Escaping the daily grind for a spell is good for anybody’s soul. For members of the clergy, time spent away from ministerial duties can sometimes be, well, a godsend.
At the end of April the Presbyterian Church of Jackson Hole’s Rev. Ben Pascal — along with his young family — embarked on a three-month sabbatical to four foreign countries. He is using the time for rest, renewal, reflection and more.
In fact, the word “sabbatical” has its roots in the biblical concept of Sabbath: to “rest” or “cease.”
“I love my job as a pastor,” Pascal said. “I don’t know where I’d be in my life without this community and this church, but at the same time it’s exhausting, and it takes a toll on the family, too.”
Not all denominations require their pastors to take a sabbatical. For those that do a preacher is generally eligible for a leave of absence every seven years. This is Pascal’s ninth year with the Presbyterian church here and his first sabbatical.
“Sabbaticals are encouraged in our profession and denomination,” said the Rev. Tammy Mitchell, Pascal’s associate pastor. “We believe it’s biblical to take a season of rest and be able to focus on one’s growth and spiritual walk. Growing spiritually does not happen by accident, but rather involves intentional time to read, pray, find solitude and rest.”
Without a renewal leave, Mitchell believes, there is a chance that pastors will, over time, experience burnout, exhaustion, cynicism or depression. It’s also important, she said, for the member of the congregation to not become too overly dependent on one pastor and to also see themselves as important entities in the life of the church.
The Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program provides grants to churches and clergy to fund sabbatical journeys. In 2018, Lilly awarded grants to 148 congregations in 33 states and the District of Columbia. Pascal is the only award recipient of the grant in Wyoming for 2018-19.
“I feel like a trailblazer in Jackson as the first member of the clergy here to go on a sabbatical,” Pascal said.
The Rev. Jimmy Bartz of St. John’s Episcopal Church went on sabbatical five years ago before his move to Jackson in 2016, and Mitchell will be taking a sabbatical in 2020 as part of her “terms of call” agreement with the church.
“Another pastor’s sabbatical enriches the whole community, especially when they share some of their learning, their pearls of wisdom — there’s always such variety,” said the Rev. Inger Hanson of Shepherd of the Mountains Lutheran Church.
A pastor for a little more than three years, Hanson won’t be eligible for a sabbatical for 3 1/2 years.
“I’m excited for Ben and his congregation,” Hanson said. “It’s like a vicarious sabbatical for me. I suspect Jimmy’s past sabbatical is still giving him benefits, too.”
Ray McDaniel is the pastor at First Baptist, Jackson, a church that neither supports nor discourages clergy to take a sabbatical.
“As far as I know there is no rule of the American Baptist Church that would require a sabbatical,” McDaniel said.
If the other 10 elders at First Baptist felt McDaniel needed a sabbatical, he believes they would offer one to him. Conversely, if he and his wife, Tanya, felt the need to take one they would ask the elders.
“I have considered taking a writing sabbatical at some point to work on my doctoral dissertation,” McDaniel said. “We are not at that point right now.”
McDaniel is excited for Pascal and agrees with Hanson that another pastor’s renewal leave can enhance the community at large.
“I love Ben, and I look forward to hearing from him about his family’s time away,” McDaniel said. “I really appreciated the refreshing that Jimmy and his family experienced during their time on sabbatical.”
At home in the world
Pascal’s journey is taking him and his wife, Addie, and their three children — Nina, 9, Graham, 5, and Naomi, 4 — to Ethiopia, Rwanda, Croatia and Greece. Pascal said the sabbatical’s theme, as it were, embodies one verb for each country, respectively: explore, learn, play and rest.
“The verbs encompass what a sabbatical should be,” Pascal said. “You’re exploring, you’re learning new things, but you’re also playing and resting. Those four verbs work really well with kids, too. I mean what kid doesn’t like to explore and learn and play?”
Pascal summed up the overall character and purpose of the sabbatical as “At home in the world: explore, learn, play, rest.” While he is away, the Presbyterian Church is presenting a summer speaker series of the same name.
“I’m very busy as a pastor, and we want to have time together at home in the world,” he said. “We’re really passionate about what God is doing around the world. We live in a bit of a bubble here in Jackson and we want our kids to know more about the world — the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Pascal and Addie chose Ethiopia, Rwanda, Croatia and Greece because they are countries the couple have always wanted to visit, although they had been to Ethiopia before when they adopted Naomi. They saw some of the country then but felt it was important to go back now and several more times in the future so Naomi has a connection to where she was born, Pascal said.
Pascal’s sabbatical will last three months. The family will spend three weeks in Ethiopia, two weeks each in Rwanda and Croatia and 2 1/2 weeks in Greece. Pascal will also spend five days at the beginning of the trip and five days at the end on a silent retreat at a Benedictine monastery in California.
In addition to learning more about Naomi’s past in Ethiopia, Pascal said, the country has a “great, rich tradition of Christianity and we want to explore that.”
While visiting Rwanda the Pascals will spend time learning about forgiveness with Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga, a Roman Catholic priest the couple befriended during his frequent trips to Jackson. Rugirangoga survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed 800,000 people, including more than 80 members of his own family. He has since been preaching about forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation.
In Croatia the family will focus solely on playing. And although Greece represents the “rest” part of the sabbatical the family will spend the first few days in Athens, where Pascal intends to do a biblical tour of that city as well as one in Corinth.
Pascal is visiting the California coast hermitage in the beginning of the trip to prepare for it and connect with the Lord, he said. At the end of the international journey he hopes his time there will help him process it all.
“I will be staying in a very basic one-room cabin,” Pascal said. “I’ll go pray with the monks, take walks. Our lives are so noisy, so I am intrigued by the silent retreat, as I’ve never been on one and I’ve certainly never been silent for five days.”
Between the monastery and travel on both ends of the sabbatical there will be time for just Pascal and his wife to get away together. Addie Pascal’s parents cared for the kids on the front end of the trip in northern California while the couple visited wine country.
“My wife and I have always wanted to go to wine country in Napa Valley and do the winery tours,” Pascal said.
As the journey winds up in the Seattle area — which is where they’re both originally from — Pascal’s parents will hold down the fort with their grandchildren while the couple spend a few days up in the San Juan Islands.
“I hope the sabbatical will keep our family engaged with what it’s like to be a global citizen,” Ben Pascal said.
“And I hope it teaches me how to engage in these things on a more everyday basis: to explore and learn, rest and play every day, every week.”
Pascal also hopes to come back with different patterns, different daily routines.
“After three months away I will take a big picture of my life and my work,” he said. “I also expect to come back a different person — that something changes me and my wife and kids.”
Jimmy Bartz’s sabbatical in 2014 was different from Pascal’s on a number of levels, the first being he didn’t journey across the globe but instead chose to remain stateside. He also spent about half the time traveling by himself.
Five years ago Bartz was living in Los Angeles, a city he and his family had called home for 15 years. He had served as the associate rector of All Saints’ parish in Beverly Hills before starting an unconventional ministry called Thad’s, an emergent Episcopal Church in Santa Monica, California.
“My sabbatical lasted four months,” Bartz said, “and the focus was outdoors as sacred space and outdoor recreation as spiritual discipline.”
During the first month of the rector’s sabbatical he did three things. The first part took him to the East Coast, where he visited the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. While there he participated in Team Red, White and Blue, an organization that puts veterans and nonveterans like Bartz into groups to engage in exercise physiology to combat PTSD.
“It was an important part of sabbatical,” Bartz said. “I wanted to look at how running on a beach as a group, or hiking in a group — basically exercising outside as a group — helps facilitates both healing and relationship.”
Bartz then flew to Houston to spend time with Brené Brown, author and research professor at the University of Houston. Brown presented a landmark TEDTalk a decade ago called “The Power of Vulnerability” and has penned a number of books, including “Daring Greatly” and “Braving the Wilderness.”
“One of the things I was really focused upon during my sabbatical was this idea of outdoor recreation and spiritual discipline and how measured risk is a spiritual discipline and important to our spiritual growth,” Bartz said.
After briefly returning to LA he embarked on a solo road trip throughout the Southwest. While in New Mexico he especially enjoyed hanging out adjacent to a mountain valley ranch, a place where he had spent all his childhood summers.
“The valley is very similar to, but not as exaggerated as Jackson Hole,” Bartz said. “I really credit that experience as a child to getting the mountains in my blood, and that’s why I feel — and have felt for so long — at home here [in Jackson].”
After visiting New Mexico and Arizona, Bartz came back to LA for a week before he and his family took a monthlong trip to Hawaii, staying on the north shore of Kauai.
“The idea and focus there was just to do a little bit of yoga each day and catch at least one wave each day, too,” Bartz said. “It was incredibly relaxing, but toward the end of the trip we became a bit antsy, as we knew we were traveling to Jackson right after Hawaii.”
Jackson Hole was a familiar and longtime favorite vacation spot for the Bartzes. Choosing to spend a month here might have been coincidental — or it might have been divine intervention — because two years following his leave of absence the family moved to our corner of Wyoming.
While here Bartz, his wife and kids enjoyed all manner of outdoorsy pursuits. The pastor then had another month in the Tetons without his family. He spent the time camping, fly-fishing with friends and climbing the Grand, as well as taking part in a two-week NOLS course in the Wind River area before traveling back to California.
For Bartz the obvious takeaway from his sabbatical was that the “easiest access to the Divine comes from the outside in natural beauty,” he said.
“Riding your bike, fishing in the river or in one of our creeks or skiing at the resort or in the backcountry is a spiritual discipline, and I wish the traditional church would honor that more,” Bartz said. “I think we are doing a pretty good job of that at St. John’s — like, we get it here. Nobody moves to Jackson without the desire to be outside.”
Bartz said his monastery is the hills, and he purposely spent time in the mountains sleeping on the ground in a tent.
“My time was certainly not void of God and spirit, in fact quite the opposite — I was very infused with that,” Bartz said. “But I was meeting the God who lives outside in nature, not just the God who remains fixed in the church. I love both of them.”