August 2011

Mind the Gap

August 24 2011 by Bill Wilson

Three years ago, our youngest son graduated from college. Yeah!

Following graduation, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his degree. Boo!

Solution: take a “gap year” and spend it in South Africa working in a ministry setting. Use that year to sort out the differences between wants and needs, calling and guilt, being and doing.

Result: a focused, energized, motivated and called young man with clarity about God’s movement in his life.

While visiting him on a mission trip that year, we were pleasantly surprised to find several other young adults from around the world taking a gap year to do self-reflection and exploration of call. Some were using the year immediately after high school, some the year after college. All were taking time to step out of society’s normal flow and cycle to do the hard work of spiritual discernment and focusing. My sense was that they would make much better students, employees, and Christ-followers as a result.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article (, Marc Freedman suggests that a gap year may be just what is needed for middle aged and senior adults who have lost their sense of vocational purpose and direction. He cites the increasing number of mid and late career men and women who retire, then unretire, then engage in an “encore” position or career that provides profound meaning and purpose.

In recent months, I have had conversations with two friends who are taking mid-life gap years. One is a minister who found himself in a toxic congregational culture that was breaking down his spirit and his body. As a result of a good severance package, he is able to spend a year healing and regrouping, exploring the possibilities that God has for him. His spirits are rising and his energy is returning as he gains clarity around next steps.

The other is an executive who stepped away from a career to give careful thought to the way she wants to spend the second half of her life. She realized that being in a perpetual state of exhaustion was taking her places she did not want to go. She is using her gap year to volunteer, read, study and pray. I expect she will emerge energized and focused around God’s next step for her.

While not everyone can afford to take a year away,  we know that the Sabbath is an essential ingredient in a disciple’s life. Taking time away to be quiet and reflect, even one day a week, is a start toward a life that is guided more by gifts and calling than paychecks and obligations.

How might congregations recognize this need and make Sabbath a significant part of their congregational culture?

Why not start every meeting of every team or committee or Board with a five-minute time of silence and prayer for guidance? Having a time to decompress from the pressures of your everyday life is a needed transition for the important work you have before you.

What if congregations offered planned days for quiet reflection for their members? A simple “day away” once a month is a start in the right direction. Simply provide a quiet setting for those interested in an opportunity to be quiet, walk, nap, read, and reflect on God’s dream for their life?

One way healthy churches have tried to build this truth into their corporate life is to provide sabbaticals for their ministerial staff. Not surprisingly, sabbatical and Sabbath have the same root word. They also grow out of the same biblical truth: the leaders of God’s people need time away from the demands of the day to remain connected to their calling and energized by their profession.

Congregations that provide their ministers with a concentrated time away (usually 6-12 weeks) to study and refresh every 5-7 years of ministry are wise. They see the example of Jesus taking time away from the crowds and realize that if the Son of God needed such time away, then surely their ministers do as well. They convey that they recognize that the emotional, spiritual and physical toll of ministry can be lethal if not taken seriously.

Congregations that refuse to insist their ministers take sabbaticals or study leaves invite burnout, toxic over-functioning, physical illnesses, and family fractures. They unwittingly set their ministers up for a crisis of vocation and/or faith that might be avoided by providing “gap experiences” along the journey.

Our son found his calling during his gap year. He returned home to enter seminary with a focus and intensity that he had never known before. I have many clergy colleagues who testify that their sabbatical provided a needed and life-changing opportunity to hear anew God’s voice and feel the Spirit’s nudging. I have watched numerous lay and ministerial church leaders find a renewed sense of purpose and energy for the second half of life when they take time away to listen and reconnect with their divine call.

On London’s Tube rapid transit system, one is constantly warned about the space between the rail car and the platform. The warning phrase is omnipresent: MIND THE GAP. Perhaps that sign should be placed in our sanctuaries and studies as well.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health.)
8/24/2011 8:28:00 AM by Bill Wilson | with 0 comments

High Anxiety

August 9 2011 by Bill Wilson

Anyone feeling anxious?

A better question: anyone NOT feeling anxious?

God’s people in the 21st century suffer a serious malady. We mouth the words of faithfulness while we live lives dominated by anxiety and frustration. For every time we parrot “God is good, all the time, and all the time God is good,” there are dozens of times we obsess about our stock portfolios, job security, or some political crisis. The great gap between our rhetoric and our actions is at the heart of the dysfunction of many local churches and individual Christians.

Living as though the words of scripture or the teachings of Christ are irrelevant for our day and age is a shortcut to conflict and chaos. The church was designed by God to operate under one overarching assumption: we are God’s people, and as such, we live distinct and independent from whatever culture we find ourselves in. When we lose sight of whose we are, we become something dark, ugly and unholy. Some have called us “resident aliens.” Others use biblical images of “a city on a hill,” or “a people set apart.” The core truth is that we are to be unique, in but not of this world. This is not an invitation to disassociate from the culture around us, but to live in it and rise above it, offering an alternative view of reality and of the future. God’s people are to permeate the world with a deep and abiding love of all people and all of God’s creation. Our place is on not locked up in a building or isolated from culture, but fully immersed in the world that we live in, living as salt and light to those who think that life is limited to what they can see.

Peter Steinke’s book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times has an intriguing subtitle: “Being calm and courageous no matter what.” Does that describe you? Your church? If not, you probably suffer from what is commonly called “mission drift.” You have veered away from your call and your mission. In the midst of our anxiety and our wandering from our divine mandate, a local church can find its way toward health by spending more and more time on its mission. I often ask congregations three questions. Eleven words. How you answer is critical to your future:

Who are you?

Why are you here?

Where are you going?

Usually, after the biblical rhetoric and God-talk passes, when I press for answers that are specific to that congregation, a blank look emerges and most have to say: “we don’t really know.”

Our highly anxious times demand that you find out. Nothing will cut through the confusion of the age and the irrelevance of your church like clear answers to those questions.

If you don’t know where to start, start with the beginning of the church. Read the book of Acts. Spend several days in Acts 2, then keep reading. Understanding and appropriating the book of Acts is the key to our life in the 21st century. If you want to be a healthy congregation, your future is tied to the words you will find there.

Steinke recounts the story of three bricklayers who were working on the same project. The first bricklayer is asked what he is doing. His answer: “I am laying bricks.”

The second one replies that he is “building a wall.”

The third bricklayer says, “I am building a cathedral.”

In bewildering and anxious times, congregations and clergy need the third bricklayer’s vision: focusing on the mission, on what is possible as God’s people. When we get clear about that, we emerge as light in the darkness of the day. We become the ones who manage the ups and downs of the stock market, the political arena, our health, and a myriad of other issues with a deep peace and joy that passes any and all understanding.

We regularly entreat clergy and congregations to please “not waste this crisis.” Whatever your crisis is, God is inviting you to manage it in a way that distinguishes you from our culture. When we allow the Spirit of Christ to guide us, we exude and personify faith, hope and love. Using anxious times as an opportunity for witness and faithfulness affords us the chance to accomplish our prayer: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, here on earth as it is in heaven.” Might it be so in your life and in your place of worship this week.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health.)
8/9/2011 7:57:00 AM by Bill Wilson | with 0 comments