This July and August (except for a couple of general church meetings in July), I am on renewal leave. Paragraph 410.2 of The Book of Discipline (2012) states: “Every bishop in the active relationship shall take up to three months’ leave from his or her normal episcopal responsibilities for the purposes of reflection, study, and self-renewal during each quadrennium.”
I am using my renewal leave to pray, exercise, read, reflect, and write. I am collaborating with Bishop Rueben Job in writing a book on spiritual leadership. This renewal leave is not a vacation. However, Char and I will do a couple of typical vacation activities—a trip to the North Shore (a rite of passage as new Minnesota residents) and several days hosting our two seven-year-old grandsons, Dashua and Calium. Thus, I will be actively engaged, but not in my “normal episcopal responsibilities.”
This renewal leave comes just in the nick of time. As president of the General Board of Global Ministries last quadrennium, I did not have an opportunity to schedule a renewal leave. And the past year has been a whirlwind of transition, getting acquainted with the new Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area, and reorganizing the Connectional Table following the 2012 General Conference.
For me, retreat and renewal are essential to my emotional and spiritual health. I experienced a profound spiritual crisis (some call it burnout) early in my ministry. I have observed the symptoms of similar crises in many clergy colleagues over the years. Fortunately, God called me into a covenant community that nurtured me back to spiritual health. I learned to pray again. I discovered and began to practice John Wesley’s means of grace. I adopted a rhythm, which I seek to maintain to this day, of one hour of prayer and meditation on the scriptures each day, one day of sabbath each week, and one week of retreat each year. Since being elected bishop in 2000, Char and I have also set aside one long weekend each month for time together.
It is nearly impossible to survive, let alone thrive, in ministry without a discipline of attentiveness to God. Margaret Silf in her book, Inner Compass, maintains that God has already answered our deepest prayer. We just have to figure out what our prayer is! A disciplined rhythm of attentiveness provides the framework for listening for our heart songs—those deep prayers God’s Spirit is constantly trying to awaken within us.
Many people, neighborhoods, and communities experienced electrical power outages when severe thunderstorms hit the Dakotas and Minnesota in late June. Most of us know how disrupted our lives become without electrical power. We have become accustomed to and dependent on a reliable, uninterrupted power source.
A power outage or power shortage is a terrible thing. And, at times, that seems to describe our personal experience or our church experience. Sometimes in the life and ministry of the church, we also experience a “power shortage” or even a “power outage.” Such times are characterized by lots of talk, but very little action; by lots of good intentions, but very little follow-through; by lots of worship ritual, but very little passion; by lots of human effort, but very little reliance upon God’s Spirit-power.
Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, warns the church about such power outages.
“God’s kingdom isn’t about words, but about power” (I Corinthians 4:20).
The presence of lots of “talk” is probably one of the best indications that we are trying to rely upon our own strength, ability, and energy for ministry, rather than relying upon the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. That may be why the practice of silence was such a common formational discipline among the early church mothers and fathers.
Periodically, we all experience a power shortage or even a power outage—times when our lives and ministries are characterized by lots of words, but very little fruit. For me, such times are an indication that I need to re-examine my connections to the power that comes only from being in God’s presence. For me, such times are a sign that I need to stop and listen for God’s prayers for me, so that I can pray those prayers.
I am writing this article as I prepare for my renewal leave. I am praying that my leave from my “normal episcopal responsibilities” will be a time of reconnecting to these prayers God has for me. I will be praying the same for the Minnesota Conference and its pastors, lay leadership, and congregations. May we be a praying church, always in tune with God’s heart song for us. May we be a church empowered by the Holy Spirit to reach new people, cultivate spiritual vitality, and heal a broken world. May we always be an attentive church connected to the Holy One, who is the only real power for our work and witness. May the Holy Spirit break through to renew us and our churches—unleashing new life. May our power be renewed!
Bishop Bruce R. Ough is resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal Area.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church