How Could I Go to Fourteen Churches and Still Miss Church?

This post is PART TWO of a series entitled: “That Time I Visited Fourteen Churches in Four Months”

Four months ago, I began a Sabbatical from my role as a pastor. One of the things I did during this time was to visit different worship services. I was really excited to get a chance to go to church services that I wasn’t leading.  It would be nice to go to church and show up five minutes before the service started. It would be nice not to spend a whole service checking the order for what came next so I could prepare. It would be nice not to preach for a while!

And it actually was really really nice.

I attended fourteen different churches, and what I can say with confidence is this: There are lots of great churches out there.  I hear a lot of people say they can’t find a church and I get that it’s hard. But most churches I attended were places where it was obvious people were really trying to be faithful.  They loved God. They wanted to help people. And there are so many different churches! if you aren’t finding one church aligns with how you feel most connected to worship, there are many many others who are doing things differently.  Don’t like praise bands? Great news – there are LOTS of churches who don’t use them. Want a church that is modern and not using liturgy you don’t understand? There are churches doing that too.

I had some truly amazing experiences at churches I got to attend.  I heard one of the best sermons I have ever heard when I visited my sister’s church near Vancouver.  One of the churches in Hamilton I visited had an amazing 11 piece worship team that sounded like a recording. I absolutely loved the readings in one small church I attended, where someone had clearly thought about every word that we would read.  I heard really cool stories and met amazing people and learned about ministries I had never heard about before. A few weeks into my visiting cycle, I said to my husband: “I LOVE going to different churches so much! Every week is so interesting and different and there are so many good things happening all around us!!!!”  

A couple of weeks later I said to him: “I’m over it.”

What happened?  

It wasn’t that I started going to “bad” churches.  It was that I was encountering something that I had always known, but never really experienced – church is more than attending a worship service.

I realized I had never actually gone more than a few weeks without having a “home church.” I have always made it a priority to settle into a church pretty quickly in new cities, even when I was a student.   I really believe what one woman told me someone said to her after she became a Christian: “No church is perfect. So find a Bible believing church near you and stick with it for six months, and then it will probably feel like home.” (Thirty years later, she’s still at our church, and ten years after she told me that story, I still think it’s one of the wisest things I have ever heard).

So at about week eight of my fourteen-week rotation, even though I was technically “going to church” every week, I discovered I was missing CHURCH. I was missing my family.  I was missing my home.  After a few weeks of loving learning new songs, I was missing singing the ones I knew best.  After a few weeks of being welcomed as a visitor, I was missing being welcomed as an old friend.

I wanted church. I wanted to know how people were doing. I wanted to see faces I knew. I wanted to celebrate the ongoing stories of people with whom I had journeyed.  I wanted people who asked me how my family was doing and commented on how tall my kids had grown and who told me how they had been praying for me. I wanted to be doing this church thing with people – not just standing beside strangers for an hour on a Sunday and never seeing them again.  I wanted small groups and Bible studies and picnics and potlucks and prayer updates on facebook. I even wanted all the little things that annoyed me about my own church. I missed living in the imperfections of a church of real people figuring out faith together. I wanted CHURCH – not just a service for an hour on a Sunday (no matter how great the sermon was).

I do wonder if, on the journey to find a church, we are so busy looking at what happens for one hour on a Sunday that we never really get to experience all that church is, in its messy, complicated far-from-perfect glory.  I do think that it’s little surprise people say “I can’t find a church” if all they see is one or two Sundays at a time, because, quite frankly – that’s not church.

Church is the family of God, and all the relationships, life AND worship that we do together.  I wonder if we gave more time to a community if we might discover we could find a church after all?…

Either way, I could hardly wait to go back to my church this Sunday after four months away, and it did not disappoint.  Our worship team was stripped down for the summer.  We went a little over schedule.  We were short helpers in our Sunday School. It wasn’t perfect; it never is. But it felt like a breath of fresh air to experience all of church again – family and friendship and learning faith together.

One hour each week just wasn’t quite the same.

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That Time I Visited Fourteen Churches in Four Months

Part One:  “Would I Go Back?” 

“Um, can you tell me where the bathroom is?” I asked the friendly person who welcomed me as I walked into church that day.

“Sure!  It’s just downstairs.”

I found the stairs tucked away in a corner, and began to walk down. As I got near the bottom, I hesitated.  I had entered a basement that was PITCH BLACK. I could barely see a hand in front of my face. I fumbled around on a wall and found a light switch.  When I turned it on, the room flooded with light, and I realized I was in what seemed to be a nursery full of children’s toys. Still no bathroom. It did seem I was in the basement, so I kept wandering.  

After walking through two more rooms, I found it.  As I settled in my seat later, I thought to myself:  “What would that experience have been like for me if I wasn’t someone used to church?  Would I have felt comfortable looking for a light? Would I have been willing to wander through the nursery until I got where I was going?  Would I have felt welcomed, or lost?”

Would I have wanted to come back?  

It’s a couple of weeks later.  This time my daughter is with me when we go to a church on a long weekend.  It’s a big church, with high energy and great music. When we walk in, the person at the front tells us that if we fill out a card with our information we will get a Tim Horton’s card!  My daughter looks at me with excitement. “Can we fill out a card?” I am a little hesitant, because we already have a home church and I feel this gift can be saved for others. But my daughter is excited so I fill it in.   After the service, we go to the “visitor’s table,” where we’ve been told to drop off the card. There’s no one there. Finally, someone sees us. “Oh hi!” they say. “You have a card?” “Yes,” we answer, handing over our completed visitor’s card.  She takes a long minute to scan the card to make sure we’ve filled it all in. “Okay, let me see here,” she says as she rummages around, and hands me a gift card for $3 to Tim Horton’s. My daughter is happy as we leave, but as I get in the car I realize: She didn’t even ask us our name.

Would I have wanted to go back?

A few more weeks pass and we are at a small church on the English seaside.  As we walk in, a woman’s face lights up as she sees us and she comes to shake each of our hands. She bends down a little as she says hello to the children to reach their eye level.  She explains to us that since it’s hot, there are some glasses of cold water available we can take into the worship service. She apologies that they don’t have a Sunday School since they are so small, but points the kids to some activity bags with colouring sheets they can use during the service. We enter and we are the only people there that we can see under the age of 50.  Most people seem to be over 80. Several more people come to say hello. One man does a coin trick for our son, and he is delighted. “Where are you from?” everyone asks over and over. “All the way from Canada? So wonderful to have you!” After the service, a couple offers to walk us to their fellowship hall where tea is being served and then shows us their community garden. As we are walking through, he laments his worry for their church.  “We are such an old congregation,” he says. “I don’t think any young people will ever want to come here.”

I smile, and politely disagree with him.  “I would love to come back,” I tell him.

And I mean it.

My Church-Visiting Adventure

While I was on Sabbatical from my role as a pastor over the last four months, one of the things that I wanted to do was visit other churches for their worship services. I wanted to see what God was doing in other churches, get new ideas, and experience different traditions.

bulletins
Me and my new collection of church bulletins and welcome cards

I also wanted to learn what it was like to be attending a church for the first time.  I realized that I am always hoping visitors would come to our church, and encouraging our members to invite their friends.  But do I understand what it’s like to go to a new church where I don’t know anybody? As I stepped into the role of “church visitor,” I also tried to consider the perspective of someone who would be attending church who wasn’t used to “going to church” at all.  “How would someone new to church feel in this experience?” I often asked myself.  

In total, I visited fourteen churches, with a range of traditions, sizes and worship styles. I  learned a number of things from this adventure, which I’ll write about over a couple of posts, but one of the things that stood out to me most was something I thought I already knew:  

Welcome Matters. 

It matters even more than I thought.

I did not always attend churches that were “cool,” not by any means.  The church we attended in England that I mentioned had music that was truly painful, and no one our age and I can honestly say that I would go back. Why?  People were warm, friendly, and kind. It didn’t have to be showy or fancy – they simply said: “It’s nice to have you here.”  They noticed we were new and reached out. They showed us where to find tea.

I did not experience this at all churches, sadly.  There were (thankfully, few) several churches where it was so obvious I was the only visitor, and that they weren’t used to visitors, simply by the stares from people as I walked in. There were times that I sat by myself as the “greeting time” started and people shook hands and gave hugs and had conversations with people all around me while one or two gave me a quick hand shake before turning back to friends.  It didn’t make me eager to continue, and I couldn’t help but think: “If I am a MINISTER who is about as comfortable with church as any human being could be, and I’M uncomfortable, how on earth would someone new to church feel?” I’m sad to say – they would bolt. And I wouldn’t blame them.

It also really struck me how much feeling welcome is about so much more than a greeter saying hello, being asked to fill in a welcome form, or receiving a gift.  I was very sensitive to insider talk, jokes and stories. They made me feel on the outside. As churches, we need to remember that PEOPLE DON’T ALWAYS KNOW WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT.  They don’t know where the “fellowship hall” is where everyone is heading afterwards. They don’t know who “John” is so they can talk to him after church about the upcoming barbeque. When you say “we all know we have been praying for Katie…” – a visitor doesn’t know. Many don’t know how to find things in their Bible or how to recite the Lord’s prayer or what to do when you pass around baskets asking for money.  It is so important to talk as if there is someone new among you. This is a sign of hospitality.

This can be easier than we think.  If we talk about someone who needs prayer we can simply preface with “if you are new you won’t know this person, but we have been praying for them…”  Don’t start Bible verses and wait for the congregation to finish the end of the sentence (how would a new person feel who couldn’t do this?). Have people at the front introduce themselves. Explain where to find things and get people to wave if they are being referred to as someone to go talk to later.  When you are tempted to say: “But everyone knows that!” remember what you are really saying is “everyone already at this church knows that.” If your hope is to make space for people NOT already at your church, your language matters.  Helping people feel like they are in a safe place matters.  Sometimes it even boils down to little things like making sure the lights in the basement are on so people can find the washroom!

Yesterday, after three weeks in the United Kingdom, my 8 year old daughter said, out of nowhere: “I can’t WAIT to go to our church on Sunday. It is my FAVOURITE church ever.” 

Now of course I am thrilled when my daughter says she can’t wait to go to church, but I know her saying we are her favourite has nothing to do with her ability to discern doctrine or music or Sunday School programs.  So I asked her why her church was her “favourite.”

“Everybody knows me there,” she said.  

We are not going to get everything right as churches.  We won’t all have the best preachers or most talented worship teams.  But we can work to create spaces where people say: “That place is my favourite.” Not because we are swanky or polished or always get it right, but because we are TRYING.  And we are WELCOMING. And we say, with our words and our actions,  “I see you – and you can belong here.

 

Picking Up the Ephod: Am I Ready to Return From Sabbatical?

Four months ago, there was an ice storm.  Remember? It’s hard to picture now when we are basically collectively melting, but it happened.  I couldn’t even fathom then the idea of a day so hot I’d be cranking up the air conditioning, but here it is.  I also couldn’t imagine on that day what the next four months had in store for me, as the day of the ice storm was also my last day of work before I took a four month Sabbatical.  

On that day, I wondered how I would feel when I would turn the calendar to August 13, the day I had written simply: “Back to work.”  I hoped that I would feel ready to start again. I hoped that I would feel rested and renewed and filled with a new sense of purpose. I hoped for all of these things, but, kind of like how it feels when you’re sitting in the midst of a freak ice storm in April and you start to doubt that you will ever feel warm again, I really wasn’t sure.  

I had worries.

I was worried that I would be bored.  I was worried that I would not use my time well and “mess up” this gift I had been given. I was worried, deep down, that time away would make me realize that the calling to which I had given my life didn’t really matter that much.  

Maybe no one would miss me…

Maybe it would turn out my church DIDN’T need me…

Maybe everyone could get along fine without me…  

I actually wanted those things to be true…but I also didn’t want them to be true.  I wanted my church to realize that I wasn’t essential, but I also wanted them to realize that I was.  These paradoxes really made it clear that time away would be good for me, and for all of us.

So on that day of the ice storm, the day my Sabbatical was beginning, I preached a sermon. I preached it wearing yoga pants in my living room via Facebook live since the ice storm forced us to cancel our service.  I preached about ephods.

A few weeks before I had been reading through Exodus in my Bible reading plan, when I got to one of those sections of the Bible that is easy to gloss over – it was about what the ancient high priest of Israel had to wear.  I read that the priest was supposed to wear something called an ephod, which was like a long sleeveless robe in two parts. These parts were joined together at the shoulder by onyx stones, on which, they were to engrave the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.  This meant that every time the high priest would come before God, he symbolically carried the people he served ON HIS SHOULDERS.

ephod
Here’s a little photo of some person who re-created the high priest’s garmets  – see the shoulder pieces? 

I don’t know if I had ever encountered a passage that spoke to me more deeply about what my job and my calling was about.  As a pastor today, which is admittedly quite different than being an Israelite priest a few thousand years ago, I feel this is so much of who I am.  I carry the people of God on my shoulders. I pray for them. I care for them. I (try to) lead them closer to God. Every day when I wake up and go to work, I symbolically put on that ephod.  The names aren’t the names of the tribes of Israel, but they are names like Darlene and Mike and Diane and Bruce and Christine.

In my “pajama church” sermon (yup, that’s what we called church that day), I talked about Sabbatical being a time for me to “take off the ephod.”  I shared how it would be four months of me saying “These names are off my shoulders for a while” – so that I could remember they are on God’s shoulders first.  I shared how important it was for me to remember that I am not defined by the “ephod” that I wear, and how the best way to remember that was to pause from wearing it for just a little while.

Now here we are four months later, and I can look back and say that taking off the ephod was very very good.  I will write more about the things I learned on Sabbatical over the next couple of weeks, but for now, let me just say that taking off the ephod was one of the best things I have ever had the chance to do – even as I’m feeling ready to put it back on.

Things are different today than that day in April.  It’s not snowing, for one thing. It’s warm and sunny and bright. Also, I am different. My shoulders don’t feel tired! They have benefited from some rest.  The really cool thing is that as they rested, the church has done JUST FINE without me carrying everything. Turns out, God’s shoulders are stronger than mine, and they never need to take a break.  I’m glad we all got to remember that.

I’ve enjoyed my time away, but on Monday I will be happy to pick up my ephod again, and will wear it joyfully, confident that who I am, who God is and who our church is, is not based on what I carry on my shoulders.

This is a great lesson to learn, and I’m thankful beyond words for the chance to learn it.  Thanks, Mount Hamilton, for letting me take off the ephod for a while…and thanks for being a place that makes me look forward to putting it back on.  See you soon!

back to work

 

 

 

Here’s To You, Deanne! A Toast to My Sister on Her Fiftieth Birthday

I am the youngest of four children.  I was blessed to have a wonderful oldest sister named Roxanne and I am still blessed by my other older sister, Deanne, and an older brother, Jason.  Today is Deanne’s fiftieth birthday, and I toast to her! 

Here’s to you, Deanne, on your fiftieth birthday.

Here’s to you, my loving sister, who was always willing to babysit me and made me laugh when you pretended to eat my arm like it was a hot dog. Here’s to you, who would write me my own personal letters, sent just to me, from across the country when you moved away.  Here’s to you, who always makes people feel special.

Here’s to you, my adventurous sister, who moved across the country to follow a dream at 22 and made a new life – but never forgot home.  Here’s to you who traveled the world. Here’s to you who joined me and Josiah on a hike with no idea where it led, and who ran ten kilometres back to get us the car when we ended up in the next town over.

Here’s to you, my beautiful sister, who makes yoga pants look as elegant as formal wear.  Here’s to you who my friend once described as “looking like a goddess.” Here’s to you who buys what she likes and likes what she buys.

Here’s to you, my energetic sister, who hikes the grind without a pause.  Here’s to the one who parks as far from stores as possible to get an extra chance to walk. Here’s to you who wears me out, and then whips up a batch of cookies while I take a rest.

Here’s to you, my efficient sister.  Here’s to you who resents packing anything bigger than a carry-on bag when she travels.  Here’s to you who gets stuff done. Here’s to you who makes a day count.

Here’s to you, my strong sister, who faced the unbearable when both her sons had a catastrophic accident. Here’s to you who was at the hospital by seven every morning and stayed until you got kicked out. Here’s to you who held your sixteen year old son to calm his body while he flayed in a coma. Here’s to you who sat with your fourteen year old in an I.C.U thousands of miles from home. Here’s to you who kept it together.  Here’s to you who inspired me.

Here’s to you, my hilarious sister, who doesn’t always know why she’s funny.  Here’s to you who makes her kids and husband crack up. Here’s to you who always wants to be in on the joke. When others say you’re funny, I say “I confer.”

Here’s to you, my beloved sister, one of our three rhyming “-annes.”  Here’s to you who was the keep-the-peace one. Here’s to you who has always been who we needed you to be, just as you are. Here’s to you who understands that we are now incomplete, but we are whole together.

Here’s to you, my older sister. Here’s to you, my role model. Here’s to you who will always be older – so that I will never stop having someone to look up to.

Here’s to you, Deanne!  Here’s to you, who is loved at fifty and always.

Me and My Fabulous Sister!

Five Years Later: Reflections on the Five Year Anniversary of My Sister’s Death

This week it will have been five years since my sister died. I can hardly believe it.  

Like every year around this time, this week on the calendar draws me back to that season of grief in my life.  Five years ago was not only when I lost one of the people I loved most in the whole world, but also when I began my life as a grieving person –  a life that I didn’t want, and wasn’t ready for.

I was scared of grief, I now realize.  I was scared because I didn’t know if I could survive it.  I was scared because I didn’t know how to do it. I had taken courses on grieving and walked with many people through loss, so I admit I felt like I had a leg up on things.  In those first few weeks I remember working to tick all the boxes that would make me a “good grieving person.”

Read all the books about grief and loss I can find? Check.

Go to see a counselor?  Check.

Join a grief support group?  On it.

But when I read the books, my grief was so raw that I could barely process them. When I went to the free counselling session provided through work, it was, seriously, awful.  And when I searched for a grief support group online, they were all winding down for the summer.

I remember beginning to feel panicky:  If these things weren’t going to work, what would?  

Five years later, I look back and see grieving Leanne, lost and broken, unable to share her deepest feelings, discovering everything she “knew” about grief was more complicated and tricky than she thought.  I think about what she didn’t understand, and what I would tell her now, five years later.  

“Grief is a Roller Coaster”

When I pictured grieving after a big loss, I assumed grief progressed like walking up a hill. It would start in a big valley, a pit even, and the task was to slowly get out of this valley, with things improving bit by bit over time.  But grief isn’t like a hill where every day gets better. Grief is a roller coaster.

The roller coaster is a cycle of really bad, awful, can’t-get-out-of-bed days interspersed with “I-feel-normal-and-actually-kind-of-okay-today” days.  I didn’t expect the latter, and they made me feel guilty. I remember about a week after my sister died saying to my husband: “Could it be possible that I’m over this already?”  I was having a day where I felt kind of normal, and I figured maybe the whole thing was over. I shake my head when I think about it now. I didn’t understand that I was riding a roller coaster, and there were some really big dips to come. Looking back, I would tell Leanne that she was being taken on a ride, even though she wouldn’t have liked that.  

But I would also tell her she was strapped in – strapped in by God, people who loved her, and resurrection hope, and she wasn’t going to fall out, no matter how big the dips got.

Which brings me to my next point…

“The worst time is two-four months after”

Yes, the time after a death is impossibly hard – especially a sudden, unexpected death.  But there is also something that happens a couple months later – a deep drop in the roller coaster. It’s when the rest of the world has moved on, when people often forget you’re grieving, but you are still walking around with the weight of your loss crippling your shoulders every day and wondering “Don’t people care anymore?”  

That’s why,  if you know someone grieving, acknowledging their grieve a couple months later is a huge gift.  For many that is when they are right back in the pit. And if you are grieving yourself, and finding these things to be true, first of all, know that you’re not crazy, regressing or doing something wrong. This is normal. Secondly,  look for support in this time. This is when you take the people up on the “if you ever need to talk” offers. It’s a good time to get a counselor (yes, I tried a second time, and it was a gift from God). You may not have been ready sooner, when your grief was fresh, but now you may be, and your good friends are still ready to listen.  And remember…

“It WILL get better”

There were days I thought “I can’t live with this grief. I will never get over this.”  I would say to people “Does it get better?” and they would wisely say “It gets different….” This is true.  You always carry grief. But five years later is not like it was five years ago, or even four years ago, or three years ago.  It is not as unbearable. This does not mean that I’m “over it.” (Do we ever “get over it?”). It means that what my grief counselor told me was true: I DID find a way to live a new life where grief wasn’t at the centre.  She also told me: 

“You won’t forget”

Oh, how much I needed to be assured of that!   You know what I worried about? That I would forget the sound of Roxanne’s voice.  I would sometimes watch videos, not to reminisce but to assuage that fear that I would forget what her voice sounded like.  What newly grieving Leanne didn’t understand was that you simply can’t forget.  Your loved one is such a part of you, and who you are, that they will not be forgotten.  Five years later, I can hear Roxanne’s voice in my head as clearly as if I talked to her yesterday.  If you have feared you will forget the one you lost, be at peace. Your loved one is a part of you that can’t be lost.  

So…what is loss like, five years later?

Five years later, my grief hasn’t disappeared, but neither have my memories.  

Five years later, I accept that I haven’t “gotten over” my loss, but I’ve gotten to the other side.  

Five years later, I can see that I didn’t fall out of the roller coaster.

Five years later, it still sucks…but it sucks less.

Five years later, this picture still brings tears to my eyes.

And it makes me smile.

me and roxanne

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“Spend the Gift Card Already! OR “Why I Found it Hard to Accept a Four Month Sabbatical”

sabbatical

Last fall I had to face a conflicting reality in my life:  I would soon be eligible for a four month Sabbatical. Our church has a policy that after a number of years of continuous work, pastors can apply for a extended time of leave to learn, refresh and recharge.  This year, my time had come.

Now, I know I should have seen this is good news, which I mostly did.  But I also struggled. What would I DO for four months? My kids would be in school and my husband would still be working.  How would I fill the hours between dropping my kids off at school and picking them up again? I joked about being one of those movie cliche moms who picks her kids up from school in workout gear and talks about HOW BUSY she is planning for the school bake sale.  But, like, seriously. I don’t even OWN workout clothes. And planning a bake sale is far from a full time job (at least not the way I’d run a bake sale…).

Plus, I wasn’t supposed to just hang out for four months (was I???).

And I had to do SOMETHING (didn’t I?).

And I had to do things that were USEFUL! (Right??) 

I wasn’t really sure, but my Sabbatical proposal was due to my board for approval six months ahead of time, so last fall, whether I liked it or not, I had to get cracking.  I began by doing what I always do in seasons of uncertainty.

I started making lists.

  • I could go on a missions trip. (But where?  On my own? For how long? If only my husband was off as well!)
  • I could take courses. (Which ones?  From where? Summer school schedules didn’t come out until the winter!).
  • I could do a big project!  (What project? For whom? Why?  How? When?)

I know, it seems ridiculous, but last fall thinking about Sabbatical made me more anxious than excited.  Still, it was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss. And that meant I had to come up with a proposal.

The list hadn’t helped much. I realized I needed others to help me hear from God on this one, so I decided to do something I had suggested to many people over the last few years when they felt stuck in a decision.  I gathered a “wisdom circle.”

A “wisdom circle” basically involves gathering a few people that can help you seek God’s wisdom in your life. There is a process to go through where the person looking for wisdom shares what they are dealing with, and there is time for feedback. In my case, I started by sharing all my Sabbatical woes, my list of ideas and my lack of clarity.  Then the group sat in silence for a couple of minutes. After this, the group shared what they heard me say. No commentary. No advice – just telling me what stood out to them from my own words. Then there was more silence. I shared again. More silence. Then the group shared what my story evoked in them – what they noticed and found themselves thinking about as I spoke. The point of this whole process is to help me listen to what God might be saying to me. 

As I shared my scattered thoughts,  my group kept telling me the same thing: “I hear that you’re worried.” “I hear that you’re anxious.” “I hear that you feel like you have to get this perfect.”  “I hear that you are trying to get Sabbatical JUST RIGHT.”

They were definitely listening.

Then one friend made this comment:  “Sometimes people give me gift cards.  When I get a gift card I almost always end up carrying it around for months or even years.  Why? I want to get the PERFECT thing and I’m afraid if I spend it too soon I’ll regret what I buy.  I feel like you’re treating your Sabbatical like an unused gift card.  You’re afraid you’ll spend it on the wrong thing.”

Hmmm.

If there was a nail in the room, I knew he was hitting it on the head.

I was worried, yes.  I was a perfectionist, yes. But I was also scared.  

I didn’t want to misspend my gift card.

That’s when I realized that spending a gift card is always a little risky. You might order a meal you don’t like at the restaurant and wish you’d ordered something different.  You might buy something and later wish you’d gotten something else. But the thing about a gift card is that it IS a gift. You’re not somehow “less” after you use it if you spend it in a less than perfect way.  And no one gives you a gift card wanting it to cause you worry – it’s meant to be a GIFT, something that brings joy!

I realized God was telling me not to let this “Sabbatical gift card” sit in my wallet because I was afraid it wouldn’t be perfect.  God was inviting me to receive a gift, and it was time for me to spend it.

A few days later, I handed in a proposal to my board. I said that I wanted to take some courses, read, study and travel.  I hoped to take time to visit other churches and pastors and learn things from them that would help us as a church.  I said I would let myself rest, and make space to hear from God in ways my schedule doesn’t always allow.   After I handed it in and the board approved it, I admit that it seemed funny that it had felt like such a big deal. 

My first day of Sabbatical was one week ago. Funny enough, it ended up being a SNOW DAY – definitely a little reminder that I can in no way predict what my Sabbatical will hold! I decided to take my kids to Indigo. In my wallet, I had several Indigo gift cards, there since my birthday in January.  

And you know what I did?

I SPENT THEM.

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“Self-Care Week” OR “Why I Can’t Let Myself Take a Vacation in February”

I don’t know why it can be so ridiculously hard for me to stop working, but the last couple of weeks I have learned that it takes hard work to not work – hard, necessary work.

Next week, I am taking a week’s vacation.  It is completely random for me to take a week’s vacation in the middle of February, especially when my husband and children will not be taking time off.  This year, however, I have some extra vacation time and I felt strongly that I needed to force myself to use it.  (Yes, I know, poor me having to force myself to take vacation!).  But it really is weird to know I’ll wake up each day next week, bring my kids to school, and then….go back home.  This feels especially odd as we go into a church season that is especially busy and when there is lots to do.

The thing is, the theme of rest and healthy life rhythms has come up in my life a lot lately.  I run three different small groups where we have talked about this in the last month. I have taught about the importance of taking daily, weekly, and yearly times of renewal.  I have heard the words come out of my mouth: “These are times when we step back to remember God can handle things without us.”  I realized I also need to live these words, too.

So I declared this all-by-myself-vacation “self care week” and planned to take time to look after my body and soul.  I made a dentist appointment, a hair appointment, and an overdue date for lunch with a friend.  

But it was not easy for me to fully embrace this gift of a week off.  It took more work than I want to admit to say “no” to doing “just one thing.”

I am part of a team that is planning a conference the first weekend of March.  Recently,  we were trying to set up our next meeting and we were having a hard time finding a time to meet that worked for everyone. I mentioned that I wasn’t free next week. Not a single person asked why.  After a few minutes of brainstorming dates, and still finding nothing, I said: “Well, if it makes it easier, I could meet next week. It’s no big deal.  I’m just taking that week as vacation.”

And the whole group said:  “NOOOOO!!!”

Then I said: “Yes I am taking this week off in the middle of February and I can’t believe how hard it is for me not to give in and do things.”  

They all understood and encouraged me not to give in to my temptations to do “just one thing.”

Three out of four Wednesdays a month I run a small group for pastors.  I realized that if I missed our gathering for my “self-care week,” then I would miss seeing them twice this month. To avoid this, I planned to meet with them on my week off. It was only a couple days ago that I told them that I would miss next week.  They were totally fine with it.

Then I said: “Yes I am taking this week off in the middle of February and I can’t believe how hard it is for me not to give in and do things.”  

They all understood and encouraged me not to give in to my temptations to do “just one thing.”

I also run small groups every Wednesday night. I see God working in these group, and so I was also going to meet with them on my week off.  You can probably guess what happened – I told them we weren’t meeting, explained why, they said no problem.

Then I said: ‘Yes I am taking this week off in the middle of February and I can’t believe how hard it is for me to not give in and do things.”

They all understood and encouraged me not to give in to my temptations to do “just one thing.”

(Sometimes, I am a slow learner).

Finally, I had to ask myself why this was so hard for me (if you’re counting, I had planned to do not just one, but THREE things on my “week off”). I came up with three reasons.  Maybe you will resonate with them.  

I Feel Guilty

I don’t like not doing things I committed to do.  When I say “I know we usually meet this time but I can’t do it,” I feel an almost crushing guilt. I feel selfish and unreliable and irresponsible.  I don’t like feeling guilty, so I do things I shouldn’t to help me avoid that feeling. (The unfortunate thing is that when I do things to avoid feeling guilty I often end up feeling other emotions I also don’t like, such as resentment – a blog for another day).  

I Feel Too Important

I focus on the importance of the things that need to be done.  We need to meet to plan this conference. I need to have this meeting. I need to lead my group. I see the value in the things I’m doing, perhaps sometimes too much.  And the truth is…

I Don’t Want to Feel Unimportant

If I can simply “skip” something, then I have to admit that it may not be essential after all.  If I can take a week off from activities, then maybe those activities aren’t actually that important.  If I’m not needed for everything, every week, maybe what I do doesn’t matter that much.  That is hard to admit.

And.

Because I MUST admit that…

I need to take time off.  

I’m not saying that what I do isn’t significant in the long run.  But I need constant reminders that I’m not what I do.  I need to sit in the truth, regularly, that God can work without me.  I need to learn to trust.  I need to remember that the world keeps spinning when I take a breather.

(I also need a dentist appointment…)  

It may seem like a silly thing, to have to work so hard to accept this week off, and I’m not proud of how much discipline it has taken for me to do it.  But now I’m really looking forward to waking up on Monday and letting God look after things for 8 whole days.  The good news is – God can handle it.

Do you struggle with these things too?  Join me in remembering – God can handle things; self care is not selfish.  Repeat. 

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