On Sabbatical

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

The passing of time toward my own sabbatical season has taught me a lot about myself, and provided a reminder both of my own strengths and weaknesses.

In February, after four and a half years of campus ministry, University Mennonite Church approved of a three-month sabbatical break from my work leading 3rd Way Collective at Penn State. I was surprised by how deeply I felt the impact of this congregational decision on my life and thought process. In the hours, days, and weeks since then I’ve experienced a wide variety of emotions.

I felt deeply fortunate that I was offered this kind of unique opportunity that few people will ever receive. I felt gratitude to be employed by a congregation that sees value in providing sabbatical time to its clergy. I felt lament that many of my peers in campus ministry will burn out before they are ever offered a sabbatical time of rest. I felt concern that I wasn’t sure how to live out a sabbatical, and fear that my identity as a busy community participant would be lost during a three month break from that role.

Almost immediately I also felt a weight of responsibility to make sure I made the most of this time. Rather than scheming about my own personal selfcare, contemplation, and reflection, my first impulse was to think about how to actively fill up my time. I started to imagine long winding road trips with our family, imagined how many craft breweries I could visit in three months, how many minor league baseball games I could get to, how many miles I could put on my bicycle, or how many friends I could visit across the country. I imagined writing a compelling book about my first five years of campus ministry. I thought about long solo hikes and camping trips. Before I knew it I had more ideas than space on my calendar.

This process reminded me of just how much of my identity is defined by the things I do, and how busy I have become. I fall into the trap of many clergy persons… being busy provides me with a strange sense of productivity, and that busyness is affirmed and congratulated in different ways by the people I interact. I remember running into the Mayor of State College during one of my first years on the job. She greeted me and then remarked that it seemed like I was doing a better job showing up in community spaces than she was. She marveled at how busy I must be, and I took that as a sign that I was becoming successful in my new role. Rather than hearing her words as a warning that I might be doing too much, I chose to double down and do even more, saying yes whenever possible, to continue to receive positive affirmation that the work I was doing was valuable.

It should go without saying, but sabbatical cannot be about busyness.

During these three months I have no one to report to. I have no responsibility to be proving my value through how busy I am, or how much I put on the calendar. And in fact, if the past five years have taught me anything, it is that doing less, actually allows me to do and be better. This probably all sounds like common knowledge, but for a person who has found affirmation in being busy, some of these simple truths must be said out loud as a reminder.

Over the next three months of rest, I hope I can continue to come back to this nugget of truth – that my value cannot be found in over-working, but must begin and be shaped by rest and the reminder that stepping away and saying no is just as important.


Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

At last summer’s National Campus Ministry Association conference attendees focused on a quote from Mother Theresa which reads, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” It is a compelling quote for a moment in time where our global connectivity can makes the scope of need feel paralyzing for those who want to make a better world.

My own work as a Mennonite campus minister at a large state school can include moments of paralysis when I take in the scope of need on the Penn State campus. During my short time here I have recognized a pressing need to create spaces for students to feel a sense of belonging. I’ve also become aware of the increasing political polarization, heightened intolerance toward students from underrepresented communities, and an increased awareness that our campus and community are struggling to respond to the mental health needs, substance abuse problems, economic inequality, and ongoing sexual violence experienced in our community. Needless to say, solutions to these problems feel unattainable, especially for a single campus minister or campus ministry.

My own reflection on this Mother Theresa quote has reminded me that when the challenges have felt overwhelming, slowing down to listen to the needs of my community and where God is leading me ends up starting the process of creating those first ripples.

My arrival at Penn State in the fall of 2014 coincided with the rise in awareness about racial injustice, and a visible #BlackLivesMatter movement here on our campus. I approached this moment with some pause. After all, what could I offer to hurting students as a person of heightened privilege – a middle class, white, straight, Christian male? I approached a young student at one of the early rallies and asked if my presence was appropriate. With a smile he told me it was more than appropriate, it was essential. And the task he had for me was a simple one – just stand next to the students offering your presence as a way to support. I had assumed that I may not be needed, and expected that if I was needed my task would be overwhelming. What I found that the first ripple toward a better future was a small step, like casting a small stone. This movement, and the many small stones cast by our community, has lead to powerful changes in how our community understands racial injustice. It has led to the creation of campus-wide efforts to break down intolerance, launched student and community organizations focusing on racism in our community, and started down a path toward cultural change. None of these transformative moments would have been possible with these small first steps.

Within my first months on campus I also met several LGBTQ Christian students who lamented that while their Christian identity was welcomed by their peers in the spiritual center, their sexual or gender identity was often not. Similarly, in the LGBTQ center, their sexual or gender identity was affirmed while their faith commitment was often not. They needed people to come alongside them as they created Receiving with Thanksgiving, Penn State’s first LGBTQ Christian Network. It didn’t take much effort – just a willingness to stand up for those who were feeling marginalized, and in doing so, join the Spirit’s movement in my community.

This first ripple in my campus ministry with these Christian LGBTQ students led to many others. My participation in this Spirit movement – what I like to call that first “ripple” – with the creation of Receiving with Thanksgiving meant that I was invited to preside over a communion service in their early worship services. This led to an invitation – a second ripple – to officiate at a funeral when one student passed away (with the family acknowledging that I provided a pastoral presence for their child who did not have an affirming church home). Awareness of my willingness to participate in the funeral of an LGBTQ student led to an invitation – a third ripple – to officiate at a same-gendered wedding for two young women who were struggling to find a clergy person in central Pennsylvania willing to enter into their lives in that way. I helped empower these same Receiving with Thanksgiving students to offer a transgender clothing exchange – forth ripple – as a way to meet the needs of a vulnerable community as they enter their personal transitions. A fifth ripple appeared last year when a student invited me to preside over their transgender renaming ceremony using biblical illustrations and metaphors for that moment in this student’s life. This past spring our Penn State LGBTQ center permanently established a transgender clothing exchange (sixth ripple) and this fall will offer a limited number of clergy hours in their physical space for spiritual direction and mentoring (seventh ripple).

I do not know where the next ripples of the Spirit’s movement in my work will come from, but I am convinced that choosing to walk alongside the people who are in need of a spiritual presence in their lives is a way to take that first step. I arrived on campus with many lofty dreams of how I might make an impact, but few of these practical moments and possibilities were in the range of my imagination and hope. It was only after taking those first small steps that the the ripples began to form, and I was able to join the work of God’s Spirit in my context.

Arguing With Church Signs

Campus Pastor Ben is on Sabbatical from May 1st through July 31st during the summer of 2019. He will occasionally be posting blog reflections of that time right here

On May 1st I (Ben) began a three month sabbatical from my job as the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State University. I spent my first day of intentional rest taking a long ride on my bicycle. Some may not find riding for miles and miles to be very restful, but I find the pedal rotations, rolling hills, and winding journey, to be an incredibly soothing experience for my soul.

Only a few miles into my ride I passed a church with a large roadside sign. You know the type – a bright white background with movable type so that the message can be changed depending on the season (or the local minister’s sense of church humor), illuminated day or night so that everyone takes notice as they pass by. This one said in all caps, “THE TEN COMMANDMENTS ARE NOT MULTIPLE CHOICE.”

The pace of my bicycle gave me plenty of time to read it and have it sink in. I’m embarrassed to admit that my first reaction was an impulsive anger directed at that congregation. My work at Penn State revolves around faith-based peace and social justice, and the primary group of students I interact with are those who have been hurt by the legalism of religious spaces. Statements like the one on that church sign reminded me of how damaging it can be when legalism becomes the center of our faith, and why a more nuanced interpretation of scripture is crucial if churches have any hope of remaining relevant for young adults. I thought about the students I know who have felt rejection from the church for the way they understand scripture, God, or themselves, and I wondered how many of them had experienced the Ten Commandments being used as a litmus test for whether they belong or not. I wondered if this congregation had any sense that their church sign may be objectionable – even to their fellow Christians. I considered the hypocrisy of well-intended church signs which rarely reflect the actual practice of the congregations they represent.

I also began to have an imaginary argument in my head with the pastor of that congregation. I wondered how that person would react if I challenged whether they were actually able to literally live up to the high standard set by those commands. I wondered if they would admit that even the most arduous rules and regulations may need to be broken if it means more fully and authentically living out our call to love God and love our neighbor. I wanted to ask them how someone who had been abused by their parents should show them “honor” (Commandment 4), how their enlisted congregants were dealing with killing on the battlefield (Commandment 5), or whether it was ever justified for someone to take back what had been taken from them (Commandment 7). I reasoned that while it is important to consider the history and tradition tied to this part of the Hebrew Bible, even my Jewish colleagues would argue that people of faith must wrestle with the text and with what it means to follow God. After all, wasn’t even Jesus guilty of breaking the Sabbath?

It took me several miles to realize how much of a hold that church sign had on my mental energy. I realized that five years of intense work trying to stand up for those who have been marginalized, rejected, or underappreciated, has made me into a cynical and critical person who is unable to take a church sign lightly. The fire that burns inside of me to create a better world also makes me unable to roll by a church sign without getting into a meaningless argument with no one in particular. While it is true that my commitment to faith-based peace and justice is an important part of who I am and those I serve, perhaps it is also something that is so tightly wound around who I am that I have become crippled by its hold on how I move about the world.

My hope is that these three months of sabbatical time can be used to rest and reflect, and just a few days in I am wondering what parts of my vocational identity and calling may also need time to rest and disengage.

By the end of my bike ride I had started to make peace with the sign. I reminded myself that if I really cared about the statement the sign was making, a best practice would be to arrange for a meeting with the leaders of that congregation. I chuckled to myself about how unlikely that was during these three months of rest, and realized in that moment that I had found a sense of peace in that moment. For now, I am letting go of my own attachment and connection to that sign, and whatever theological rationale that may be tied to it. During my time of rest, I am more acutely aware of my own need to let go of things, and for the moment at least, pass them by.

My bike route passed by that same church on the way home, but by that time, just a few hours later, the church sign had already been changed to reflect some upcoming special services. Something that was of the utmost importance of my mental energy earlier in the day had been quietly replaced. Even though it has been removed from the visible landscape, the memory will live on through my sabbatical as a reminder for me to slow down and hold things a little lighter.