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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Vacation as the School of Grace

President Obama is not taking a summer vacation this year, at least not to Martha’s Vineyard. Not that most presidents ever really take a vacation, reluctant as they are to look less than ever vigilant. They may get to some vacation spot but are careful to ensure that the press balances any photo ops of relaxation with shots of important meetings with aides, albeit in beach garb. This year there’s the added pressure of not wanting to show up among the wealthy “1%.” I feel sorry for Shasha and Malia who no doubt would have enjoyed a few days at the beach with Dad. Even presidents who did take extended vacations away from the White House – Reagan and the younger Bush, for example – seemed determined to show the country that they weren’t lazing about, but out on the ranch in brutal sun clearing brush or playing an absurdly fast paced game of power golf. Would the country really go down the drain if a president were to spend an entire afternoon stretched out by himself on the sand with a gin in tonic in hand reading a John Grisham novel?

Indeed, sloth may be one of the deadly sins, but two or three weeks away from the office hardly qualifies. And yet I have found over the years that vacation – time away – makes a lot of us strangely apologetic or anxious, or both. Clergy seem particularly vulnerable to this malady. We may be heirs, most of us, to the Protestant Reformation, but when it comes to the core doctrine of justification by grace through faith we generally show a remarkable inability to practice what we preach. Vacations are cut short in order to return for a funeral. The middle weekend of a month away is sacrificed to a member’s daughter’s wedding. These days Blackberries are dragged along to keep in touch. And heavy tomes are included in the book bag lest people think the pastor is just goofing off with novelistic trash.

I loved the example of a colleague of mine from years back who scheduled a month away every summer. His vacation always started after church on Sunday. He would recess down the aisle after the benediction, drop his robe in the vestibule, and then jump in the already packed car his wife had idling out front. “I’m outta here!” Bill was a much loved pastor with a very long tenure, devoted and attentive to his flock. But when it was time to head off for the annual vacation nothing, not even the obligatory “good sermon” handshake at the door, was allowed to delay his departure.

We just returned from a wonderful two weeks away, driving around the western states visiting friends and family and seeing parts of the country I used to fly over at 30,000 feet. It was glorious to behold (well, maybe not Western Wyoming; Dick Cheney can keep that!). And it was good to be away. I’m no longer as key to the day to day functioning of an organization as I was when I was a local church pastor or president of the denomination. But even then my absence never seemed to cause much of a problem. I remember one tense day when a parishioner expected me to delay my vacation for three days to conduct her husband’s funeral. I held my breath and stood my ground. She wasn’t very happy with me at that moment, but later learned to deeply appreciate my pastoral care over the long haul of her months of grief when it really counted. And, of course, I didn’t have to explain to my family that they were going to lose three precious days at the shore.

Not every summer vacation has been an idyll over nearly forty years of ministry. But I wouldn’t have sacrificed any of them, never felt the need to apologize for them, and managed for the most part to avoid the temptation to put on the pretense of somehow being “productive.” There’s a fine line in the ministry between being valued and being needed. One is a gift bestowed in the context of years of mutual care; the other is a kind of trap, often as much about our own needs as the needs of others. I’ve never pulled off my departure with quite the flair Bill had, tossing his robe on the deacons’ bench as the postlude cranked up, never looking back. But he taught his congregation an important lesson: Imagine a world where it’s not the things we do but the people we are that counts most, and where being loved is far more important than being needed. Think of vacation as the school of grace. Some of us may be slow learners, but it’s a lesson that makes all the difference.

John H. Thomas

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