When pastoral leadership overwhelms life… Finding overwhelming love in healthy sabbath


Sandy Drescher-Lehman, sdlehman@soudertonmennonite.org
Associate Pastor, Souderton (PA) Mennonite Church

As I anticipated the three months of sabbatical leave from my position and relationships at Souderton Mennonite Church, my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t come back. I loved my work, and it had begun to consume all of me. Even when I did go home, all I could think to do was to check my church messages and emails or go to sleep, exhausted. Even my spiritual director was showing signs of frustration because everything I learned translated immediately into how I could use it in ministry, instead of spending time in my love relationship with God. When I expressed my fear of not returning to Souderton’s lead pastor Gerry Clemmer, he encouraged me to not think about it for the first 2 months, and then begin praying about it in August, and we’d talk about the answer God was giving when I came back in September.

The first week in June, I had planned a three-day silent retreat, wondering if I could still do such a thing. I hadn’t been alone with God for this long since becoming a mother. When I stepped into the little hermitage that had been prepared for my arrival, I fell onto the sofa and wept for hours, feeling completely empty. I felt God’s overwhelming love holding me like the dependent child I let myself be.

The next day I met with the spiritual director at the retreat center and told her of my fear of not going back to Souderton Mennonite if I really let go. She gave me an empty bowl, instructing me to hold it like the beggar’s bowl–open to God filling it, as He will with all I need, at the right time.

In June the gift God put into my bowl was the knowledge that whether or not I’m working at a church, on sabbatical, or get paid for it, I will always be a pastor. That is who I am and I love it! I spent much of June with my extended family, in the roles of daughter (taking care of my parents when my mother got very sick), sister (unhurried time with my siblings and their families), aunt (marrying my niece, with my Dad), and as a niece myself (having an anointing for my aunt and leading a worship service for the whole Keener clan). Even as I let go of my official pastor identity, I still knew myself to be a pastor, and it felt good. I also felt my role of wife and mother returning to our family in a renewed way, and that was good too.

God added to that gift, much earlier than I expected, the assurance that the perfect place to be a pastor right now, is Souderton Mennonite. I have been given freedom there to explore and use my gifts for worship and pastoral care in a way that feels empowering and allows me to pass that encouragement on to others. There has been enough challenge to not become complacent and enough affirmation to keep glowing! There is an appreciation for the kind of creative energy I like to share and an understanding that our goal is to learn through our differences and affirm each other with them. Increasingly, it’s a church without walls and I’m free to bless many kinds of people.

In July our family retraced, backwards, the route John and I did on bicycles 21 years ago, on the coastal road between San Francisco and Seattle. It was an unstructured time of reading, exploring beaches and tidal pools, solitude, discovering coffee shops, cooking leisurely dinners together, and being as spontaneous as one family can be! Psalm 8 was put into my bowl, many times during that trip.

Another gift God put into my bowl that month, was to address something I’ve struggled with my whole life. I often wrestle with how I can give thanks to God for all the blessings I have in my safe, nurturing, fairly healthy, and peaceful life, when so many in the world don’t have that. It’s a spiritual, emotional, and social dilemma that came back as my family planned to spend more money than we ever had before, on just us. One day I found this prayer that changed my life as I continued to ponder it:

May I enjoy safety.
May good things happen to me.
May I live in health.
May I rest in peace.
May you enjoy safety.
May good things happen to you.
May you live in health.
May you rest in peace.
May all creation enjoy safety.
May good things happen to all things.
May all live in health.
May all rest in peace.

It became clear to me that while I need to hold the tension of the injustices in the world, I’m not being blessed with anything God didn’t intend for everyone. Withholding my appreciation adds one more dark blot on the earth instead of the burst of celebration and gratitude I could be emitting! I was given a huge gift with this realization.

August was full with solitude and relationship building with important people in my life that I haven’t given enough time to in the busyness of my work. I visited churches where my favorite pastors serve and enjoyed the similarities and differences in how we love God and His people in the same community.

God filled my bowl to overflowing, with an eagerness to return to Souderton congregation, and a commitment to working hard and passionately, but not let it take over all of me again.