“I thought I was going to come back full of ideas. Instead, I came back empty, my mind cleared of the clutter and ready for God to fill me back up.”

Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs, administered by Christian Theological Seminary, seek to strengthen Christian congregations through renewal and reflection. National and Indiana Clergy Renewal Programs provide an opportunity for pastors to step away from the persistent obligations of congregational ministry and allow time for intentional exploration and for regaining enthusiasm and creativity for ministry.

In 1999 and 2000 respectively, the Endowment launched the Indiana and National Clergy Renewal Programs and invited congregations to submit proposals to provide their pastors with a structured period of professional, spiritual and personal renewal away from the daily demands of congregational leadership. Since the programs’ inceptions, more than 3,300 congregations have received clergy renewal grants.

“It is important to think of this as something that the entire congregation is a part of, it is a journey they are on together. By the congregation supporting this time away, it helps both them and pastors feel okay about taking that time. Everyone has a chance to reflect and, ultimately, it bonds them together,” says Dr. Rob Saler, executive director for the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary.

Participating pastors continue to express that their renewal experiences have replenished their enthusiasm and allowed them to spiritually reconnect with the joy of the call to ministry. Additionally, lay leaders note that the grants have helped their congregations cultivate new leaders and re-energize their ministries.

For pastors and congregations considering the fellowship, Saler says, “The best applications come from a standpoint of joy instead of obligation. Be authentic and pursue an experience that will truly bring you joy. It matters less about what you propose to do, and more about it being the right experience for you and your renewal.”

The following has been adapted from the reflections of the Rev. Karen L. King, Trinity Episcopal Church, Indianapolis, IN. (2017 fellow):

It can be difficult for clergypersons to achieve and maintain a healthy plan for self-care. It is easy to become depleted of your energy, self-care and spiritual practices because you are constantly giving so much of yourself and your personal time away with very little regard for needed time for renewal. The impact of my renewal experience was very positive in this regard because it afforded me time for rest and relaxation as well as time for reflection to focus on rebuilding certain spiritual practices, reclaiming and guarding personal and family time and engaging in activities with family and friends.
Miami is home for me; it is where I grew up and where the majority of my family lives. What was so exciting about this part of my renewal leave was that I would have the opportunity to attend church and worship with my family during Holy Week and Easter.

My temporary residence while in Florida was a place of solace. The first several days upon arriving in Florida were spent at the hotel simply resting. I knew I was extremely tired, as preparations for being away from work for four months involved a great deal of planning, but it wasn’t until I finally stopped that the heaviness of the entire experience became a reality.

My routine for the first few days was simply sleeping, eating and praying. After about the fourth day I added walking and reading into my regimen. I found the morning sunrise an excellent time for morning prayer and to simply be still before God. Slowly but surely, I began to regain myself. Those first few days of my renewal leave were a healing balm.
The next goal of my renewal leave was to make a pilgrimage to Rome and Florence, Italy, with one of my dearest friends and longtime prayer partners. One of the great benefits of the sabbatical, and there were many, was the fact that for the most part we were not on anyone’s schedule but our own. The usual demands commonly found at work of rushing from one meeting, task or service to the next, and responding to emails and to text messages, were gone.

The impact was inspiring, educational and entertaining. At the time I was working on the application, my son, Samuel, watched as I worked all day and then came home and continued to work for several more hours on the renewal application. He commented several times about watching me work so hard and how determined I was to complete the process. When we were notified that Trinity had received a renewal grant, he was elated! Samuel became my travel companion for our time in Atlanta, GA and Washington D.C. We arrived in Atlanta, GA the day of the Grand Opening of the Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta. Although Samuel had studied the Civil Rights movement in school, and heard stories of first hand experiences from family members and friends of acts of discrimination and racism, to tour the different galleries and watch the videos and see the pictures up close was a powerful and dramatic learning experience for him.

By all means, the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs are a tremendous gift to clergy and churches. Advice I would offer other clergy considering making an application are:

  • Recruit several members to serve on your planning committee.
  • Be prepared to invest a large amount of time in the planning and writing process.
  • Start on the application as soon as possible.
  • Although it may not happen as planned, it is important to allow plenty of time for reentry.
  • Appoint members on your committee to serve as monitors to help the clergy person supervise and track grant goals, progress, budget and reporting process.

This story is part of a blog series that features guest posts from pastors who have participated in Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal grants. The aim is to highlight helpful approaches to the process which have allowed these grants to be meaningful to both the pastors who go on renewal leaves and to the congregations they serve.