by Rev. Veranita Alvord, pastor of Morehead UMC
No kidding. The obscure paragraph regarding “Spiritual Growth Program” in the Book of Discipline I learned about in Tom Frank’s UM Polity Class at Candler School of Theology saved my life. In 2000, we had a 2 year old daughter. Born on Christmas Eve, poor girl – double preacher’s kid and in a lifelong no-win competition with the Baby Jesus.
My husband, Joe Tarpley, was finishing his M.Div. at Emory, commuting back and forth while serving a church in Lake Norman. I was serving as the Associate Pastor at a church in Charlotte. There was going to be a change in Senior Pastor. Due to my understanding of how congregations sometimes triangulate the Associate against the Senior Pastor, I thought, “this will be a great time for a renewal leave…what was that paragraph??”
Not to mention— I was struggling with depression, striving to understand the ramifications of being a missionary kid while trying to be a good parent. “No. I don’t want to put on our daughter the messages of perfection. Yet, the tyrannical messages of perfection operate me…how can I operate differently? A rest. A renewal. That is the thing I need. That is the thing that will save my life and make it possible for me to continue even-keeled, right-sized, with the advent of a new colleague. Let him have the space he needs to adjust to a new place without me and let me have the space to continue to forge a different parenting path. I need to take some deep breaths without the daily demands of work and parenting.” No one ever told me that competing goods in one’s life create the most tension. It’s not the clear choices between wrong and right that are fodder for the daily struggle, it’s the competition between inherent goods like parenting and pastoring that provide the iron which sharpens the iron.
Three weeks. Only. That’s what I asked for. To sort papers. To organize the house. To visit my seminary friend in Atlanta who had just gained certification as an Art Therapist. To work with her on my childhood struggles. To visit a wise Presbyterian woman pastor who was forging her way on her own terms. I needed to learn from her as well.
Asking for something like this was foreign to me…it felt like a “big ask,” “too much,” “too indulgent.” Yet, I needed it. I knew it would save my life. I had read enough Henri Nouwen to believe that time away actually strengthens a person for longevity in pastoral ministry. Time away actually allows one to nurture the relationship with the One…you know the One. Asking for renewal doesn’t make one weak. This, I tried to believe, against the driving, perfectionist tendencies I was used to. A renewal would do just that, make it possible for me to go on. “Once every four years,” the Disciplinary paragraph 350.2 reads exactly; “A clergy member’s continuing education and spiritual growth program shall include professional formation leaves at least one week each year and may include at least one month during one year of every quadrennium.”
And believe it or not, now in my 23rd year of full-time pastoral ministry in the local church, I’ve tried to renew myself regularly in one way or another. Keeping some form of renewal going. For three weeks…more, even…so that I might go on to continue to strive to be faithful and to spend time with the One who longs to save me and set me free.