As you know, FPCY is the recipient of a $50,000 Clergy Renewal Program Grant from the Lilly Foundation which includes a 4-month sabbatical for our Co-Pastor Chip Low, as well as sabbatical opportunities for the congregation. Applying for this grant involved completing a lengthy proposal – many thanks to elders Beth Gruber and Eric Kreuter and to Co-Pastor Tami Seidel for helping Chip with the application! In addition to a lot of basic information, we had to write a lengthy narrative description and rationale. Over the coming months, we would like to share parts of the proposal with you as a way of inviting the congregation to enter into this sabbatical time more fully and intentionally.
Question 1. Begin with a summary statement describing the overall character and purpose of the renewal program you are proposing.
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage” (Psalm 84:5).
Our renewal program will explore the theme of Living at a Pilgrim’s Pace and is designed around two key elements, pace and direction. We at FPCY are very aware that the pace of Rev. Chip Low’s life and ministry has been too fast and too intense for too long. We also are seeking to slow the collective pace of our ministry and to renew and deepen our commitment to our mission statement: “Connecting with God, One Another, and the World.” Living at a pilgrim’s pace for an extended period of time will allow Chip to engage in spiritual practices that are better explored when life is slower and more open to new depths and directions. Thus, during his pilgrimage, Chip will travel in the four cardinal directions to experience renewal with God, his spouse, his family and friends. During his absence and upon his return, we also will explore and engage in spiritual practices designed to slow our pace and encourage reflection. We believe that the pace and direction of this pilgrimage will open up new ways for Chip and us to strengthen our awareness of God among us and to discern where God is leading us next in our ministry.
Question 2. Provide a clearly articulated rationale for engaging in the clergy renewal program. In doing so, please give careful thought to the connection between the purpose, the proposed activities and your rationale. Programs that are coherent, well-integrated and possess a degree of thematic unity often are the most compelling. Also, include a discussion about why this is an appropriate time for the pastor and congregation to participate.
Living at a Pilgrim’s Pace will provide all of us with an intentional time to slow down and rest in ways that build on Chip’s ever-growing interest in pilgrimage. Our renewal program takes seriously that the pace of faith and life with God needs time. As one church member remarked in a men’s Bible study Chip led on pilgrimage, “The pace of the Bible is much slower than the pace of our normal lives. It seems to take time and a long journey to own and integrate faith.” This is the pilgrim’s pace we want to encourage for Chip and our church.
In recent years, much of our identity as a congregation has centered around doing good works and striving to be proper servants of Jesus Christ. As a result, although the impact on our community has been significant, we find ourselves with little time for reflection. In 2019, when Chip returned from walking a portion of the Camino Frances and began preaching about the need for a slower, more contemplative pace, we were intrigued. It became clear that Chip had gained a new metaphor for life, faith, and ministry with the potential to transform our congregation, and it became clear to us that he needed time away to bring that metaphor to full realization.
In nearly 20 years of ordained ministry, Chip has not had a sabbatical. This renewal program will provide abundant opportunities for Chip to slow his pace, to reconnect with God, himself, and others and to learn new practices of mindfulness, contemplation and communion with God and others. At retreats throughout the Northeast, Chip will begin to turn away from the busyness of our world and inward to reconnect with himself and God. In some of our most beautiful national parks, he will renew his bond with his family in surroundings that provide a powerful reminder of God’s presence. At the Iona Community and along the West Highland Way in Scotland, Chip will experience communal life and pilgrimage with his wife and co-pastor in a spirit of renewed commitment to the future together and with our congregation. Finally, Chip will travel west to visit with long-time friends and spiritual companions, allowing him to reflect on his journey and contemplate his reintegration into life with renewed faith and peace. We want Chip to be renewed in God’s love for him and his love for God, as well as the love of his family, his friends and his congregation. We hope, pray, and believe that Chip will find the renewal he seeks as he travels with the One whom Kosuke Koyama calls the “Three Mile an Hour God.”
At the same time, our congregation is also in need of a time for rest and renewal. In the last 5 years in particular, we have had several significant staff transitions, some difficult decisions regarding longstanding programs, a capital campaign and construction projects, all of which resulted in an intense, fast-paced chapter of ministry that was ever-changing, capacity-building, stressful, joyful, uncertain, and successful in many ways. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, we immediately began livestreaming all worship services, while maintaining our regular schedule of committee meetings and Bible studies, adding new virtual gatherings for congregational connection, and exploring how we build a sustainable ministry moving forward that is both online and in-person – all during this time of high anxiety, isolation, and required physical distancing. This seismic shift didn’t just happen. Ten years of ministry together with Chip has helped the church be prepared for a time like we are living in right now. The church was able to pivot remarkably smoothly as a result of the previous years of growth and transition which built the foundation for new ministry and encouraged the gifts and skills of the church membership along the way. While Chip has helped us navigate through this challenging time with his visionary leadership and a discerning pastoral heart and mind, it does not serve him or the church well to continue at this present pace.
As we participate in our own time of renewal, our congregation will engage in practices such as centering prayer, walking our labyrinth, creative worship services and retreats, educational programs, and a congregational pilgrimage with a renewed sense of ourselves as pilgrims growing in faith together. Living these practices in the context of pilgrimage will renew our identity as a congregation on a journey of ministry and mission together with God.