Five YDS grads anticipate rest, reflection through Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program

By Kelsey Dallas ’14 M.A.R.

For five Yale Divinity School graduates, 2013 will be a year of spiritual renewal—and perhaps passport renewal, too. The Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program, created to support pastoral exploration and reflection, selected five congregations served by YDS alumni for its 2012 class. Pastors will travel as far as Israel and Italy to explore a chosen topic of research.

OakThe honored alums include Richard Holmer ’79 M.Div., senior pastor of St. James Lutheran Church (ELCA), Lake Forest, IL; Carol Oak ’85 M.Div., rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Ellicott City, MD; Nancy Taylor ’81 M.Div., senior minister and chief executive officer of Old South Church (UCC), Boston, MA; John Stendahl ’73 M.Div., pastor of Lutheran Church of the Newtons (ELCA), Newton, MA; and Susan Nelson ’77 M.Div., pastor of Abiding Christ Lutheran Church (ELCA), Fairborn, OH.

For Holmer, this year’s travels are sweetened by over a decade of anticipation. Twelve years ago, Holmer was approved for a Lilly grant, but turned down the opportunity to accept the call to serve at St. James. He never regretted his decision, but is thrilled for this second chance.

Holmer will be journeying to Israel in April with his wife, spending a few weeks on Washington Island in June and also going camping with his youngest son Paul in British Columbia. He considers the sabbatical period an occasion for reading, writing and reflecting, as he clears his mind and renews his body and spirit. “After 34 years of parish ministry, it will be good to step away for a time to recharge and refocus on priorities for the years that remain,” he said.

StendahlCarol Pinkham Oak drew inspiration for her sabbatical studies from a treasured hymn at her parish, “Taste and See.” From April to August, she will “taste and see God’s goodness through preparing and enjoying locally grown foods,” journeying from Maryland to Long Island and Italy.

“Cooking and sharing a meal is for me a spiritual experience of hospitality, beauty and creativity,” she said. Oak noted that the St. John’s congregation will also spend time reflecting on the church’s ministry and enjoying locally grown foods prepared by a local chef.

Reverend Oak will begin by volunteering three days a week at small farms on the North Fork of Long Island, taking part in Slow Food East End, the local chapter of the Slow Food Movement. She will then spend three weeks in Florence and Tuscany, enjoying local art and food and taking a bicycle tour in the countryside with her family. Her summer will end where it began, on the North Fork, as she “rest, reflects, and tastes the goodness of the Lord.”

TaylorNancy Taylor and her congregation have planned a period of renewal focused on remaining true to the church’s history while growing as a community. “We intend in this time of renewal to practice mindfulness with special attention to those who inhabit our past and those in the future who will inherit our present,” Taylor said.  

Old South Church has invited clergy and seminarians that previously served their congregation back to visit, asking them to address in sermons and structured conversations how their lives have unfolded and what they remember about their work in Boston. The congregation is seeking wisdom and guidance from these former leaders. Taylor will also travel to the southwest for a time of “renewal, reflection and conversation with colleagues and church historians about bridging past and future.” She will spend time researching the history of Old South Church.

“We hope to learn together to internalize the stories of our faith and how to tell them…We hope thereby to better prepare ourselves for the future for which God is equipping us” Taylor said.

NelsonJohn Stendahl will spend time away from his parish visiting other churches and exploring the issue of community cohesion. He explained, “My chosen topic for personal research and reflection has to do with the function—or, I suppose, the sometimes dysfunction of nonfunctioning—of churches of a certain size and tradition as genuinely intergenerational or trans-generational communities, places of both personal and cultural encounters between young and old.” After his visits, Stendahl will sojourn in Stockholm, bringing these same concerns about encounters between generations into conversation with the Swedish culture. He will return to his church on the Sunday that begins his fortieth year of ordained ministry.

Stendahl looks forward to this opportunity for rest and reflection, as well as increased time with his family, describing his last sabbatical in 2006 as a true blessing. He believes that programs like the Lilly Endowment allow for not only pastoral refreshment and renewal, but also a congregation’s “growth in partnership and responsibility.”

When planning her period of renewal, Susan Nelson was inspired by the name of her church, Abiding Christ. The notion of abiding will influence her travels, as she explores the need for a “continual abiding nature of our relationships.”

Her sabbatical begins with a retreat to the Abbey of Gethsemani and includes study at Trinity Lutheran Seminary on healthy congregations. Nelson will also visit England to go fly-fishing, France to learn about vineyards, Germany to research the roots of the Lutheran denomination and Nantucket for a family reunion.

Nelson’s reflection on the influence abiding in Christ has on building healthy relationships will also influence congregational activities. The congregation is planning healthy events including a women’s health fair and a program designed for community children. “I’m very grateful for this opportunity both for my congregation and myself,” she said.

Under the National Clergy Renewal Program, the Lilly Endowment provides congregations with up to $50,000 to support pastoral renewal periods that leave a lasting impact not only on individual clergy members, but also on the congregations and communities they serve.


Date Posted: Saturday, January 5, 2013 - 9:00pm