Rest for a Shepherd by Howard Freedlander

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The past Sunday was the last day as worship leader for the Rev. Dr. Bill Ortt, our rector at Christ Church, Easton, before he embarks on a four-and-a-half-month sabbatical.

What is a sabbatical, a reality for the academic and religious communities and a mostly foreign concept for all other occupations?

Rev. Dr. Bill Ortt

Knowing for months about Father Bill’s planned absence from ecclesiastical duties at the Episcopal church at Harrison and South streets, I began to wonder about the meaning and value of a sabbatical. It’s a break, a respite from daily work responsibilities. It’s intended, at least in the religious world, to offer a minister or priest a leave of absence to pursue reflection and personal and professional renewal.

It can and should be fun, with time for serious, soul-searching thought mixed in as the person sees fit.

When I think about the life of a parish priest, I realize it’s satisfying on one hand and ceaseless on the other.

Your flock never stops needing you. You help people navigate personal crises and maybe find God amid distress. That fills the heart with gratefulness for the chance to help and sustain a person in urgent need.

You deal daily with life and death situations. You also are leading and managing an enterprise dependent on paid staff and earnest parishioners. And your secular duties are driven by a budget and financial challenges.

Your life as a religious leader requires a 24-hour alert status. You must be ready at any time to respond to congregants’ personal emergencies. However hard you establish professional and personal boundaries, you constantly and continually serve God by serving others.

You punch no card at the beginning or end of the day. You don’t work overtime. You work all the time.

Your own family may suffer.

Your own needs are secondary at times.

You have chosen a life of interminable, heartful service and fealty to others.

Sometimes, you need a respite. Sometimes, you need to refresh and renew yourself. Sometimes, you need to allow your flock, your parish, to take a break from you and use a sabbatical to examine itself and its relationship with God and its messenger. You grow, and the congregation grows.

From my scant knowledge of sabbaticals, they seem slightly akin to vacations that all of us have enjoyed during our careers to “recharge the batteries.” I think, however, that sabbaticals for religious leaders differ significantly.

As I see it, were I a clergy-person devotes to shepherding and sustaining my parishioners, I would use the gift of an unusual amount of time away from church to figure how I could better serve my parishioners’ needs as a spiritual anchor while retaining my own equanimity. Balance is difficult.

Bill Ortt has served a growing, vibrant church with tremendous and talented dedication for 18 years. Ensuring that the parish is attuned to the community’s pressing needs, Bill established a 5 p.m.service on Saturday—itself unusual for an Episcopal church—that also provides a refuge and sanctuary for the addiction and recovery community. It’s a remarkable thing to witness.

And by the way, Bill has conducted three other services on Sunday morning.

Change is difficult, as all of us know. Christ Church parishioners will face a near future without its constant worship leader. Interim priests will fill the void. Bill Ortt will face days and weeks without any responsibility as a religious leader. Adjustment will be necessary on both sides.

As I listened to Father Bill the past Sunday morning, I realized he was eager to begin his sabbatical and apprehensive as well. He seemed driven to assure the congregation that he and they will cope well with the “rest.” I thought for a moment that I was listening to a military commander saying farewell to his troops and wishing them a productive future. Of course, in this instance, the “commander” is returning; he may find the ground has shifted a bit, understandably.

For most of us, a sabbatical is not an option. We soldier on. We seek solace and contemplation where and when we can find it. We pray for self-improvement and personal and spiritual renewal. We may seek a different tack to our careers and personal lives.

Godspeed to Bill Ortt. Fair winds to staff and congregants as they face waves of change and challenges.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

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