The author (center) leading a group of American Baptist’s at the 2017 Biennial Mission Summit on a group bike ride around Portland, Ore. that provided a healthy, fun way to raise awareness of environmental issues

Grant recipient to pastors: ‘File your tax returns, then turn your attention to renewal’

By the Rev. G. Travis Norvell

Tax Day, April 15, causes much anxiety in the lives of pastors. There is always fear that we completed something wrong; clergy taxes are anything but simple. But there is a day right before Tax Day that should cause the heart of every pastor to sing: April 13, the date when applications are due for the Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Grant Program. As soon as you file your taxes, shift your attention to the 2019 Clergy Renewal Grant. Now is the time to start dreaming, planning and organizing for the 2019 application. Yes, it will take you a full year.

On a late August Sunday in 2017, I went to the office to prepare for worship. As I sat down at my desk, I noticed my mailbox was empty: no Bible catalogs, no credit card offers, no pleas for money, no amazing new conference that will increase membership by 200 percent. Nothing. Then I remembered that the office administrator had left early on Friday before the mail arrived.

I checked the incoming mail and — sure enough — there it was: an 8½-by-11 envelope from Christian Theological Seminary (the host site of the Center for Pastoral Excellence, which offers the National Clergy Renewal Program). I faced an unbearable situation: Do I open the letter now or wait? If I wait, then, all through worship, I will wonder what the letter says. But what if I open it to find that I didn’t get the grant? Then I’ll mope through worship. But what if I get it? With the joy and energy of a child on Christmas morning, I tore open the letter, read it, and then yelled, “Hallelujah.”

In April 2016, during a church council meeting, I presented the idea of pursuing the grant. The council had many questions but happily agreed to walk with me on this journey. At our annual meeting in May, the congregation, too, gave its blessing. It is difficult to say no to a $50,000 grant promoting flourishing pastoral and congregational life ($35,000 to the pastor, $15,000 to the congregation). I spent the summer dreaming, jotting ideas and talking with my family about what they would like to do. I also looked at the list of past recipients and contacted those near me or those I knew personally; I was moved and inspired by their experiences.

In the fall, a committee was formed. Originally called the “Sabbatical Taskforce,” it was quickly renamed “Team Travis” by one of the members. The taskforce acted as my sounding board, as I shared dreams, ideas and possibilities for my sabbatical plans. I cannot express how important and critical this sharing aspect of the taskforce was in gaining clarity and focusing our energy.

By January 2017, I had my theme: Pilgrimage. Why pilgrimage? As I started dreaming of sabbatical plans, my mind kept returning to an experience with my father. One morning when I was visiting family, he proposed we go back to “the hills.” That was family code language for going back to Upshur County, W.Va., where my ancestors had started an abolitionist community. When Dad broached the subject, I first hesitated because Dad and I did not have a good relationship. Something within me said that I should go. So I did.

We visited the villages and Baptist churches my family started, got lost numerous times on old country roads and discovered forgotten family cemeteries. As the day wound down, my father did something I had never seen him do before. He flagged down an oncoming truck and asked for directions to where the Kelly family had moved.

I had heard about the Kellys all my life but had never met them. My father’s family didn’t show affection, but the Kellys, who served as my father’s surrogate family, showered him with love. At their front door, my father hesitated to knock. I knocked for him. Mr. and Mrs. Kelly, vibrant 85 year olds, opened the door, met my father’s eyes and embraced him. I watched in amazement, as my father wept in their arms.

During the ride back home, we talked, we laughed and we enjoyed the presence of one another. It began the healing of our relationship. That trip was the last my father and I took together. Dad died two years later from esophageal cancer. For me, that trip was a pilgrimage — a healing, profoundly spiritual and cherished experience. Fourteen years later, I continue to dip from the wellspring of that trip. Before my children go off to college, I want us to have a similar transformational experience. The congregation, too, saw having its own pilgrimage experience as a way to stretch and expand their souls.

Once the theme was chosen, both myself and the church were prepared to make it a reality, regardless of the Lilly grant. We chose the “Randy Baker method.” A member of my church, Baker suggested we fully commit to the idea and find a way to make it happen. If we didn’t get the grant, my family was ready to rent our house during the Super Bowl to fund a less expensive pilgrimage, while members of the church volunteered to preach, offer pastoral coverage and explore other funding possibilities.

Thanks to the Clergy Renewal Grant, I will take my leave on May 13, 2018, and will not return to the church until Aug. 19, 2018. My time is divided into three parts: preparation, pilgrimage and reflection. The bulk of time will be spent on pilgrimage, as my wife and three kids walk, bike and take public transit from Edinburgh to Lindisfarne to Durham. While we are away, the congregation will go on retreat and pilgrimages, too! And, in October, when we are all back together, inspired by our pilgrimage theme, we will all go on a pilgrimage to Memphis, Tenn., to the National Civil Rights Museum. This experience has been so transformative that the pilgrimage plan extends beyond the renewal grant.

Writing the grant felt like an additional part-time job for everyone involved. Different members of the taskforce were assigned different tasks, as I wrote, researched and compiled numbers. Meanwhile, the congregation prayed for us. This experience, even before any of us have left for pilgrimage, has already brought new life, energy and focus to the congregation.

Download the application, mark your calendars, form a committee and start dreaming. Contact me in early November, and I’ll help you through the grant process in any way that I am able.

The Rev. G. Travis Norvell is pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minn.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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