Get out your unabridged dictionary. Look up the word “sucker.” If there is a picture next to that word, it is probably my smiling face.
A while back I told clergy colleagues that I was about to go on sabbatical. Any sane, right-thinking, semi-intelligent pastor going on sabbatical will use it as a time of rest, refreshment, and renewal. Verily, the word “sabbatical” suggests such activities, given its roots in the concept of “sabbath.”
But I fall outside the categories of “sane, right-thinking, and semi-intelligent.” Rather than using the time for “rest, refreshment, and renewal,” I used my sabbatical to join the fastest-growing portion of the American work force, temporary employees. For six weeks, I was a temp.
A Temp President
It’s like this. I am a member of the Board of Directors at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) in Berkeley, California. Tim Lull, the “real” president of PLTS, was going off on a study leave between January and March. January was an inter-session time that would pretty well take care of itself, but what would happen in February and March? Not being a complete fool, I thought of California in February. I thought of Minnesota in February. And one thing led to another.
So what have I learned on sabbatical?
Lesson 1: Humility. I arrived in California February 1. It was beautiful. I did not miss the snow and ice of Minnesota. I did not miss it so much that the second day I was in California I headed off to a nearby golf course to work off some of the accumulated rust. Hit a few balls on the practice green. Started to walk to the driving range. But my Minnesota feet, accustomed to snow and ice, could not cope with grass. I slipped and broke my ankle.
Well, shucks. I had envisioned myself arriving on the PLTS campus as “Superpastor,” strong and vibrant and able, fairly radiating energy, vitality, and drive. Now I was just an old guy on crutches, trying to make his way around a campus that looked like the Alps to me, hobbling up and down stairs (which are in abundant supply at PLTS). Rather than emanating power, I needed help, and needed it over and over again.
The people of PLTS were great. They are great. Students, faculty, and staff extended compassion and understanding, and put up with my limited mobility. On arrival I had talked about practicing “management by walking around.” Now that sounded like a joke, insofar as I could barely walk. A good lesson in humility.
Of Tongues and Skills
Lesson 2: Today’s seminary students are a diverse lot and come with life experiences, gifts, knowledge, and sensitivity that will make them outstanding pastors. I feel more encouraged about the future than I sometimes have been.
One little snippet of an example: One Wednesday, our weekly Eucharist was in Spanish. I do not speak Spanish. I was sometimes lost and confused. But many of the students seemed at home in Spanish. This was not a problem for them. And in California, with its ever-growing Hispanic population, any pastor worth his or her salt should be able to speak Spanish.
The old tongues of yesterday’s American church—Swedish, Norwegian, German, Danish, Finnish—those are luxuries today. Languages like Spanish are among the mother tongues of tomorrow’s church in this land. I was proud of those students and impressed by them.
Lesson 3: Whatever skills I have developed as a parish pastor do have a value in other venues. Open communication. Casting a vision. Caring about people. Taking time to say thanks. These are the simple things pastors do all the time. I found that doing these same things made it possible for me to function, at least for a short term, as a seminary president.
Lesson 4: People are people. I am not an academic by background or orientation, so I was a bit intimidated by dealing with those who are. When I sat in my first faculty meeting, I looked around the room and realized that I was the least educated person in the room.
What a relief it was to find that nobody else in the room seemed to be thinking about that. The faculty, the presidents of the other schools of the Graduate Theological Union, and the other professional academics I dealt with in those weeks actually seemed to respect my gifts as much as I respected theirs.
Lesson 5: Pastors are pastors, and churches are churches. Some of my happiest times at PLTS were the occasions I had to visit with other pastors and to preach on behalf of PLTS in congregations. Sometimes I felt out of place in the seminary setting, a fish out of water, but when I was in a congregation, I always felt at home. The congregations I visited varied in size and community setting, but they all felt like home, and they were all worrying about the very things my own congregation worries about.
These pastors, pastors whose geographic orientations and educational backgrounds and ministry settings were very different from my own, were people whose hearts and passions were very much like my own. Even on that one morning when I visited with a pastor who has been very critical of PLTS, I felt a strong kinship.
I was reminded of the first “Muppet Movie,” in which Scooter sings a song that includes this line: “there ain’t no words yet for old friends who’ve just met.” That’s what these pastors felt like. Old friends.
The Ruby Slippers
Lesson 6: My place is with my congregation. Don’t get me wrong. I love PLTS, and I enjoyed being part of its life in this intense way for six weeks.
Even so, there were still times when I wanted to put on the ruby slippers and click my heels together and say “Take me home to Auntie Em,” referring in this case to Emily, our cocker spaniel. The brace on my ankle, however, made heel clicking problematic. Still, absence did certainly work to make the heart grow fonder in this case. I wanted and needed to be back in “my” congregation, back with “my” people. I needed to look across the breakfast table at my wife, sleep in my own bed, shave before my own mirror, flop down in my chair with Emily next to me.
Like Dorothy in Oz, I was in a fascinating place with some very dear friends, but it wasn’t home. Being a seminary president for a few weeks was fun, but it wasn’t me. When I was first ordained, I felt a strong sense of being called, but being a parish pastor described what I did.
Somewhere over the years things have changed for me. Being a parish pastor is no longer what I do. It is what I am. Now and then someone will suggest that I ought to be something else. A greeter at Wal-Mart or something like that. Sorry. Not interested. Parish pastor. That’s me.
So perhaps in its own backhanded way, this sabbatical did exactly what a sabbatical is supposed to do. It sent me back to my everyday world with new vigor and new energy and a refreshed sense of call. What more could you ask from a sabbatical, besides a suntan and the chance to play a little golf?
Steve McKinley Didn’t Expect the Cats
The biggest surprise Steve McKinley dealt with during his time as temp president at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary had to do with expectations. “I expected to spend my time on lofty issues of theological import, issues of the church. Instead I spent lots of time on routine, ordinary things.”
For instance? “Cats,” he said with comic timing and a heavy sigh. “Cats. Whether they should be allowed in married students’ housing. For two weeks, every day, multiple conversations about cats.” How was the issue resolved? McKinley doesn’t remember.
He does remember the pastor he visited and described in his piece as “very critical of PLTS.” Said McKinley, “He felt he had been mistreated by the seminary, and he had. So I talked with him. And then I talked with the staff about that.”
McKinley pastors in Minnesota, where, as he puts it, “church culture has not completely disappeared.” So he felt his share of cultural dissonance in the Bay Area. Some of that came up when he mentioned books that “the pastors I know know,” like Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Church (Zondervan Publishing House), and “people at the seminary would just look blank.”
Of course, McKinley looked blank at his share of things the faculty brought up. Indeed, when asked what gifts he doesn’t have but would need to acquire if he were to be a real seminary president, academic credibility was first on his list. “I go back far enough so that my degree is actually a Bachelor of Divinity,” he said. “My school kindly offered to upgrade our degrees for a price when they started offering the M.Div., but in those days the money was earmarked for other priorities.” The other gift he needs, he said, is patience. “Things move along very slowly at seminaries. Congregations are not noted for rapid change, either, but we can get some things done.”
McKinley didn’t mention it in his piece because he didn’t know it yet, but his time in the president’s chair was on-the-job training for his assignment as board chair. “Our last chair, Mark Rasmeth, then bishop of Montana, left to become president of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, and one thing led to another,” he explained. And the training served him well. When asked, tongue in cheek, if he recommended the training program he’d been through, there was nothing but enthusiasm in his voice when he replied, “Oh, absolutely!”
—Melinda R. Heppe
Read more articles on the role of the board chair:
A Match Made in Heaven? How a President and Chair Helped Shape a School (New Year 2000)
Coping, Caring, Carrying on a Good Work: Eight Views from the Head of the Table (New Year 2000)
Pull Up Your Chair: A Concise Guide to Leading a Board into Creative Community (Autumn 2001)
State of the Communion: A New Chair Connects with Board Members (Autumn 2001)
A Vision for Chairpersons (Autumn 2001)