he provided pulpit supply. We did not “skip” worship; I merely took that Sunday “off,” even in the midst of pandemic and social distancing, and all the new challenges and demands the current crisis presents in our lives and ministry.
I took a Sunday off, in the Easter season, during a pandemic, within weeks of the passing of my mom.
I took a Sunday off, and the congregation and Mark provided a beautiful worship service, and I took a moment to breathe.
I took a Sunday off, and the world kept turning.
I like to think the world and I are better for it.
A couple of days later, our Presbytery leader, the Rev. Jeanne Radak, checked on me, knowing of my mom’s passing. She asked me to describe the effects of having taken Sunday off. Without consciously recalling in the moment my pastor friend’s term from early March, I was moved to tell her, “Taking that one Sunday off was … restorative.”
She suggested I share that discovery in the hope that it may be of benefit to you, your church, and your ministry. In this time of uncertainty, pressure, and stress, all of us need a restorative experience.
Perhaps you and your church will arrange for a pulpit supply as was the case with my church and me. Maybe you will pair with a church and do a virtual “pulpit exchange” where another pastor gives you a break now and invites your congregation to join her or his worship now, and you return the favor down the line. Possibly, latent creativity waits to be tapped from within your worshiping community, whereby members craft a unique and special service no one may have considered as long as the pastor is there every week.
When we believe our God promises to create a new heaven and a new Earth, certainly we also believe an alternative to the usual Sunday worship experience can be offered in the absence of the pastor one Sunday.
In these times, it is more than acceptable to acknowledge when we are tired, grieving, or feeling empty. To say honesty is important is to say acknowledging those experiences is more than acceptable: it is necessary.
God’s love surrounds us. The grace of the risen Christ reaches out to us. The fellowship of the Holy Spirit sustains us.
We are meant to be in right relationship with God, with one another, and with our very selves. Sometimes we need a restorative day to remind us of that.
Be aware of yourself, child of God. Be open to the ways God and life are making you aware of your need to pause, that you may gather the refreshment needed to follow where God leads you next.
Please consider taking a restorative day!
The Rev. Tim Clarkson is supply pastor at Union Hill Presbyterian Church in Denville, New Jersey.
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