Shmita year helps clergy reflect, recharge, plan for future

May 10, 2018
A group of clergy going through Shmita meets for fellowship and discussion.

By: Christa Meland

Rev. Heather Klason has been a pastor in Minnesota since 1998, and for the past two years, she’s been bivocational—spending three-fourths of her time leading St. Charles and Dover UMCs and one-fourth as a hospice chaplain.
It’s rewarding but exhausting work, and in the busyness of ministry and life, it’s hard to be intentional about taking time away to practice self-care and reflect on her calling.
Klason is one of 22 Minnesota clergy participating in the inaugural “Shmita” process through the Minnesota Conference. The idea is that every seventh year of their ministry, clergy have an intentional time of learning, reflection, and recharging. Shmita gives clergy time and resources to take an in-depth look at their health and well-being and discern where God is calling them during their next seven years. The clergy participating in the inaugural Shmita year, which kicked off with a retreat in January, have all been in their current appointments for seven years or more.
“It is important to embrace the whole person that we’ve been created to be, and when we’re fully embracing that, it influences the impact our spirit can have through the work we can do,” said Klason. “You can’t give out of a dry well.”
In the Hebrew tradition, there’s the concept of a sabbatical year called “Shmita,” meaning “release.” It’s known as the jubilee year where land is left fallow, debts are released, and the perennial harvest is redistributed and accessible for all.
In the Minnesota Conference, the Shmita year combines two denominational requirements for clergy—boundary and ethics training, and a comprehensive assessment outlined in the 2016 Book of Discipline that clergy must go through every eight years.
But Rev. Cindy Gregorson, director of ministries for the conference, noted that the new process was designed not simply to fulfill requirements but to invest in clergy and help them prepare to lead effectively in their next chapter.
“It’s easy to get worn down by ministry, and we want people to stay passionately engaged in what their calling is and how to live that out,” she said. “We want clergy to be able to step out of ‘here’s what I’ve always done’ and think about how they can use their gifts in this next season of life and what God’s calling them to do so they stay energized and passionate.”

For Minnesota clergy, the Shmita year begins with a three-day total well-being retreat led by coaching and consulting firm LeaderWise. Prior to attending the retreat, participating clergy complete an emotional intelligence survey that includes insights from colleagues and provides a benchmark of strength areas and growth areas. Clergy also journal on a series of reflection questions about their calling and ministry over the past seven years.
The retreat itself is focused on spiritual practices and stress-management skills, an opportunity for clergy to identify their core strengths and creative, constructive ways to leverage them; strengthening relationships with fellow clergy; and developing a personalized well-being plan to practice at home.
Throughout the Shmita year, clergy read several books on boundaries and pastoral excellence and meet with others in the Shmita process to discuss them. They also take a two-week paid sabbatical to tend to their souls, listen to God, and reflect on what’s next in their lives and ministry.
“It was a gift to have that time that I’m not always intentional about taking,” said Klason, who recently completed her sabbatical. “I want to be able to offer my best self to the congregations I’m leading and model for them the importance of taking Sabbath time.”
Each clergy designs a personalized plan for the next season of their ministry and cultivates practices of resilience so they can lead out of a place of health and strength. Throughout the Shmita year, clergy begin to pursue their plan of development, whether that means seeking out a new peer learning experience, spiritual direction, coaching, or other avenues to attend to their well-being and grow in pastoral excellence. 

Klason is still developing her plan, but it will likely include being trained as a clergy coach. She also wants to be intentional about increasing her listening skills. “I tend to be an ideation person,” she said. “I want to work on stepping back and doing a little less directing and a little more listening.”

At the end of the Shmita year, participants attend a jubilee party to share their learnings and celebrate with colleagues.

“Our hope is that when clergy come to the jubilee party, they are thankful for this experience and it has had a positive impact in their life and ministry,” said Gregorson.
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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