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The Rev. Howard-John Wesley On Taking A Break From The Pulpit After 30 Years

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

No profession is immune from burnout. At some point, we all need a break or a sabbatical, you know, time to recharge our batteries, maybe think about a different way to approach life. Well, Reverend Howard-John Wesley is the senior pastor of the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va. And he felt this keenly last December.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOWARD-JOHN WESLEY: I'm not leaving you. This ain't nothing but intermission, baby.

(LAUGHTER)

WESLEY: I'm tired. And I need you to know, secondly, I feel very distant from God.

CHANG: Little did Reverend Wesley know he had accidentally scheduled his sabbatical to start just as a global pandemic was picking up steam. Reverend Wesley joins us now to tell us about what the last year has been like for him.

Welcome.

WESLEY: Thank you. Glad to be on with you all.

CHANG: Well, we're really glad to have you on. You know, you've been preaching for 30 years. And as we just heard, you said that you felt so distant from God that one of the greatest mistakes of pastoring is to think that because you work for God, you are close to God. So may I ask, when did you start to feel this distance? Like, what did that feel like?

WESLEY: Well, I think it began probably a year before announcing the sabbatical. There are a few signature moments that let me know something was a little bit off. One was starting to lose that joy and that energy for something that I loved. And it became more of a task than a joy. And in the sermonic field, as a pastor, there's a lot of creativity required of you. And I was losing that creative edge. I reached the point where, sadly, Ailsa, I was picking up old sermons and trying to find a way to give them new titles and...

CHANG: Yeah.

WESLEY: ...Shift the movements around and cross my fingers and pray that no one would hear something they already heard; that sermon writing would start on Tuesday and by Saturday, I still had nothing on the page. And I began to wonder, why is this becoming so hard when it was so natural? And why am I not enjoying it anymore? And that just began a journey of self-reflection of kind of realizing I don't feel as close to the God I talk about as I want to be.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, how did your congregation react when you first said, hey, I need some time off?

WESLEY: You know, I think they were more willing than I was. I was fearful. I was the scared one, thinking to myself one of two things would happen. If I'm gone, what happens if the church doesn't survive without me? What happens if membership goes down? And let's be honest, what happens if people stop giving and then the budget's affected and then we've got to start laying off?

CHANG: Yeah.

WESLEY: And then there was another fear. What happens if they're all right without me? What if they find out, yeah, you know, we really don't need this guy?

CHANG: (Laughter).

WESLEY: So, you know, I was afraid to share. But strangely, the message resonated with so many members who wished they were in a position to take that kind of time off and rest as well.

CHANG: Yeah.

WESLEY: So the congregation was very open and accepting, and I think they saw the long-term benefit of giving breaks and rest as opposed to burning a pastor out. I can't tell you how many pastors leave ministry or even commit suicide or die in the pulpit. It's not a profession that always ends well, and I'm grateful to have a congregation that said, we want your story to end well.

CHANG: Well, how common is it for clergy to take time off, to take sabbaticals like this?

WESLEY: Well, Ailsa, if I can put a little racial spin on it, it is very common practice in our Euro-Caucasian Christian denominations and even within the Catholic traditions to grant that time off. It is absolutely unheard of in predominantly African American traditions...

CHANG: Interesting.

WESLEY: ...Your Baptists, your COGIC, your different varieties of Pentecostal and AME and AME Zion. And I think it traces back to the role the preacher and the pastor played in an African American church and community. If you trace our rooting back into slavery, you'll find that the pastor was really one of the most revered and respected persons and one that the congregation had an absolute dependence on. And as such, even today, African American clergy hold a different level of responsibility and authority within the church than you would normally find within some of our Euro-Caucasian, which is not - they're not as highly dependent upon the personality of the pastor. And so there's this fear that if the pastor's not in the pulpit, no one's coming. If the pastor is not in the pulpit, people aren't going to log on and listen.

CHANG: So tell me, what did you do during the couple of months you were on this sabbatical? Just tell me how it went.

WESLEY: Well, you know, there's always a difference between what you planned and what actually went down.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Exactly.

WESLEY: So the plan was to get all this stuff ready for my conference of exams because I'm in my Ph.D. process. The plan was to get back working out regularly. The plan was to get back on a regular rest regimen, and a lot of those boxes were checked. It's amazing. The first month off in January, it took me a month to realize two things; one, how tired I was and, two, how addicted I was to my normal schedule. So January was a month of fighting the desire to come back in the office, the desire to slip in the...

CHANG: Yes.

WESLEY: ...Back of church and have people say, oh, we miss you. We miss you. So breaking that cycle of busyness was the first month. The second month was dedicated to more spiritual devotional time of reestablishing a prayer life and daily devotional and journaling, which I had strayed away from because I was sermon writing. But I wasn't reflecting over my own life and my own faith journey with God, so that was February - and also getting back healthy.

CHANG: Well, I know that your sabbatical was cut short. Not only was there a pandemic that has especially hit Black communities hard, but the country's racial reckoning took on a new intensity this past year. Do you feel that your sabbatical actually helped prepare you in some way for this really difficult, intense time?

WESLEY: Without a shadow of a doubt - as a person of faith, I believe in providence. I believe in God's preparing us for things that are coming down the road. And even though I didn't get the full sabbatical, those months off definitely not only refueled my body but gave me that deep connection back with the Lord because we were entering a season where - you know what, Ailsa? Old sermons weren't going to work anymore, so I needed to be fresh so that the membership through me could really sense that, OK; here's what God is saying to us.

CHANG: Did the words start flowing out of you? Did you fill the pages faster?

WESLEY: Yeah, definitely. And I wouldn't say new material because that kind of seems a little trite but fresh revelation. I felt like, OK, God is really speaking through me and to our people. And it felt good again.

CHANG: Yeah. That's so beautiful. So, Reverend, what advice do you have for people in terms of what to do with all the mental and emotional stress that may have built up over this last year? What do you do with that?

WESLEY: I think it's important to acknowledge that none of us are immune from it. And it's important to acknowledge when you're not well or when you're heavy and being able to find healthy ways of refueling with healthy friendships and relationships, seeking out mental health care professionals. I am proud to be in counseling every other week - the things that feed you and fill you once you acknowledge, OK, this has taken a toll on me, and I need to refuel the tank here.

CHANG: Reverend Howard-John Wesley, senior pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church, thank you so much for this conversation.

WESLEY: No, thank you for the opportunity. And I pray for all of us to make it safely out of this year behind us and move in to the new one with renewed energy and zest. Our communities, our nation, our world needs us at our best.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOVELLER'S "A PINK SUNSET FOR NO ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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