I wrote this piece a couple of months ago at the close of my four-month intentional sabbath time between finishing my position as Interim Pastor at the Congregational Church of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and starting the new position where I am currently serving this spring as Sabbatical Pastor at United Parish in Brookline, Massachusetts while the Senior Pastor is away on his sabbatical.
I’m curious why its taken me a couple of months now to post this reflection on what I learned in those four months of my own “Reluctant Interim.” Perhaps, as I begin to look forward to the unknown possibilities of the summer, I want to remember what I learned in the unknown of last winter. Perhaps, it’s just that today seems the right day to remember what I learned and share it with you.
September, 2021. My term as interim pastor in Boothbay Harbor was coming to a close. It was my first interim pastor position and I’d learned a lot and really enjoyed it. Though I’d moved across the country 3000 miles to a coast I’d not lived by for 40 years, I liked being back in New England and had made good friends in the community. I would miss being here.
As I prepared for the new settled pastor and prepared to leave this place I’d called home for over a year and a half, I began to wonder what was next. I knew that before jumping into whatever that next chapter and position would be, it would be good to take a break, to have my own interim time for a couple of months.
It wasn’t that I was exhausted, worn out, burned out. No, in fact I was full of energy and clearer in my call and passion to walk with people through transitions. Instead, I knew I needed some time to let go of this congregation I had loved. I wanted time to put down the stories so I wouldn’t enter a new community getting the new congregation confused with this one.
I talked to my spiritual director about what I wanted from this, my own interim time. I wanted time to be outdoors, write, reflect on all I’d learned and how it had changed me, connect with family and friends. He heard the heart of what I wanted – time to reconnect, reground in the Spirit. That was it, so clear, so simple. I needed this time before whatever was to be next to be with God.
It’s funny how sometimes you can know so clearly what you need and yet can get so easily distracted and interrupted from actually doing what you know you need to do! For isn’t there something both enticing and terrifying about choosing time to connect with God – something so unfathomable, mysterious and open about what such a time offers. I’d always come to making a retreat for some “God time and God space” with some initial longing and joy and had it turn to sheer fear and trepidation as the time approached knowing that in a time like this all sorts of things come up.
So I was surprised and delighted a few weeks before my position was ending in Boothbay Harbor, to have a church reach out to me about a new interim possibility. I jumped onto scheduling an interview delighted at my good fortune to perhaps have found a position before I’d even left this one! The interview went well, they told me they’d be calling my references soon. I looked and relooked at my calendar for the fall negotiating with myself about when I would actually be willing to start. Maybe, I thought, I really just need a month or perhaps a few weeks. I pondered, What would be the least amount of time I could imagine needing? Wherever that “connecting to God” time that I’d talked about wanting had got condensed down to a manageable few weeks so I could get on to my next thing.
It wasn’t about money. I’d been saving for this time in-between and putting aside a bit month by month over the past year. I had enough to support my needs for several months at least. But what I wanted more than a paycheck, more than time with God, more even than what my heart knew I wanted and needed was certainty. The certainty of knowing what was next and avoiding this interim time of unknowing that I’d felt and said I needed. Now, that it approached, I wasn’t so sure.
It’s not that God cannot be present and come in the surprise of an opportunity that might be right where you need to be. But as I sat with this opportunity, I knew it wasn’t really a call, it was merely a way to avoid the deeper call I knew I wanted to follow.
There were two nagging problems about the possibility of this new position. Something about the idea of moving to this new community made me depressed and the Associate Conference Minister (ACM) who had a good read on my particular passion and gifts thought this position wouldn’t in fact be the best use of my gifts and desire for my next interim. I was so grateful. She’d reminded me what I wanted and had my best interest in mind. So grateful and so hard to heed however once I was off the phone with her.
I spent a week thinking of being someone other than myself with different passions and gifts than the ACM had reminded me were mine. Maybe I could do this – maybe this would be okay…. But then again there was this depression that wouldn’t lift when I thought of moving there, there were those turning words from the ACM that this place might not be the best fit for what I was looking for.
It took me a week to write back to the search committee and share what I knew was true and didn’t want to be. It wasn’t a good fit – not where I needed to be – not the right place. Again, its not that perhaps going there could not have been a good place but I found I was choosing it for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to go there to have the certainty I craved, for control, for having a position, for the delight in being wanted – none of which had staying power.
The deeper part of me, that older, wiser part of me knew I needed my own interim time in order to be with the God I needed to meet not in the certainty of a job but in the emptiness, space, time, unknowing where I have always found God. But how hard to choose that! I would have taken comfort, assurance, the certainty of a job any day over that!
The ACM had in mind another position that she thought would be a great fit and was opening soon. I dreamed my way right into moving there but I sensed from the interview that they had already found someone else they wanted. They had. I didn’t get the position.
All which thrust me right back where my friend Larry said he hoped I might end up – in the uncertainty and opportunity of my own interim time that I’d said I’d wanted all along.
In the four months of my “reluctant interim” last fall and early winter, I learned a lot. Grew a lot. Let go and opened, rested and played, was indeed re-grounded in the presence and imagination of God. I have a clearer and deeper sense of my call that led me to say yes to opportunities I never could have imagined months ago.
“You are going in the right direction, and you will end up right where you need to be,”my colleague Tom in Boothbay Harbor reminded me as I left. Along the way, I’d held close to the hope of his words and the trust he held for me.
A few months ago, I said yes to this position where I currently am serving, as Sabbatical Pastor at United Parish in Brookline, Massachusetts for a few months this spring. I said Yes to this position not to take away the uncertainty of the future. Not to fill my checking account again although this position will help do that; I still had a few more months of savings put away. I said yes to this position because it fits. Fits my best sense of the next and right step on the way, of God’s call, something I never would have known or been able to discern without the gift of the interim time this past fall and winter.
So a few notes, in the weeks ahead, a reminder to myself about what those four months this winter gave me and what I want to remember today.
1. A good ending makes way for a good new beginning. There is another post I could write about what I’ve learned about good endings but in essence it all came down to being intentional and focused on finishing well. Yes, I had a good check-list of things to complete. Yes, I cleared my calendar for conversations of thank you, forgiveness, love and goodbye. Yes, made space for us all to share what we learned and what questions had arisen in our ministry together. Most importantly, I gave myself to the grief of goodbye. I knew I was going to miss these people and this place. But instead of doing what I’d sometimes done before, jumping over or denying or walking around the grief, this time I stepped into it, felt it, gave myself to it. I talked about it, got support for myself through it, released it. And the gift of good grieving is that when I left I was done and I’ve been amazed how little I’ve looked back. It was time to say goodbye and my ending well honored the gift of the time we had shared and the new time before us all.
2. Find good partners to be with you on the way. I couldn’t have had the kind of good ending I’d had without the support, guidance, listening space and loving nudges and challenge of a spiritual director, coach, ACM and wise friends who hear and know me well. The regular conversations with all of them helped me to process and discover what I was feeling. Their good words reminding me of what I had expressed I wanted, help set me on the path forward.
3. Head North to Monson. After the final service, the liturgy of leave-taking, passing back the church keys, after the cake and after final hugs of goodbye, I headed north to Monson, Maine. Months before I left I’d dreamed I could stay on in town. I had a beautiful house I was renting, great friends in the community and a wonderful community that I’d really enjoyed living in. Why couldn’t I put down the position of pastor and stay on? It took a conversation with my coach to get me out of my imagination and into what was real. It was a small town. I’d run into people at church all the time and what I’d loved about being in town was connected to my role in the community as pastor. He helped me see what I was reluctant to see and yet knew – it was not really possible for me to stay on and have the new beginning the church and new pastor needed and I needed as well. He was right – they and I needed a new beginning. But where then was I to go?
I thought of how good it would be to have a place where I could settle for a couple of months – a place with what I had loved in Boothbay Harbor – a place with a YMCA for early morning gym classes and a pool, a place near the sea and places to hike, a place with the possibility of making new friends and not so far from the ones I’d left here. I made some inquiries and found a place that sounded like it might work but they wanted a longer lease than I could commit to – so now where to go?
The previous spring I’d been invited by friends to join them for a backpacking trip through the 100 Mile Wilderness, the last 100 miles and most remote part of the Appalachian Trail. I’d never gone backpacking for more than one night in the woods and that many years ago. However, I’d jumped on the opportunity, part of my joy in discovering all things Maine. The trek was challenging, hard, and oh so fun. When I returned, the church administrator remarked how I’d changed. “You came here months ago all buttoned up but you came back from that trip so relaxed, so at peace, so yourself.”
I thought of the beautiful little cabins Phil the Outfitter had where I could stay. Thought of the possibility of hiking the next section of the trail from Caratunk and back to Monson. I’d never hiked alone, never camped in the woods alone and the 32 miles from Caratunk to Monson would be a perfect place to try this on. Phil would be there to support me if needed and I already had the trail maps!
How good it was to have a destination to head to out of town after I finished. How good to have a good story to share. For sure, some people worried but others delighted in my stepping off the map of the familiar once more. I like to think it might have been encouragement for them to do the same as they welcomed a new pastor into their community.
An adventure thrust me out of my familiar place and routines into the disorientation that provided a great beginning for my realignment. A few months ago a good friend died and I was able to be with Wes’ wife Marcia for the weekend and memorial service. She shared the other day that she is “realigning”. She noted how everything is different now and she is slowly learning how to do things differently. Its not been easy but realigning often isn’t. Leaving a beloved community was its particular kind of loss and grief and getting out of my comfort zone and into my discovery zone helped me to realign. My adventure in the woods gave me a space to reconnect to my joy and love of adventure, challenged me to overcome obstacles in creative ways, gave me the space and time to grieve, let go and give myself to the trail ahead.
On my backpacking trip I began to learn about hiking in my own way. I learned that I didn’t hike like I did when with my friends. Instead of putting in 10-14 mile days I took 6 days to hike 32. I learned the joy of wandering and delighted that I discovered I am a true rambler. When I at last returned, Phil was curious, “What did you do out there all that time?”
“Oh Phil!” I exclaimed, “I had such a great time, I paused and listened when I was going too fast, spent a morning watching the fog lift off the lake, backtracked to spend the night camping on the top of a mountain peak so I could watch the sunset, moonrise and sunrise. I met wonderful people along the trail and delighted in the solitude.”
He shook his head, said he could never do that. He’d hiked 32 miles that week in 2 days that had taken me 6.
4. Go to Church. When I returned from my trek, I spent another couple of days hiking in the north Maine woods. I visited a church on Sunday that I discovered was in need of an interim and dreamed for a while of being there. I sent on my profile and received soon the best rejection note I had to date, “I think there are many churches who could use your gifts. Happy Holidays!” That set a pattern for my coming weeks – I went to church on Sundays whenever I could. Sunday morning helped ground and connect me to God and yes, gave me a wider perspective on what was happening in church. I learned what spoke to me and what didn’t.
As I packed to leave Monson, I was struck how sad I was. It had been a good start to a new beginning.
5. Blog. Scribble and remember what you are learning about yourself and interim times. As I started this interim time, I wanted the freedom to let go of most commitments, but I chose to commit to blogging each week about what I did and what I discovered so I could remember what I was learning and so my family and friends knew where I was! A few months ago, I’d put out a question on the Maine Conference FaceBook page asking if folks had leads or ideas on places I could spend some time that fall. I jumped on the two places that were shared – The Alcyon Center, a retreat center in Acadia National Park, and a rental on an island. Two perfect places to do what I wanted to do in this time as well – to have space and time to write and reflect on all I’d learned and was learning on the way. I love to write and writing is a practice that helps me keep in touch with how I’m feeling. It also helped to have these places set up so that as I left I had a schedule of where I was going to be – enough structure in the midst of the uncertainty I found helped. Because of COVID I also knew that I needed to hold these plans pretty loosely.
The time at the Alcyon Center was fabulous – a few others were there on retreat and I had time for things that ground and renew me – time for conversation, great hiking, shared meals, and time, yes, to write. Sometimes when I’ve planned on doing something I’ve gotten to that time and something else was now needed. I was delighted that I actually wanted to write and did! But instead of writing about Boothbay I wrote about my backpacking adventures the week before and my hikes that followed. I was struck that it wasn’t so much the memory of the past that called me but the present discoveries I was making. I enjoyed my time on the island with more time to hike and write about what I was discovering on the way.
6. Say Yes. Some invitations became possibilities as I said yes to a week-long backpacking trip with friends in Virginia and an invitation to visit former congregants at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, preach at their church and get to learn more about this fascinating school. I discovered the joy of being able to say yes and time to do things a full-time job, commitments and schedule don’t sometimes permit. Things were falling into place! I had the gift of spending a weekend at my nephew Thomas’ new apartment in New York, seeing friends in New Jersey and going for a run with my nephew Peter in Baltimore. Such a gift of time.
7. Discover the Strange “Gift” of Challenges. And yes, as things fell into place they fell out of place as well. Our backpacking trek with my friends in Virginia was great fun and then had to be called off early because of a sharp drop in temperatures which we weren’t prepared for. A wise decision to call our trek short and now the dislocation of wondering – where would I head next? I wasn’t expected in Berea for several more days so I took off for a cabin in West Virginia. It was a good place and I had some fun runs and exploring. It was also lonely, the first time I’d felt the longing for others who were not there. It made me all the more grateful when I got the chance to stay with a family in Berea.
And then there was my hand. Besides a couple of blisters, the only thing that hurt after coming down from our backpacking trip in Virginia was my hand. I did what I had too often done with injuries – ignored them figuring they would go away soon enough. My hand didn’t heal however – the pain didn’t go away and it started to swell. Despite my disappointment in not being able to finish our AT hike, I knew with my hand as it was I couldn’t have kept on going myself as I would have liked to have done. I headed off to Berea and after a few days gave in and contacted a doctor. Perhaps an infection, and for sure a need to see an orthopedic doctor about a possible break. Not in my plans. Neither was my sister’s surgery that had moved up a month. I wanted to check in on her and see how I could help out at home. I put down the writing retreat time I’d planned and headed to my sister’s home in Maryland. Besides, I had to get this hand looked at. I figured I could write while at her house.
The visit to the orthopedic doctor confirmed that I did not have a break but a good case of tendinitis. He put me in a splint and scheduled a time to see me 10 days later. So much for my writing retreat!
I had often told the story of the stilling of the storm (Mark 4:35-41) – the Gospel story which seemed to me a perfect picture of an interim journey – a leaving of home for the opportunity to go to the other side of the lake. Along the way what happens, happens – a great storm, the disciples panicking in the boat and shaking Jesus awake, “Teacher! Do you not care if we should perish!”
It was my own stormy time in my little boat. This was not what I had in mind, and I felt all the fear, anxiety, creeping desolation and depression rising in me. I thought I was being held and led so well in these past weeks and now 6 weeks in look at what’s happened! Things are not going as planned.
I was good – okay, pretty good – at obeying the doctor’s orders for caring for my hand. I worked anyway I could to get around his order to keep the splint on all day. Tried to write with my left hand. Couldn’t read a thing I wrote.
It took me awhile to embrace not the time I had planned and wanted but the gift of this different time – the gift of time just to be with my nephews, to eat popcorn and watch Al Pacino movies, to take the dog for a walk, plan and make a Thanksgiving feast together, be there for my sister and help out around the house. To embrace the gift of this kind of time, ordinary family time without the pressures of other responsibilities and timelines.
8. Come to the End of the Road. I’d loved my time at the Alcyon Center earlier in the fall and was delighted to learn when I was there that I might be able to put together a time to return soon. They were offering a retreat on the 14th century mystical text, The Cloud of Unknowing, which sounded particularly timely for me. Besides I needed to place myself in Maine again for the last commitment on my schedule – meeting friends from Boothbay in early December to attend the University of Maine hockey game and run the Millinocket Half Marathon.
It was exactly two months since I’d left Boothbay when we set out in 10 degrees on icy roads to run the half marathon. I’d told friends that Millinocket was at the end of the road heading north – now I’d reached my own end of the road. I didn’t have any commitments after this and a wide-open December. Disorienting and challenging as this time was, it also was when I really leaned into the discovery of the challenges and opportunities an interim time can provide.
9. Wander in the Fog. I headed south to Maryland and into the gray descent of a December fog. Nothing was clear. I treasured the words from The Cloud of Unknowing that this unknowing is the place off the map where God is to be met, but I can’t say I liked it. I had more interviews, wanted things to fit that weren’t fitting. I was most struck by a position I found and applied for that offered one week off each month. I thought it sounded perfect but I realized that what really interested me was that one week off each month! The three weeks of work weren’t what I was called to or passionate about. I wanted to make it work, kept trying to see how it might work when I knew it wouldn’t be a good fit for me or for them. It wasn’t what I wanted. The search committee got it. “Are you really ready to settle?,” they asked. No, I had to admit I wasn’t. I wasn’t longing for a settled position, I wanted to take a community adventuring in a time of discovery. I wasn’t ready to settle for something just to make it fit.
And so in the fog, I gave myself to the gift of what was there – my niece home from college and more time with my family, for games and play, for simple routines like morning swims and classes at the Y. My sister improved and along the way that month, so did I, including my hand. I went to church and met a community and colleague who is doing the kind of ministry connecting Spirit and Wilderness that I’m passionate about. Conversations led to new connections and opportunities.
10. Discover Ghost Ranch. As it became clear that things were taking their time coming together, I wondered, where to place myself in January? I remembered Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. I’d been there decades before in another liminal time and the wide open terrain and vast sky had served me well. Perhaps it was just what I needed. A quick search showed they had a January term and an opportunity to join the “Adult Service Corps” that would cover most of my expenses. I didn’t overthink it, signed up to go that day. And yes, why not go for the whole three weeks?
Ghost Ranch was right where I needed to be, the kind of open space to help open my imagination and discovery. Much to my surprise I loved serving on the Service Corps and tearing apart cabinets, using power tools, painting. It got me out of my head thinking and planted in my body and present. A great team to work with and so much fun.
I’ve been struck by the many ways I’d grown and changed during these past months. My flight to Santa Fe was delayed due to snow and later cancelled when the airport shut down. I spent the day at the airport reading a good book knowing that I had no control over what happened and let unfold what would. It’s what happened at Ghost Ranch too. I’d come with all my ideas and plans of time to write and paint and ended up doing neither. Instead gave myself to the gift of this place – to good work and conversations, wandering the trails, early morning runs and making new friends. I was learning again about being present to what is and less triggered and clinging to the way I wanted things to be.
When a friend died, I was able to say right away to his wife, I’ll be there. I had a clearer sense of what I needed to do and more agile in pivoting to it. So many surprises along the way and little of what I “planned” on leaving Boothbay Harbor. I’d told folks as I left that I was going to find another interim position and here I was headed to this position job as a sabbatical pastor for a few months. So much has changed, so much opened up beyond my expectations since leaving Boothbay Harbor four months ago.
11. Trust Things Get Figured Out. At Ghost Ranch, I signed up for a weekly on-line class on “Navigating Change” hoping that it would help me get stuff figured out. Yes, it provided some good tools and reminders, encouragement from others in interim times as well. But more than helping me “figure stuff out,” the course reminded me that things are being “figured out” beyond my planning and control.
It’s a message I’d shared in my previous interim of learning to trust in the mysterious process of transition. To believe and trust what is hard to see in the passage from one side of the lake to the other, especially when a storm comes up – that Jesus is there, has always been there in the boat with us. We are making our way.
No, its not about just sitting passively and doing nothing along the way – it is about finding the things we really need to be doing that bring us back to the presence of Jesus in the boat, to learn to adjust the sails to heed and follow the wind of the Spirit. It’s such a different kind of stance than sitting tight fisted at the edge of your seat, which is in fact no way to sail a boat. No, to sail well, means to breathe and sit back, open and awake to everything happening around you, holding the mainsheet and tiller light in your hands so that you can feel the subtle shift of wind and be ready to respond.
Do I do it all the time? Of course not, and this interim time certainly taught me that – taught me the humility that as much as I talk a good talk to a community about the opportunity of interims and the joy and possibility of a sail across the lake to the unknown, that I struggle with trusting this journey myself and would often choose another path than this. But despite myself I have a deeper confidence as well in the unfolding of time and trusting in God’s lead and hand in it.
Things got “figured out” beyond all my figuring as I let go, stayed present, pivoted, got out of sorts and found my way back to ground again, opened to possibilities I never imagined. Tried things I thought I wouldn’t like and ended up loving them. Had conversations, made connections that took me to the next step. Sounds like a good interim time and in it, yes, I learned more about being there with people in times like these.
I did in fact what I really wanted to do – got re-grounded in God – the unknown, mystery, Spirit of God, learned to practice loosening my grip. Learned time and again to put down what gets in my way – my desire for false security and control and be open to what I need most of all – an open heart and spirit to keep listening for and heeding the Spirit’s call.
I don’t know where the road leads in the next few months after this position ends. But I trust more than ever that this not-knowing will serve me well. I’ll give myself to the present needs and bring a deeper trust that Jesus is in the boat with us.
Yes, by the time this new position started, I was ready to say yes to this good work. Rested, grounded, humbled, open, knowing more intimately some of the feelings and triggers, stumbling places and opportunities that come up at interim times like this for all of us. Yes, things that I hoped for never happened and things that didn’t were gifts. I had the interim in fact I knew I needed all along and yes, however reluctantly I entered it, it has served me well.
12. Take the time to remember, reflect and write what you learned up before you move on to the next new beginning! I ended my interim time on a week retreat in upstate New York at Colgate’s Chapel House in Hamilton. Just the gift of time I needed to take those early morning runs, wander the woods, and reflect and write on what happened and all I learned in these past months. What a wonderful gift to receive before starting this new position. And because I took that time – this piece came to be! So grateful!