I was one of those lay leaders in a smallish-midsized congregation who was on almost every committee. I think I’ve held every leadership position except board in that church. Operative word being held. I held leadership positions close to me without letting go, because with it came some semblance of control to keep the congregational structure and community just the way I liked it. I had standards. There’s a certain way you do things.
Then one bright, sunny Sunday the president and minister called me up to the chancel during announcements. The minister gave me a beautiful, carved chalice and the president, putting his hand firmly on my shoulder said, “Tandi, you have served this religious community well with your extended service.” He went on to list all the committees I’ve chaired and projects I headed up over the most recent years. “We are giving you a volunteer sabbatical for an entire year. You are not allowed to chair or volunteer for any committee. You are not allowed to even make coffee. This year we ask that you simple come and be fed.”
I have no idea what the sermon was that Sunday, because I spent the rest of worship trying to figure out what his “honor” meant. They couldn’t be serious, could they? I can’t volunteer for a thing? What will I do with this time? What will they do without me?
Over the next couple of months I went through the classic stages of grief:
Denial: They couldn’t possible mean it. I mean, who is going to know how to coax a paper jam out of the copy machine for the newsletter assembly? Who knows how to make the canvass forms just right? No one else on the worship committee really knows our liturgical calendar. And they didn’t really mean I wouldn’t co-lead the youth group, right? That’s different.
It turns out the entire congregation was in on it. I’d turn up to a committee meeting and I’d be cheerfully greeted and then asked to leave. I showed up at youth group like always. The youth didn’t even let me stay for check-in. They sang a song about “thank you” as if they practiced it.
Anger: You know, the youth seemed especially delighted to send me home. I bet this was their idea. Why do they hate me? What a hateful place. And they call themselves a religious community! Luckily I knew enough not to spew my venom onto the other members. I made an appointment with a spiritual director when the gym punching bag wasn’t enough.
Bargaining: I showed up to worship a little early and noticed one of the greeters hadn’t arrived yet. I grabbed a stack of Orders of Service and slipped into place by the sanctuary doorway. Someone came up behind me with a hug and slipped the OoS right out of my hand. “But surely this doesn’t count!” I pleaded surprised by the desperation in my voice, “It’s just a little thing, really… We don’t even need to mention this to the president.” Our membership chair tenderly smiled and put an arm around my shoulders. “You’ll understand if invite a newer member to fulfill this volunteer gateway position. Go enjoy the quiet before it gets busy in here.”
Depression. And then the gloomy clouds moved in. I mean, who was I without my volunteering? No one knew I was important anymore. I was just… average. I actually moped around the house and cried for a couple weeks. Not only wasn’t I frequenting the congregational building for meetings during the week, I didn’t go to worship every Sunday. Why bother? They don’t need me. They probably don’t miss me.
Acceptance. A note came from our minister that simply said, “Thinking of you on your sabbatical. I hope you’re having fun with your kids and doing all the art projects you talked about getting to someday. I hope this is your someday.” I stared at the note for a long time, rereading it over and over. Oh, yeah. And there is that stack of books by my bed that I’ve wanted to read… Like a veil lifting it finally occurred to me that this is my life, my time, my agenda. I get to choose. Color came back to my cheeks as I spent down time dancing in the kitchen with my children. I made home-made meals and started teaching them family recipes. I picked up my sketch pad and filled it with images for my own personal amusement. A calm emerged and I could easily locate my center.
Another calm, energy came into the congregation. The worship committee not only experimented with additions to our traditional calendar, they also played with the format. And I liked it even better! Two elders joined the youth ministry team much to the delight of the teenagers who were craving older mentors. Someone else figured out how to tame the copier. The congregation figured it all out without me.
And I figured out that I really didn’t like doing all those things. Maybe I did at one time. But I had grown to resent them and hadn’t realized it. All the committee work had come to feel like a “should,” not a joy. I would not have known this without the involuntary volunteer sabbatical. And you know what I really missed? Making coffee for coffee hour and weeding the flower garden around the congregation.
At the end of my volunteer sabbatical the minister and new president invited me out for coffee. The minister leaned in and asked, “Now that you’ve had a year respite, how do you really want to serve and be served?…” And a new story began.