Preparing for a sabbatical study leave

Jamie Howison is in the final stages of preparation for a two month sabbatical study leave, set to commence on January 1, 2011. What follows here  is a bit of an overview as to his plan, along with a bit of a reflection as to the nature and timing of this particular leave.


hough the roots of the word “sabbatical” are clearly set in a faith context – drawing on the notion of sabbath time and observance that permeates the Hebrew scriptures – it is generally university and college professors who have sabbatical leaves built into their academic careers. For many parish clergy the idea of actually taking a leave from church ministry to do a focused piece of study seems an impossibility. In part that is because clergy can fall into the trap of thinking that we are utterly indispensable, which might be the best reason of all for actually taking a sabbatical leave.

I began to plan toward my upcoming leave back in the summer of 2009, when a friend suggested I take a look at the sabbatical grants offered by the Louisville Institute. The timing of the application process was such that if I was going to take a leave in the winter of 2011, I’d have to have my detailed application completed by early September 2009, and so I quickly went into gear. The materials were submitted in due time, and in December 2009 I received word that my grant proposal had been approved. The study project is entitled “God’s Mind in the Music: theological explorations through the music of John Coltrane,” and you can take a look at my  proposal summary on the Louisville site. I have to admit that the project is already evolving a bit thanks to all of my preliminary reading.

What the grant is allowing me to do is to base myself in New York City for the month of January, working as a scholar in residence at the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary and at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. I also have a series of interviews with writers, theologians and musicians lined up, and will be able to hear a lot of live jazz music. A whole lot.

When I spoke to James Cone, one of the leading theologians of the black church, he told me that if I wanted to do justice to my project I would need to worship in an African-American context and so my month in New York will find me worshipping in a wide array of church settings. That alone will make my month in New York a perspective-expanding one.

The month of February will find me transitioning to the Collegeville Institute, a unique retreat centre for writers located at St John’s Abbey in Minnesota. I will basically have that full month to take all of my research and begin to shape it into a draft for a proposed book. Of course, during that month I will anchor my prayer life with the monks of St John’s Abbey, giving this part of the leave a distinctly Benedictine flavour.

As for the timing of this study leave, several things came into play. Firstly, we have now entered into our seventh year as a church community, which marks a good time in the cycle of ministry for a sabbatical. Secondly, though I’ve been able to take a couple of shorter two-week leaves over the 23 years of my ordained ministry, I’ve never before been in a place where an extended leave was something that I could practically manage. And this January finds me turning 50, which is a different kind of a life marker.

I recently came across an article that caused me to do a bit of thinking about this whole proposal. Called “The Dark Side of Sabbatical“, the article outlined some of the potential pitfalls of a pastoral leader heading out on a sabbatical leave. As I read the article, I realized that I didn’t really have much to worry about in our context. Not only am I not off looking for another ministry post (one of the fears congregations sometimes harbour when the pastor goes on leave), but I have complete confidence in the wider leadership of saint benedict’s table. And the things that I will learn and integrate during these months will bring me back refreshed and invigorated, just in time to move into the season of Lent and toward Holy Week and Easter.

And while I’ll be posting weekly updates during my time away, I will do everything I can to not try to manage or provide pastoral leadership via the internet. The cell phone will stay at home, my e-mail program will send back replies letting people know that I’m away and giving contact information for the interim, and for two months I will mark a different rhythm of life, study and prayer.

I so appreciate the willingness of our saint ben’s leadership to not only approve this sabbatical, but also to share in my enthusiasm for its importance in my – and our – ministry.

Jamie Howison

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