This winter I am taking a period of Extended Study Leave.
Stipendiary clergy in the Diocese of Southwark are invited to take a period of three months once every roughly seven years. Although it is not quite seven years since I took my last one, the imminent arrival of a full-time curate in June/July 2014 means it makes sense to both me and the bishop to bring that time away forward a few months. Details on the curate will hopefully be made public very soon!
A lot of people have asked me “what are you going to do?” It’s a sensible and reasonable question to ask but, for me, at this stage of my ministry and life, it is not the right question. Instead, “who do I want to become?” has been a much more important and resonant question to explore. Let me explain.
Those of you who have begun to get to know me reasonably well will know that I like to get things done. I enjoy being busy, dreaming up knew ideas about taking forward God’s vision for St Mary’s, building links with our local community and parishioners, and generally working hard for the good of the church at a local and a wider level. I am an activist who generally likes to achieve things, often for the best of reasons. I like to be busy about God’s work and am always keen to work hard to see people and our church grow.
But in all my passion for growth and good outcomes, I’ve become aware that I’m not always as God- and people-centred as I could be. As one person put it recently, perhaps I’m a little too much “the Vicar” and not quite enough “Simon”. I think that is a fair and accurate observation and one it is time to explore, with the gift of time that is a sabbatical. So I’m going to spend the majority of time in my three months study leave with few goals and few measurable outcomes. Instead, I’m just going to ‘be’ and see what God has to reveal to me about himself and about myself. Of course, there will naturally be a little bit of structure: I’m going to begin with an eight day guided retreat with the Jesuits at St Beuno’s in North Wales (where the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins was based); I may well take the opportunity to have a little psychotherapy or more regular spiritual direction. At the end of the time, before returning to full-time ministry, I’ll also be taking a longer holiday than normal ministry constraints allow.
I’m still going to be based at the Vicarage for much of the time. So please, if you see me, don’t be afraid to say hello and have a chat: but I’ll be doing so as “Simon” and not “the Vicar”. During the period of my study leave (1st January – 12th April 2014), the Church Wardens have the final say about important matters of church life, and the sacramental and pastoral ministry will be led by Revd. Peter Wintgens and the wider Ministry Team. Some Sundays will be covered by visiting clergy. I have every confidence that they will, together, lead the parish through these three months. I will re-join you for the celebration of Holy Week and Easter.
Please pray for me during my sabbatical. I am acutely aware that this time off is a special gift not available to many of you in other walks of life. Yet, with God’s blessing, this gift of time is potentially a gift to St Mary’s as well, and I trust I will return not only rested and eager to serve the people of our wonderful church and parish with my customary energy, but perhaps also with new understandings of myself and other people, to the enrichment of us all.