Everything You Wanted to Know about a Sabbatical (But Were Afraid to Ask)

September 18, 2011

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

There is a form of privilege that clergy enjoy, along with academics, that is just like every other privilege. It contains its own prison. Clergy get special tax breaks: we don’t pay taxes on the money we pay for housing. Religious buildings are also off the tax roles. And clergy, particularly those born within a certain time, also get sabbaticals, long Sabbaths, which separate ordinary time from extraordinary time. We are to think and renew ourselves on behalf of ordinary time. Mine lasted eight months, at 80% time off, and was a custom designed sabbatical. It was funded by the Lilly Endowment, which funds about 150 clergy a year to engage in what is called Clergy Renewal.

Judson received a grant of $45,000 for my sabbatical. I know: You started out green and now you are bright green. One of the things you wanted to know about sabbatical and were afraid to ask is how the privilege settled into the sabbatical takers. After all the beautitude just read says, “Blessed are the Poor,” not Blessed are the rich. Also both of those women we just heard from are part of me, so privilege and prison are some of my best friends. The facts: I received $30,000 to go away and visit all the places I had ever been, including my ancestral home, and “to notice in these places things I thought I had already seen.” Judson got $15,000. Warren, my husband, being an academic, also had a sabbatical and his was a writing sabbatical. So the privilege deepens, right? I can see you all turning the wheels in your head: It might even be worth it to become an academic or a clergy person, to get paid to notice what you have already seen and to get your congregation paid so that you could do it. Plus, Lilly paid for my partner to accompany me.

Privilege and prison are my two take-a-ways. The privilege had to do with down time, off time, long time. I spent more time than I would care to admit shopping for a rug. I looked at hundreds, fooling around with color, shape, fabric, texture, fit. I thought I had gone mad when the 239th rug did not suit my fancy. Another day I actually bought a green votive candle holder maker for $7.99. Why? I was so bored that I was studying unique household appliances. With this tool you can hollow out a lemon or apple and put a votive candle in it and have a unique table setting. Martha meet Stewart. Most days I took long walks, often on the Appalachian trail or one of its tributaries. I found that I also liked long urban walks. I walked in California, Seattle, Miami, Tampa, Washington, DC, and also enjoyed following spring up the East Coast through Virginia. I walked in Italy and in France, in West Virginia and at Gettysburg. I walked in the Catskills, although as the daughter of a rural mail carrier who worked the Catskills, I could never walk enough in the Catskills. This year I am highly aware that I will have only one spring and that it will be preceded by winter. Last year, I missed winter entirely, unless you call the chilling rain that we experienced in California something other than winter. It felt a lot like winter. Weather matters a lot to a walker whose day is walking.

One of the silly prisons of this sabbatical privilege had to do with our suitcases. It felt like we were never quite dressed right for the temperature or the season. We often hated our suitcases. We were always one toothbrush behind. Until our long stint in Miami, we just couldn’t dress right. There we didn’t need clothes, just shorts and a bathing suit. And Miami would have been quite right, but for the fact that our beloved dog had decided he no longer liked travel and managed to get a severe skin disease, which required his deportation to the North. But only on days that were above 40 up here and below 70 down there. I finally bribed American Airlines to take him.

In eight months, we made a great circle of the country, West to East, then South to North, by way of Mexico, France and Italy, usually in a red prius we called “Pescadera, the Prius who lives at the Playa.” Some of us liked the travel more than others. EM Forster describes one of his many European characters that try to manage the world without the company of a “Baedecker.” A Baedeker is a fancy word for a map and we had more conversations about maps than I choose to remember or to notice. Forster’s character says, “She liked the idea of travel, the memory of travel, but not travel itself.” I set out from here loving travel itself and now I am not sure I like it any more. I think I may be done with travel which is weird for me. That is one thing I noticed that I thought I had already seen. Another thing I noticed was what Martin Buber said about travel: “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” My secret destination was a kind of reenchantment. And I did experience that many days on the trails, even though – truth to tell – I often had to discipline myself to stay off the blackberry. I developed a good ritual for this pattern which was to walk in and not look at the damn thing but to allow myself conversations for the walk out. Michael and I probably talked more on the phone while I was on the trail than we do when we are in the office. I was lonely in the woods, enchanted by their quiet, their green, the wildflowers that the rainy spring provided which were more splendid than the words I can find for them. It was often a good loneliness in the sense that I could get a little lost, I could walk a subject the way Thich Nhat Hahn encourages us to do. But I also enjoyed dialing and looking at the email from rocks overlooking the Shenandoah Mountains more than your ideal privileged hiker does. I haven’t decided whether this is a prison or not. But here is what I noticed: when I would tell people I was going to hike portions of the Appalachian Trail, people constantly would respond, “You’re going to walk the whole thing?” I would also say NO, what do you think I am, crazy? The notice is this. Many people tell me they want to Yoga, EVERY DAY, Yavol. That need to do the whole thing or the same thing or the everything, thing gets in the way of the few trails or postures you can actually manage. As Philip Larkin put his notion of travel, “I wouldn’t mind seeing China if I could come back the same day.“ I learned that I really didn’t want to do the whole thing, that I wanted to do lots of things and that mostly I was obsessed with the idea of return, about who I would be when I got BACK to Judson and Grace House and ordinary life. I wanted to develop new patterns of daily enchantment and so far, these patterns elude me. I have been back a little over two weeks and it is astonishing how many of my old patterns came home with me in my suitcase. Sabbatical time is a great luxury in its moments. Daily life is also a great luxury in its moments. I am still on the trail of the trail and I certainly hope no one will report that to the Lilly Endowment. But do report it to the higher-ups: the best part of sabbatical is you get reacquainted with what little you know of the divine. She walks with you and she talks with you and she tells me you are her own. And the joy you share as you tarry there none other can ever know.” I have always felt the powerful presence of God more when alone, in nature, than in company. The feelings of the presence of God were palpable, especially on my walks in.

If I were to say a truth about why I flunked sabbatical in the whole, but not the parts, I would say it this way. It’s not going to happen that way. One of the community ministers said that her friend kept that sign up on her refrigerator, dresser, etc. “It’s not going to happen that way.” I translate: whichever way I thought it was going to happen, it didn’t. Nor could anything have prepared me to know that I’d be talking on the cell phone so much. Or, another notice, that I would enjoy so many long conversations with old friends. In California we bunked in with Margaret and Larry Kornfeld a lot, at Stanford, we bunked in with other old friends of mine from New Haven. These long nights and shared meals were deeply satisfying with me. I spent four hours sitting besides a pool with the man who was my associate pastor in Miami. We worked together every day and never had so much time together. I also had a great night with Abigail, back here, a night we’d probably never be able to have in whatever fiction it is that we call normal time. I am so grateful to those of you who gave me a bunk in New York, Jim and Catherine, Marianna, Michael and Alana. They were precious times. And some of you even had toothpaste I could use.

What I also noticed is that ordinary life went on while I was trying to exempt myself from it. Weddings still happened, community ministry classes still happened. I taught a full course at Hartford Seminary because I thought it would be fun. I took a full course in Seattle. I wrote a book, which my agent roundly rejected, reminding me of nothing so much as the relationship of privilege to poverty. Planned Parenthood lost its funding. Obama had to produce his birth certificate. Osama Bin Laden was shot on May 2. Andrew Weiner sex texted. My niece died, suddenly, at age 40. Peter Gaitens quit. A debt crisis was created. Congress debated ways to ruin the economy. A Norwegian shot up a city, shaking up the European memories of fascism. Erich’s wife got breast cancer. The Gym at Judson presented us with extraordinary long-term opportunities. Michael Ellick and team did a fabulous job of keeping you all alive and well. Warren turned 60 and I became an event planner. I preached at a dozen other congregations and always felt like I was double timing someone. I missed worship at Judson. Not leading worship. But worship. I missed the way Michael Conley can play a hymn with a nearly visceral force. On Easter I went to my brother’s in Milledgeville, Georgia and attended three Easter services. I had a ball. I have never been out of role on an Easter in 37 years and I loved it. African American Sunrise, Episcopalian Mass at 8:00 and then to the First Presbyterian Church and its full flowered cross, with children in Easter bonnets, being photographed outside of it. Easter day I also had the very best walk I can remember, along the Oconee River, where the unchurched were fishing. I always wondered what people did on Sunday mornings, and I found out.

Highlight Experience: I was invited to preach at the closing of the church in which I was ordained in Tucson, Arizona. Last sermon for my first church. They put me up in the Sonoran Mountains, which I had even forgotten to put on my itinerary. When I arrived, they handed me a file folder, which contained my typewritten ordination paper (I will never know why they passed me), photos of my ordination with Bob Schaper putting a handmade robe on me. I had forgotten Selectric typewriters existed. I was able to talk with the 7 remaining members and the entire Tucson association of clergy and lay delegates about why that church closed. They did remember saying, as the neighborhood around us turned Mexican, downtown two blocks south of the University of Arizona, “There are no people in our neighborhood any more.” What they meant was there were no people like us. Thus an 1100 member church went to 7 in the 37 years of my ministry. We were able to have a conversation about what a “people” is. Then I walked and walked and walked into the Sonoran Mountains and didn’t talk to anybody for what seemed like days of coyotes and wild hawks. When I got back, Nick and Lewis and Doug and Michael showed up on my answering machine. The Gym at Judson was trying to be born, reflecting new people, new energy, decisions outside my pay range, even with sabbaticals as part of my contract. I kept thinking of my first church, dead, because it couldn’t see opportunities all around it and inside its own belly.

The funniest experience was the way sheep kept showing up. On the trail, over the hill, in the mountains, in our front yard in Umbria one morning at 5:00 a.m. The photo on the bulletin is from the Great Plain, a place in Northern Italy that is simply awash in acres and acres of wild flowers, many of which constitute the different yellows of the lentil plant. We were walking there one magnificent July day and started to hear this bell ringing. Along comes a shepherd with a line of sheep, numbering easily in the hundreds. One by one, marching to the beat of the bell, they moved. I remembered that I signed up to be a pastor but was slightly irritated by the way sheep seemed to be following me around. Or I seemed to be following them around. Everyone wants to know if I was role-free on Sabbatical. The answer is sort of. Pastor Schaper and Donna Schaper went on a trip together. That is as much truth as I can say about that.

I turned on the TV one night and there was a whole show about some shepherd marching sheep from Wyoming to Canada, 3500 miles, and acting as though he was having a ball. I couldn’t get away from sheep. I did a lot of humming while on the trail. One of my favorites was Ella’s version of “we are poor little lambs who have lost our way.” In Italy in the house we rented there was a book open to a picture of a shepherd herding hundreds of sheep down an Italian byway, with large fields on either side. The sheep should be in the pasture but instead they were on the road, marching. It is a lovely photograph. Then there was the photo widely circulated this spring on the internet by my clergy colleagues. It is two shepherds sound asleep under a tree, in a field one over from a dozen or so sheep. I turn on the television and channel surf and there is “Sweet Grass,” the PBS show about the last of the traditional sheepherders in the American West…about to make his last drive into the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness north of Yellowstone in Montana, where his Norwegian American family had fattened their herd on sweet summer grass. He drives 3000 sheep 250 miles. I am absurdly fascinated by this story, which I would never have seen or noticed had I not been on sabbatical. Sweet grass, let us walk with each other to sweet grass!

The second funniest thing was sitting on the Metro in Paris, where Warren and I went on our honeymoon 29 years ago, and having this strange man sit down next to me, in my car, in my seat, as if he knew me. It proved to be Dr. Goldstein. We had found each other without a map or destination or direction. Must be destiny.

Best book I read was by George Orwell, Down and Out in London and Paris. I had kept it in my suitcase to re-read at the end, when we got to Paris. He said a few things that I noticed I have already seen and remembered. He cautioned me in a way that seemed direct: “Beware all the smelly little orthodoxies that compete for our souls.” Direct application for Judson: let’s make sure our most prophetic act is adding people to the list serv, not removing them. Some may have to be removed, so very sadly, but we need to maximize attention on the right questions. Also let’s take down the photos of our last arrest and put up some new ones. Orwell reserves his respect for “people, he calls them men, who do things.’ He cultivates a “Deep Distrust of left wing intellectuals,“ which of course I am…so I can accept his advice with ease.

Orwell’s conclusion and I will here begin mine: “I am not able, and I do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well, I shall continue to love the surface of the earth and to take pleasure in solid objects ands craps of useless information.” I also read some of his letters and noticed that he most often inquired about how the rhubarb was doing.

Sabbatical was nothing like I thought it would be. Ordinary life has never been what I thought it would be. I have been walking without a Baedecker for a long, long time. So have many of you. While clergy enrichment does imply the maintenance of high personal standards, including yoga every day (grin) and the necessity of walking the whole trail, the truth is we have privileges and prisons, poverty and wealth.

Finding the blessing:
in the poverty of personal performance
on sabbatical
has enriched me.

Thank you for letting me go and thank you for letting me come back.

*Anatole Broyard concludes his book, The Art of Travel, in saying that the art of travel is to notice what you have already seen.

Ancient Testimony:  Matthew 5:1-2

Modern Testimony:  “Two Women” printed in Sojourners, July 1985

 Umbria, Italy 2011

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