Beliefnet
Mark D. Roberts

Part 5 of series: Why Move? Stewardship, Wineskins, and the Enigmatic Will of God
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As I explained in my last post, in the early part of 2006 I looked forward to my pending sabbatical as a time for seeking God’s direction for how best to use my gifts for His purposes. My three month sabbatical would provide an occasion to wrestle with the question of stewardship in an intentional and relaxed way.
My time away began on April 17, 2006. Shortly thereafter I began seeing a spiritual director named Doug. He was a wise, mature Christian who had received training in helping people pay attention to God’s activity and direction in their lives. Spiritual directors do not actually direct those who meet with them, contrary to what the name might suggest. Rather, they help people discover and discern God’s direction for their lives. With Doug’s assistance, I sought to work on my stewardship question. I hoped he might help me identify God’s leading from among my own confused inklings. Was my desire to focus more on writing and leadership a reflection of God’s direction? Was it a matter of faithful stewardship? Or was it simply an implication of my laziness, or my unwillingness to do tasks that I didn’t relish? Questions like these were the focus of my regular meetings with Doug.
lucado-sweet-spotEarly in my sabbatical a publisher sent me a book that was soon to be released. It was written by the best-selling author Max Lucado, and was called, Cure for the Common Life: Living in Your Sweet Spot. The timing of the arrival of this book was truly providential because it spoke directly to the very things I was trying to sort out. Lucado explained that God has created each of us as unique beings, and our uniqueness fits us perfectly with a certain kind of ministry in the world. Finding and doing this ministry is “living in your sweet spot.” That was exactly what I was looking for in my own life. What was the “sweet spot” God had intended for me?
During my sabbatical in 2006 I didn’t have any flashes of insight about my future. No “road to Damascus” events for me. I did have experiences that helped me to know that, though I wanted to do more writing in my life, I didn’t want to be only a writer. Ditto with itinerant speaking. I came to see clearly that being part of a ministry team helped me use my gifts well. So, at the end of my sabbatical, I returned to Irvine Pres refreshed and ready to see how my job at church might be reconfigured to align with my unfolding sense of calling. Curiously and sagely, my spiritual director wondered if God might have something new for me to do, but he didn’t denigrate my new-found enthusiasm for church. He simply urged me to remain open to God with “patient eagerness.”
When I got back to church, I was pleased to discover that the Session and staff had worked hard to begin to reconfigure my job and our staff alignment. Now I would supervise only four people directly, who would in turn supervise the rest of the program staff. This allowed me to focus my efforts for greater effectiveness. I felt grateful for how seriously my fellow leaders had taken what I had said to them a few months earlier. I still had plenty to do, but as I told my Session, “Before I went on sabbatical I felt as if I was drowning. Now I’m able to tread water. I’d still like to be able to swim forward, but treading water is a whole lot better than drowning!”
During the fall of 2006, I met individually with my elders, talking in detail about my hopes for a refocused job that would allow me to be a better steward of my gifts. The elders were supportive, and were willing to engage in a process of discernment in the months ahead. They were rightly concerned about what would be best for the church, and I encouraged them in this concern. But we sensed together that there could be a coming together of vision, need, and giftedness. Good stewardship of my gifts could very well be good stewardship of Irvine Presbyterian Church’s resources and mission. This seemed to bode well for my future at the church. Moreover, I appreciated the sense of partnership and support I felt as I talked with my elders.
As I think back on the events of 2006, I continue to be grateful for my sabbatical. Even though I ended up leaving Irvine Pres just a year after I finished my sabbatical, I think the church got a reasonable return on its investment in me. My preaching was never stronger than in my last year. And, though my conversations with the Session about the future turned out not to impact my role at the church, those discussions helped the elders prepare for the crucial process of clarifying the church’s mission, so that they can call the right person as the next pastor. Of course they also helped me come to understand what God was saying to me.
I realize that most folks aren’t given the gift of a sabbatical. But all of us can, if we make appropriate choices, build into our lives the kind of rest that refreshes us and helps us discern God’s will with greater clarity. When I’m caught up in a flurry of activity, I’m not especially attentive to God. Hearing God’s voice requires an extended time of quiet and solitude. At least that’s true for me. I think I’m not alone in this need, however, because Jesus Himself often took times away for quite and prayer. If He needed it, so do we all!
I didn’t receive any heavenly visions during my sabbatical. In fact, I came back to Irvine Pres with new energy and hope for my role there. During my sabbatical I didn’t have even one conversation with any potential new employer, and had no intention of pursuing such a conversation when I climbed back into the pastoral saddle. But my time of rest, including wise input from folks like my spiritual director, Doug, my wife, other trusted counselors, and a book by Max Lucado, helped me to be in a new place of attentiveness to God, even though I never dreamed where this would lead to in my life. In the fall of 2006, Texas was nowhere near the horizon of my future as I envisioned it.
But, of course, God had other plans. I’ll begin to discuss these in my next post.

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