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The PC(USA)’s Office of Christian Formation awards 58 Sabbath Grants

Christian formation leaders learn to rest

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Keith Hudson, co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church in La Grande, Oregon, celebrated his sabbath in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. (Contributed photo)

DECATUR, Georgia — A special one-time grant program from the Office of Christian Formation suggests that rest may be the hardest thing to learn when practicing what you preach.

Learning to take a break and unplug can be difficult for leaders in the church. The Covid pandemic exacerbated challenges of creating opportunities for spiritual formation. In response, the Office of Christian Formation in the Presbyterian Mission Agency earmarked budgetary surplus funds from cancelled events and programming to be offered as Sabbath Grants to overworked Christian formation leaders across the country.

Applications were received in the spring of 2022 and awarded that summer. According to Miatta Wilson, mission associate for Christian Formation, 58 grants of $1,000 each were awarded to Christian formation leaders from across the country “serving in many different roles and ministries including volunteer, part- and full-time as educators, youth directors, campus pastors, small church solo pastors and camp staff.”

“They were intended for people who do not have much access to continuing education funds or sabbath grants in other ways,” Wilson said.

“I applied for the Sabbath Grant because the toll of starting a new call and a DMin program at the beginning of the pandemic was growing,” said the Rev. British Hyrams, associate chaplain at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, who went on silent retreat in North Carolina during Advent. “I knew I had to heed the whispers of the Holy Spirit to take time to connect with God in a new and meaningful way.”

The Rev. British Hyrams was at a silent retreat center in North Carolina during Advent. (Contributed photo)

Lack of access to funding was not the only obstacle that the Office of Christian Formation set out to remedy. The office communicated clearly with those working with recipients about the intention of the time away, requested the appointment of a sabbath advocate in each setting to support the grantee, and organized sabbath cohorts led by an outside coach.

Grantees were able to take their time away between August and December and were then invited to return in February for a reunion and debriefing session over Zoom. At their reunion on Feb. 2, grant recipients discussed how effective the intentional structure was in assuring they used the grant for actual rest.

However, many still experienced challenges. Some were self-constructed or not easily anticipated, like a co-dependent dog intent on thwarting beach time, an occupational habit of constructive reading that obsessively turns sabbath reflections into potential lesson plans, or just the uneasiness of leaving others behind or enjoying being alone.

“I was excited to get the grant but then I don’t like being alone,” admitted Karen Miller, director of Children and Youth Ministries at Church of the Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, “so I went to Boone, North Carolina, to a place called The Art of Living Retreat Center. It was weirdly nice. Now I’m looking at how I can fund that every year for myself.”

“My only connection to the outside world was via a satellite texting device and the daily check-ins from the wildfire crew that was camped in my area,” said the Rev. Keith Hudson, co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church in La Grande, Oregon, who hiked to a remote cabin in the Eagle Cap Wilderness area of Northeast Oregon. Hudson said that in addition to funding, the Office of Christian Formation’s communication with his session and church helped him disconnect for the week. “Everyone knew this wasn’t ‘vacation,’ but renewal.”

His wife and co-pastor, the Rev. Laura Elly Hudson, also received a grant which she used to travel to Hillsboro, Oregon, on the beautiful wooded property of her spiritual director, Jean Nevills. The cottage was called the “Poustinia,” inspired by the Russian Orthodox practice of retreating to a desert that is as much internal as it is external. While there, Hudson practiced “napcio divina” by stringing up a hammock between two trees behind her poustinia. For Laura, the coach that the Office of Christian Formation provided was essential to her sabbath. “Our coach guided us on how to define sabbath from a biblical perspective and imagine an experience which aligned with this perspective.” Grantees met in groups of four with a coach to think through “obstacles which might arise to block our full immersion into a sabbath experience.”

In the larger group reunion over Zoom, Sandy Safford, one of the sabbath coaches for the Office of Christian Formation, asked what people learned about sabbath and themselves through their experience and what they could carry forward. “The rituals of sabbath prep, during and close” were important to the Rev. Mark Lampley, the senior associate pastor for Christian Formation at Sequoyah Hills Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, who made a point of putting away his work clothes and wearing flip-flops during the time he was off. “I really would benefit from having some rituals like launching a sabbath.”

The Rev. David Crawley, chaplain at Peabody Retirement Community in North Manchester, Indiana, who hiked throughout Hoosier National Forest on his sabbatical, celebrated that the idea for the sabbath grant inspired similar ones in his presbytery.

“The Presbytery of Wabash Valley stole this idea. We hooked up with a local philanthropic organization and distributed Sabbath Grants to members of our presbytery.” Crawley found a sabbath symbol during his time in the wildernesses, where geodes exist in abundance. On his return he placed one of these dull, rough rocks that had been broken open to reveal a luminous, crystalline interior on the communion table as a reminder of the beauty that comes through connecting with the still, small voice of God.

An “Ebenezer” laid by the Rev. Natarsha Prince Sanders during a sabbath walk at Mo-Ranch in Hunt, Texas. (Contributed photo)

Observing silence and connecting with nature was a thread that ran throughout everyone’s reports on their sabbath experience. The Rev. Natarsha Prince Sanders, director of Centering the Sacred in Kerrville, Texas, traveled to Mo-Ranch in Hunt, Texas, where she walked regularly. “During my walks, whenever I feel God actively speaking to me through Creation, I lay or raise an Ebenezer along the path and sing the verse from ‘Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing’: ‘Here I raise my Ebenezer/Here by Thy great help I’ve come/ And I hope by Thy good pleasure/Safely to arrive at home.’”

The reunion of Sabbath Grant recipients served as a homecoming ritual marking the end of the grant period and encouraging participants to bring their new awareness of resting in God alone to their current contexts and communities.

“Many of the participants appreciated the chance to talk about sabbath and what it means to them in these groups,” said Stephanie Fritz, director of the Office of Christian Formation, who noted that the sabbath cohort was a key component for this grant. “The reunion is a time to reflect back on that experience together,” said Fritz, who highlighted the February debut of similar gatherings organized around specific formation topics held by the Office of Christian Formation twice a month over Zoom. The next one will be held at 7 p.m. Eastern Time on Feb. 28.

“We also are responsible for networking and connecting faith formation leaders and Christian educators in our office” said Fritz, “and this is another way to connect with a variety of leaders.”


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