“Paper cuts,” the Rev. Jacob Cloud says, can take their toll.
Cloud has been a United Methodist pastor since 2009, serving a variety of churches as well as serving as campus minister at the University of Kansas. He has been the senior pastor at Waverly UMC in Nebraska since 2018.
And he felt like he was nearing the end of his rope.
“We are vulnerable, and we are open so often that sometimes just the little paper cuts can add up that we receive,” Cloud said. “If we don’t take the time to renewal to heal and repair from those, they can begin to do long-term damage.”
Cloud was one of a handful of pastors who recently took renewal leave, offered by the Great Plains Conference. Renewal leave was proposed on the floor of the 2019 Annual Conference session, with the Clergy Excellence team directed to develop a plan to bring back the following year. COVID-19, of course, caused the annual conference session to become a limited online event where renewal leave was approved. Without much publicity, seven pastors signed up for the leave and were granted funds that would help them and their churches during the time.
Cloud took off 11 Sundays and 10½ weeks over the summer. He spent time with his family, took a few short weekend trips with his wife and visited family in Virginia. He also spent time in prayer, meditation and reading, as well as keeping in contact with his spiritual director on a regular basis.
“It’s not a vacation, but it’s an important focus on both renewing our strength and grace with God and that connection to the family that travels with us everywhere,” he said. “The key to this is, while it looked like I was enjoying myself, and I was, this was giving me a chance to connect with God without having an ulterior motive.”
Although it was not a goal, Cloud said the time off gave him ideas for two dozen different sermons.
“Ironically, not focusing on getting the work done was incredibly fruitful,” he said. “It refilled my pitcher, which was pretty much empty.”
The only regret Cloud says he has about the renewal leave is not taking it sooner.
“I waited a little too long and got a little too close to burnout than I’d like to,” he said.
And he knows he wasn’t alone.
“That mentality has led to the burnout of more pastors in the past three years than I’ve ever seen in my 15 years of ministry,” he said. “A large number of my graduating class from seminary have either left the ministry or taken extended leaves that don’t have an end date. That is largely due in part to this toxic, work-till-you-die mentality.”
Naysayers, he said, might scoff at a profession that has, at least in the Great Plains Conference, four weeks of vacation time and additional Sundays when they aren’t preaching.
And, Cloud said, he’s well aware that previous generations of clergy didn’t feel like they needed additional time off for their own wellbeing.
“They didn’t have their phone in their pocket. They didn’t have the internet available. They didn’t have everyone’s darkest thoughts projected. You had to stand up and tell someone you thought they were stupid instead of posting it on the internet,” he said. “The immediacy by which people can get hold of a pastor means there’s never a time when you’re not on.”
The Waverly church’s youth pastor took on much of the duties while he was gone, and the pulpit was filled by pastors including the Rev. Lyn Seiser, campus minister at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; the Rev. Ashlee Alley Crawford, clergy recruitment and development coordinator; and the Rev. Hollie Tapley, disaster response coordinator.
Whenever there were pangs of guilt about taking time away, Cloud said, he looked to Jesus Christ as an example.
“What do you think happened when He sent all of His disciples away, and there was no writing until they returned months later?” Cloud asked. “It doesn’t say, ‘He sent everyone away and did 500 more miracles.’
“If the son of God had to take a couple of weeks to gather his thoughts, I know I’m not better than Jesus,” he added.
The Book of Discipline already guarantees several different types of leave for pastors, said the Rev. Dee Williamston, clergy excellence director and assistant to the bishop, including personal leave and family leave.
She said the first group of pastors to take renewal leave “beta tested it” for the next clergy who want to apply.
Leaves can be up to 12 weeks, Williamston said, and grants of up to $3,000 are available to supplement the pastor’s absence.
Taking the leave isn’t as simple as a request, she said. The applicant will submit a proposal of at least two pages on what the pastor plans to do during the leave and how it will benefit his or her ministry.
“The renewal leave is more than just reading books. How are you going to refresh yourself? How are you going to take care of your wellbeing? How will you carry your wellness?” Williamston said. “We want you healthy and strong and your spirit up. There’s so much pressure right now to be (video) producer and director and all of the things with the social climate that you’re trying to navigate.”
Williamston said a renewal leave can allow a pastor to step back and find themselves without the weekly grind of a church schedule.
“You can reconnect back to yourself, what your call is and what God ordained you to be. Reclaiming your own identity. You’re more than pastor, you’re more than clergy,” she said. “You have to look at yourself and renew and refine that energy and continue to make disciples in this world and this context.”
The Rev. Jeff Clinger says he’s had a master plan for his time at Topeka First UMC, where he’s served since 2015.
“One year at a time and at the will of the bishop, If I could write the script, I would hope for at least 15 years in this appointment,” he said. “That gets us to a lot of different markers in church and personal life.”
That includes his own 50th birthday, the graduation of both his children from high school and the 175th anniversary of Topeka First.
The subject of renewal leave came up in discussions among clergy as far back as the 2015 Orders & Fellowship session, Clinger said, and while he himself didn’t feel burned out, he saw it as an opportunity for himself to stop and take “a chance to catch my breath.”
“I’m really doing well, I’m fine,” he told his Staff-Parish Relations Committee when announcing his leave. “Sometimes I think colleagues enter a time of renewal because they really are at a rock-bottom place of deep, deep need.”
A few years ago, he anticipated the response from the scheduled 2020 General Conference — where the denomination’s stance on human sexuality issues would be debated — would be a good time to stop and take a break. That conference has been rescheduled for August and September 2022.
The stress of the pandemic and recovery from it made Clinger believe the summer of 2021 was a good time for time off.
Clinger said he wanted to focus on his physical formation (including solving problems he’d had with lower back pain), relational formation (spending time with his family and a marriage retreat with his wife, Heather), and spiritual formation (worship, reading and study, including Zoom sessions with the Rev. Peter Scazzero, author of “Emotionally Healthy Discipleship,” as well as Clinger reading 18 books and having regular appointments with his spiritual adviser).
Serving a large church, he said, made it easier to disconnect his phone and email for his renewal leave.
“A bunch of clergy are just control freaks,” he said with a laugh. “You can’t imagine letting go for that long of a period of time.”
“It takes a lot to cover the details for it to happen,” Clinger said. “At Topeka First, we’re surrounded by retired clergy and conference staff here in town for me to recruit different preachers during the summer.”
The Rev. Mike Chamberlain, retired clergy, was given many of the duties during Clinger’s leave. His staff also monitored Clinger’s email while he was gone, and returning to only a few messages felt “super liberating,” he said.
Clinger said the leave gave him time for silence, solitude and sabbath, which he said he felt like he was missing in the past few years.
“It’s that pervasive sense of busyness,” he said. “What no one’s articulating is that we’re so busy because at our core we’re really striving for affirmation and approval — go-go-go, do-do-do, be more efficient, accomplish more, manage your calendar and your in-box and your to-do list.”
It didn’t take him long to realize that taking a renewal leave was worthwhile for himself, his family and his congregation, Clinger said.
“Why don’t more pastors do this?” he asked.
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