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What I Learned from Sabbatical
Tandi Rogers
Program Specialist
Archived 12/1/2011
This summer I was generously afforded the opportunity of a sabbatical to reflect on my nine years serving our district, as well as to meditate on my year of trying out interim work with the UUA Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries. The UUA in the Pacific NW has been through a lot of changes over this last decade and interim work is all about change. So what have I learned about being a religious leader in the midst of constant change and growth?
There was a long process to get to my epiphanies. I was surprised that it took me about two weeks to just empty the chatter in my mind and let down. I did a lot of walking and listening to the sounds in my neighborhood. I visited markets and paid attention to color and textures. I spent long stretches at eye level with my toddler following the delights that captured his attention in the dirt. I got out my art supplies and just played with colors and images. I’ll be honest the next couple weeks after I started the process of detaching from my professional roles, I went through intense grieving. I would cry for no apparent reason, and created space to do that. I also created space to sleep. 
Eventually the color did return to my cheeks, and I remembered who I am outside of my professional roles. Around this time I sought out challenging activities to push me to a margin. Being afraid of heights I rode a gondola lift and stared straight down into the abyss. I privately worshipped in the Maroon Bells (Aspen, CO) and experienced the tension of being both a tiny speck on this planet in this blip of vast history and being a transcendent part of the grand scheme. I road a horse, which has been on my Bucket List for years.  

And when I came back from sabbatical, this is what I know that religious leaders in the midst of change need…

  1. Identify purpose & priorities. What is your core purpose in your life and in your role as a religious leader? Are the things/people/initiative that grab your attention essential to that core purpose or mission? And of the things that are essential, how would you prioritize them for impact?  If you have non-essentials on the list of items that take up time and other resources, it may be time to strategically disappoint people. One of the first things I did as an Interim Director was contact folks who had traditionally gotten attention by being a squeaky wheel and explain to them what our purpose and direction was for the year and why our staff wasn’t going to be paying much attention to them for the year. Sometimes it’s our own self that we disappoint. What do you need to let go of/ stop doing to make room for a new way? What three things, that if you stopped doing them, would actually contribute to your purpose? 
  2. Discern your work, their work, not anyone’s work. This is a twist on Byron Katie’s concept about “my business, your business, and God’s business.”  When laying out the work to be done, I encourage you to try to make yourself dispensable. That’s right, dispensable. Don’t just pick up tasks out of obligation or the need to make it perfect or frustration that no one else will do it. What are your responsibilities? What could others be doing as part of their own leadership development and health of the community? The UUA Mid-America Region has a mantra that I just love: “build capacity, don’t be capacity.”  I love that and truly believe it’s key to helping a community find mutual ownership and effectiveness. If no one else will do a particular task, maybe it shouldn’t be done for a while, if ever. 
  3. Separate adaptive from technical. Don’t get distracted or derailed by the know-how procedures and check-list solutions to change-related challenges. If you keep dealing with the same problem over and over and it just won’t go away, then the challenge probably requires experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places throughout the community (and maybe even outside of it.) Learning new ways will also be required, which means changing attitudes, values, and behaviors. This is hard, challenging stuff. And religious education to the core, as I know it. 
  4. Get clear on your strengths and growing edges and “just shouldn’t do.” Know what you bring solidly and joyfully and what you’ll need help with.  My team knows the things that I need to stay far away from with my peculiar learning challenges. We have a humor about it and I have never felt like a burden or “less than.” I pick up the pieces that are designed for my gifts and particular lens. That’s grace. Unleash that kind of grace with your team.  
  5. Differentiate roles and identify partners and allies. We cannot do this work alone. A system can be more fluid and collaborative and cross-fertilization-y when all the players are clear in their roles, available resources, and limitations and then can convey those to their other players and partners. We waste time spinning our wheels and disappointing people when we’re undifferentiated.  When working on an issue or project make a list of who your team mates are. Who’s missing at the table? Invite those folks. Now make a list of who might be allies outside your community/system that you might call upon for help and/or learn from. 
  6. Frame as religious work. When I sit down to this labor of love, I light a chalice and ask the ancestors for help to be compassionate and loving to those in our present moment and for clarity and courage to make it easier for those yet to come. This is religious work. We’re building something larger than ourselves.  
  7. Take Sabbath seriously. I constantly misspoke and called my sabbatical “sabbath.” They’ve got the same root, same idea. Time out of time to refresh and re-create. Whether you carve out time each day or a day of the week to come back to that still, small voice within, stay faithfully devoted to that time. It will make you a stronger, more centered, happier leader.  

Being a religious leader, juggling the family systems implicit in religious community and facing the whirlwind changes of our times, requires a lot. Above all, know that you are not alone. Reach out to your team mates. Reach out to your counterparts in our district congregations. Reach out to us your district staff. We’re here to coach and connect to resources, as well as cheer you on!

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