Category Archives: Lilly Foundation

What would make your heart sing?

The basic question which Lilly Foundation asks you when you want to apply for a grant is simple: what would make your heart sing?

Everybody has dreams — even clergy — and like most people, clergy have to put their dreams on a shelf in the closet when they’re young so that they can get on with the business of getting an education, starting a family and landing a job. But the dreams never go away, do they? And there’s never enough time, or money, or freedom to make many of them real.

Lilly determined that one of the best ways they could help a large number of people in a community would be to help their clergy to get a little rest and to be able to pursue one of their dreams, to do something that would make their heart sing. Renewed and refreshed pastors would bring new life back to congregations, and everyone would benefit. That’s the idea behind the grant.

So, what would make my heart sing? Forgive me if it takes me a bit to put it into words and if the words come up a bit short of the reality: we’re dealing with heart and song here…

I suppose the 25-words-or-less answer is that I feel the need for some spiritual direction and haven’t found yet what I’m looking for. So I’m going to go look for it.

What do I mean by “spiritual direction”? I don’t want to find some holy staretz who will take responsibility for my life, to whom I can go running every time a problem comes up. That may be fine for monks, but not for me. If anything, I need to have some responsibility thrown back in my own face. I’m not looking for somebody who will make my life “easier” or “more spiritual” or “answer all my questions”. I’ve been through enough to appreciate that life is hard; that “spiritual” looks more like blood, sweat and tears than like sunshine and well-performed liturgies; and that questions are often better than answers. I’m not in quest of the “warm fuzzies.” Quite frankly, I hope — I expect — to be terrified by being questioned, most especially by God. I suppose I want to “find myself” in a way, but the way I’ve been framing that question lately is, “Lord, who do You say that I am?” I hope to have the courage to keep on asking that question and to have the courage to stand up like a man and hear the answer when it comes. As someone once said, “Truth is not always a polite tap on the shoulder; sometimes it’s a howling reproach.” However Truth comes to me, I hope to have eyes to see and ears to hear and the heart to take it, even if my knees knock.

But more than that, I’ve noticed a trend over the last few years, that a few people have begun to come to me — even from outside the parish and outside the Orthodox Church — looking for much deeper counsel than I’ve been asked to provide in the past, and I’d like simply to be more adequate to their needs than I am now. So, I’m hoping to be able to ask better guides than myself how I can be a better spiritual father to the people who come to me.

(For those in the knee-jerk crowd, no, I’m not out to get my bona fides as a geronda or staretz. Whom God sends my way, He sends my way. I’m not hanging out a shingle saying, “The Elder Is In.” I’ve no delusions about that. On the other hand, I have to admit that it’s been hard finding good counsel in tough times in the circles in which I move. Somebody needs to be able to provide that kind of support, and I do think it’s perfectly reasonable and praiseworthy to want to be a good enough spiritual father to my flock and to those who seek my counsel. If you have problems with that, we’ll agree to disagree.)

So, on my sabbatical, I will be looking for counsel for my own heart and counsel on how to be a better spiritual father to others. In addition, I’ll have almost a month of vacation with my family, and a few weeks’ time just being at home with nothing more than a “honey do” list to keep me occupied.

In my next post, I’ll detail where I am going to find this counsel, and why.

So why a sabbatical?

Well, a couple of years ago, a dear friend of mine, Fr John Reeves, who has known me since before I was a catechumen, suggested to me that I look into taking some time off from my parish by applying to the Lilly Foundation for one of their grants through their National Clergy Renewal Program. (You can read about their program here.) Fr John, who has always been something of a mentor to me, had seen in me clear signs of ministerial burnout and figured I needed a break for some R&R. The Lilly Foundation provided a possible way to do that.

Fr John had applied to Lilly for–and won–a sabbatical grant for himself. He took his sabbatical last summer. He decided to follow the route of St Herman in coming from Valaam Monastery on the Russian-Finnish border, across European Russia and Siberia, to Alaska, and to serve for a while in an Alaskan village church. This is the blog he wrote for his sabbatical.

It sounded like a good idea to me. As those of you who know me well know, the last three years or so have not been easy for me. Without going into details, I’ve had personal issues, health issues, family issues and parochial issues, not one after the other, but one on top of the other. Of course, I am not alone: other people who are close to me, and some  for whom I have pastoral responsibility, have been through the wringer themselves, and I have helped them to bear their crosses. I have been a poster-child for midlife crisis, parental angst, compassion fatigue and clergy burnout all rolled into one. It ain’t been pretty…

So, with the blessing of Archbishop Job (of blessed memory) and with the help and support of my parish council, I wrote up a grant proposal for a 3-month sabbatical from my parish and submitted it late last spring. In November, we received word that Lilly had approved our proposal, and the parish & I were awarded a grant of $38,698. Here is the press release for all of this year’s winners.)

That’s how it all got started. In the next post I’ll say what I’m looking to do on my time away.