The Reverend Woong-Sik (Timothy) Chon, a visual artist and senior pastor at North Westminster Presbyterian Church in Lansing, Michigan, is passionate about the need for ministers to take sabbatical for personal and professional renewal.
"I found that parish ministry is very draining. You give, give, give — and where's your source for getting re-energized?" said Rev. Chon. "[Sabbatical] made the critical difference that I am able to stay in and continue parish ministry. If it wasn't for a sabbatical, I know I would have left a long time ago because I would have burned out."
Sabbatical has been impactful for Rev. Chon in many ways, from reducing his risk of burnout to sparking fresh ideas and new opportunities. For example, after a four-month sabbatical in 2013, he returned to North Westminster Presbyterian Church and started a 1001 Worshiping Communities, called Advent House Fellowship, with ecumenical partners to provide an inclusive environment for the homeless to worship and join in fellowship with others in need in the Lansing, Michigan area.
When Rev. Chon decided to take another four-month sabbatical in 2020, he had the full support of his congregation, which recognized that he could not maintain his current energy level without some respite. He turned to the Presbytery of Lake Michigan and The Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for funding. He had learned about the many ways in which the Board of Pensions helps to support ministers, including the Sabbath Sabbatical Support grant, while attending a CREDO conference. Sabbath Sabbatical Support provides eligible ministers with a portion of the support they need — up to $3,000 — to engage in planned activities for personal and professional renewal.
Originally scheduled for the summer of 2020 as an opportunity for him and his wife to travel, Rev. Chon's sabbatical was unexpectedly influenced by two major events — one deeply personal and the other on a global scale: the illness and subsequent loss of his father and the coronavirus pandemic. Rev. Chon moved up his sabbatical to the beginning of 2020 after his father suffered a brain aneurysm and fell while visiting relatives and friends in Korea as part of his 80th birthday celebration. His father passed away shortly after his return to the United States, just a couple of weeks into coronavirus lockdown.
Rev. Chon describes this sabbatical time as a "true blessing," in that it gave him time to grieve his father's passing. "I started doing a portrait of my dad as a way to visualize him when he was full of life," said Rev. Chon. "And that really helped me struggle through." Unable to publicly honor his father at the time of his death because of coronavirus restrictions, Rev. Chon will use that portrait as part of a remembrance scheduled for the first anniversary of his father's death in 2021.
Rev. Chon also decided that he needed to do something physical while on sabbatical. The $3,000 Sabbath Sabbatical grant that he received from the Board of Pensions paid for materials to build a pergola on his property in his father's memory. "I love working with my hands … . My dad was a carpenter, so I learned all the trades of carpentry and building from my dad," he said.
The pergola "is really a tribute to my dad and his life and the legacy he left with me. So all that was possible because of the [Sabbath Sabbatical] grant," Rev. Chon added.
Sabbatical has not only been impactful for Rev. Chon but for his congregation as well, which needed to adjust and think about doing things differently while he was away. "It's not just me doing something out of the box or out of the norm, but it's our congregation, too. And we come back together, see where we are, and something new blossoms," he said.
"I need to be rejuvenated, refreshed, and I need to have a new vision," Rev. Chon continued. "We are so geared toward doing and producing results. We don't take time to enjoy our community."