Clergy find rest and renewal on mini-sabbaticals

A hiker stands next to a sign that reads "Congratluations! you made it, pilgrims! Welcome"
The Rev. Maria Nightingale at the end of her pilgrimage on the Camino Nova Scotia in October.
 on November 30, 2022

Program helps leaders recharge after pandemic

Clergy in the Diocese of Toronto are starting to take some much-deserved rest after two and a half years of pandemic, thanks in part to a project initiated by the College of Bishops.

The mini-sabbatical program was announced in a letter to the diocese from Bishop Andrew Asbil on June 24. “Pastoring congregations and maintaining community through the pandemic took a significant toll on the mental, physical and spiritual health of our clergy. The College of Bishops believes that every cleric – priest and deacon – is in need of a Sabbath rest,” he wrote.

Every cleric currently serving in an appointment in the diocese who worked a minimum of 12 months between March 2020 and June 2022 is entitled to 10 days of paid sabbatical, including one Sunday. The days must be taken when the liturgical colour is green (during “ordinary time”) before Aug. 31, 2023. Clergy have the option of taking all 10 days at once or dividing them up.

The Rev. Canon Susan Climo, incumbent of Holy Spirit of Peace in Mississauga, may have been one of the first to apply for a mini-sabbatical when she decided to take some days of rest in August. “I tried to think of various things that would feed me and tried to do a little bit of each thing,” she says. “I appreciated what the bishops said about it being different for everybody – that there is no one-size-fits-all for what the mini-sabbatical will be able to offer people.”

She spent a day at a spa to take care of her body and two more resting at home to refresh and revitalize herself. She also invited a close friend to visit, wanting to respond to the sense of isolation she’d felt during the pandemic. They spent a day at St. John’s Convent, joining the Sisters for mid-day Eucharist and taking the opportunity to walk the labyrinth. “I’d been raving about it to him for years and I wanted to share it with him,” says Canon Climo. “We talked a bit about what our experience of the past couple years had been like for us, about our hopes for the future and what we had learned from the time we had spent in pandemic.”

On the Sunday morning, she decided to visit her home Lutheran parish, reuniting with people she’d known for years and being a participant in worship rather than leading it herself. “It’s nice to be able to lose myself completely in that moment of worship; it’s a real gift that I received,” she says.

The lay leaders at Holy Spirit of Peace enthusiastically supported Canon Climo in taking her mini-sabbatical. They decided to use the morning prayer rite provided by the diocese, including a pre-recorded sermon from Bishop Asbil. “They actually quite appreciated the opportunity and relished the chance to lead worship,” says Canon Climo. “It just models beautifully the fact that liturgy is the work of the people, and there’s no reason why members of the parish cannot be key actors in leading worship and crafting worship.”

As she and her parish move from one phase of the pandemic to a new reality, she says she greatly appreciated the opportunity to rest. “I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I was both physically and mentally drained by the years of COVID-19,” she says. “It’s not like it was a week or two; it was a long haul. It really did tax me in so many different ways.”

Some clerics, like the Rev. Maria Nightingale, have decided to travel during their mini-sabbaticals. Ms. Nightingale, the associate priest at St. Peter, Erindale, decided to use her 10 days in early October to walk the Camino Nova Scotia, a week-long pilgrimage organized by the Atlantic School of Theology. She and nine other pilgrims walked 110 kilometres from Grand-Pré to Annapolis Royal, N.S.

“It was absolutely marvellous. I was really grateful that the bishops came up with this program, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to entertain doing this pilgrimage. I’d been wanting to go on pilgrimage for about five years,” she says. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s been going on, and I was getting to the point of feeling just exhausted. This was a really good time of renewal.”

Like Canon Climo, she says she’s glad that the program is open to any kind of sabbatical experience a cleric might need. “For me, walking in nature has been the way I’ve kind of survived the pandemic. That’s my way of recharging, of praying, of meditating,” she says. “I did not take my computer with me, I didn’t check my email, I wasn’t reporting on Facebook what I did every day. It was a complete time apart.”

Her most profound revelation came on the last day of the pilgrimage. She recalls that she started her experience sure that God would give her clarity about the next steps in her ministry. “The last day of walking, it was extremely foggy in the morning. You couldn’t see five metres ahead of you,” she says.

Fog up ahead on the path.

Though initially disappointed to miss what was supposed to be the most beautiful part of the pilgrimage, she decided to incorporate the fog into her reflections as she walked. “I realized that the fact that I didn’t have any more clarity about what’s next didn’t matter, that the fact that it was foggy and I couldn’t see the path didn’t matter. I just needed to trust that the path was there, that I had the instructions that I needed, and that eventually the fog would clear. When I didn’t have to be anxious about when the fog was going to clear, I could focus on the beauty of what was up close in front of me.”

The fog on the trail did, in fact, clear, and Ms. Nightingale says she’s carrying that lesson into her ministry as she jumps back into parish life and deadlines.

Canon Climo also hopes to bring aspects of her mini-sabbatical into her ongoing ministry. “That’s always the challenge, making these once-in-a-lifetime experiences last beyond their expiration date. I think probably the one that will be the most manageable for me is to remember the tremendous resource that we have in the convent here in the diocese,” she says. “Just that separation, that entering into the rhythm of their life there and their prayer and their silence is restorative for me.”

She says she hopes her colleagues will make plans for their mini-sabbaticals before too long. “I realize how hard it is for many clerics to see their way clear. There just seem to be so many things – the to-do list keeps getting longer and longer,” she says. “I would encourage them to be brave and to start the conversation with their leaders. I certainly hope they will find that there is great support.”

Ms. Nightingale echoes that idea. “If you don’t look after yourself and take that time to rest and renew, it will be more detrimental to your parish than just continuing to slog along,” she says. “We are in a different place than we were two and a half years ago, and we need the strength to keep going and to figure out how to keep going during this time.”

For her part, Canon Climo planned to use the rest of her sabbatical days in November to visit the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Mass., something she’s always wanted to do. “I love the rhythm of monastic life. I love the regularity of prayer, and I think that’s what will be a highlight for me,” she says. “I don’t need to accomplish anything while I’m there other than to be restored. I’m sure that the Spirit will lead me in the direction I need to go to have that happen.”

More details about the mini-sabbatical program, including the morning prayer rite and a sermon from Bishop Asbil, can be found on the Clergy Leaves page of the diocesan website.


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