Involuntary Volunteer Sabbatical

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.

Guided Penny Meditation


Ample floor space for participants to lie in a circle on the floor with their heads toward the middle.  Clean pennies to place on their foreheads.

Soft music (without words) or sounds of nature in the background are optional.


15-20 minutes


I first learned the Penny technique when I was in gymnastics. My coach would have us lie on the ground, which we will do in a moment) and tightly flex out muscle groups one by one and then deeply relax them until we had the sensation of melting into the floor.  She would then come around and put pennies on our foreheads (our third eye) and instruct us to take our consciousness out of our bodies, out through the penny.  Once out of the constrains of our bodies we could perform our gymnastics routines perfectly in this alternative consciousness. Not only did it improve our performances and discipline, but it was my ticket to escape.

Close your eyes. Concentrate on your breathing. Focus on each breath. If you become distracted return to the breathing. Take a few minutes of this breathing relaxation to prepare for your mindful meditation. Inhale… Exhale…

Relax deeper into the floor.

Think about your feet. Pull your toes up toward your face as tightly as you can. Move to your legs; make them as stiff and straight as you can.

Now your stomach. Squeeze it in.

Put your arms by your sides- make them straight and stiff too. Keep them tightly next to your body. Make fists with your hands. Tight, tight fists.

Clinch your teeth, squeeze your eyes closed. Every bit of you is tight, tight, tight. Hold still.

Now, soften your eyes. They may flutter. Let your mouth open slightly. Open your hands, let your arms go limp, your stomach is soft.

Your legs fall to the side. Your feet hang loosely open. Your whole body is now fully relaxed.

Your breathing is still slow and steady and you are completely at ease. Just stay there gently breathing- resting your body.

You may fall asleep for awhile. Notice how nice it feels to be so calm and quiet.

Imagine that every cell holds the energy of your soul.  We’re going to call up your soul and ask it to reveal itself as a vapor floating throughout your body.  What color is your soul vapor?  Does it look like intricate tendril wisps of smoke? Does your soul vapor has glistening sparkles? Is it iridescent? Does it glow?  Does it have color?

Allow your soul vapor to congregate and swirl in your central region, your solar plexis.  Now move your soul vapor up and out the penny, through your third eye.  Now going around the room counter-clock wise, let your soul vapor move over each person’s body in this room and thank the shell for housing the incredible person living inside.

Once you’ve blessed each body, go ahead and swirl to the center near the ceiling and and dance with the other soup vapors. Enjoy the colors and patterns and sensation of our inner essences mingling.

And now it is time for us to go our separate ways.  We will each walk through the door in our mind’s eye.  At the front door of this cabin, picture a walkway. It is narrow and enclosed by blank, clean walls. Walk down this pathway until you come to an opening. It may be a door, or a gate, or a just a break in the wall. Go through the opening and find yourself in a deep, quiet, safe open space. It may feel like a forest or a cave or an valley. Whatever it seems to you, it is safe. It is safe for you to sit down and wait.

The place you have chosen is very quiet. It is all yours. There is no one else aware of your place. No one expects anything from you. Allow yourself to sit quietly as long as you like.

When you are ready become aware of another presence nearing you. It is of you, and brings various messages. Whatever you have been seeking, this presence is aware of and has a feeling to share with you. It has an essence to give you that will make you aware of the answers to your own questions.

Ask it any question you may have. Ask it to please answer you in whatever way it is able. Ask it for help, then wait. An answer will come. You will feel the answer inside yourself. Another presence may join you. Ask for additional information or ask for new feelings to answer another question. The answers will come to you.

Always know you are safe with each question, each answer, each presence. Stay with your thoughts in this place until you are ready to return. You will feel in touch with this inner messenger and you will trust the answers that came to you.

You feel a warm presence to your left.  It is you as a younger person.  The younger you looks up at you beaming.  Lean over and kiss  yourself on your head.  Is there anything you would like to tell your younger self?

There is another presence to your right.  This is your elder guardian angel, a Unitarian Universalist who has gone before and who watches over you in your ministry. Let their identity slowly be revealed to you.  They have a message for you.  Open up and listen for your message.

Your younger you and your UU guardian angel are very proud of you.  They trust you and appreciate the work you are doing.  You bring them honor.  Sit with that for a moment.

Know that you can return here any time. You may come back for new answers or to reaffirm the feelings you have just received. Thank those that came to you this day. Acknowledge the feelings that are part of you. Hold dear your sense of instinct and intuition. They are the conscious source of this intuition. Allow them to become part of your life.

Get ready to leave this place you created. It is your sacred place now and you will return often to gather more information for your life.

Walk back through the opening, back down the long pathway. You may be moving slightly more quickly now, Anxious to awaken with your new sense of yourself, anxious to see how this will become part of your life. Your breathing may become quicker. Notice your breathing.

Your soul vapor is hovering above your body.  It has taken on the image of your body, but in vapor form. Thank your good body for holding you and for being your vessel into this world.  Let your soul vapor melt into your body and merge into one.

When you are ready, take a deep breath and come back.  Open your eyes when you are ready.