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Sabbatical explores long-term ministries

In 2015, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church at Bainbridge Island applied for and received a $44,600 sabbatical grant from the Lilly Foundation’s Clergy Renewal Program for the Rev. Dee Eisenhauer’s four-month, spring 2016 sabbatical. 

Dee Eisenhauer “meets” one of many trees as part of learning about the Cascadia region’s woodland plants, shorelines, watersheds and aquifers.         Photo courtesy of Dee Eisenhauer

The Clergy Renewal grant covered expenses for her travel and study, a sabbatical interim pastor and program expenses for the church.

The focus of the Clergy Renewal grant program is asking clergy was the question: “What makes your heart sing?” and helping them renew their joy. 

Dee’s sabbatical included spending time with John, her husband of 34 years, enjoying music festivals, a trip to Mariner’s spring training and other outings.  It also included time traveling with her siblings and grown daughters exploring the Cascadia bio-region.

Having grown up in South Dakota, Montana and Alaska, she and John, who grew up in the PNC, married in 1982

In addition to her 6,000 miles of travel in the Cascadia landscapes, Dee dug deeper roots on Bainbridge Island, studying woodland plants, shorelines, watersheds and aquifers.  An experienced arborist introduced her to the island’s oldest trees.

Her sabbatical project was conversing with 30 other long-term clergy around the region, pastors serving a church 10 years or more—an average of 15 to 20 years. 

After graduating from Claremont School of Theology in 1985, Dee was associate pastor at Kirkland UCC for four years, then 10 years at United Church in University Place. In 1999, she began as pastor of Eagle Harbor UCC.

Long road trips introduce Dee Eisenhauer to sights of region.

Her interest in how to keep a long-term pastorate green and growing led her to visit ministers who have had stable ministries to ask what made their long pastorates fruitful.

She interviewed face-to-face men and women in different denominations—more women than men and more UCC than other denominations.  All but two were in the region.

About half of the ministers were UCC; the rest were Episcopal, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ, United Methodist, Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Canada, Church of God and Assembly of God. 

Dee worshiped in as many of the churches as she could manage, enjoying worship in 18 different churches.

She asked each minister the same 12 questions to learn about their ministry careers; when they realized they were in a tong-term pastorate; how they and their congregation are formed in each other’s image; how the community shapes the church, and the church the community; what energizes and drains them; what their greatest challenges have been and what helped them through it; what they feared; what sustains them spiritually; if their ministry is thriving; what scripture guides them; what are watchwords for their ministry, and what metaphor or image portrays their ministry.

“I came home and put my notes on the computer and then returned my notes for the clergy to review for accuracy,” Dee said.

“The trust that can develop in a pastoral relationship of longer duration makes it possible for both congregation and clergy to see each other through change while remaining in place,” she said.  “Performing weddings, burials and baptisms over the long haul, built trust that helped a pastor in times of conflict.”

Many ministers experienced a period of conflict- often around the third, seventh or 13th year—in their ministry and worked through it successfully. 

“Learnings from such periods of upheaval often strengthened the bond between the minister and faith community,” Dee said, engendering a spirit of collaboration and curiosity.

Dee asked they learned from conflicts—how the conflicts arose and closed, and if there was intervention.

Most were grateful to have overcome the conflicts.  Clergy found conflicts gave them a clearer sense of what is important and a sense of hope they can get through a conflict without people quitting the church.

When churches feel beleaguered, which is common in these days, she said, clergy may be an easy target when conflict arises. “It’s uncomfortable and some clergy quit too easily,” she said.”

If they endure the discomfort, people often discover they can disagree and come to a resolution. Clergy she interviewed who overcame conflicts were grateful for the renewed hopefulness and clarity it gave both the church and clergy about what is important. If the conflict is intractable, pastors sometimes discern it’s time to move on.

“A common thread that emerged was that the ‘churn’ in many congregations in this day and age meant that a minister might be in the same place for 20 years but feel as though she or he was on a third or fourth congregation,” Dee said. 

All experienced turnover in the years in ministry.  These days the average tenure of church membership in this region is about three years. The shorter-term members share pews with those who have been there for decades, and some whose families have been in the church several generations. People leave because they are unhappy, because of death, a new job or transfer.

The Eagle Harbor congregation has a stable core group, there for many years.  There is slow turnover with work and family changes.  Dee has watched many families grow up and grow old.

Several ministers also noted that they had gone through personal change or evolution while in the same location. 

Dee appreciated the vitality that comes from churches and pastors discovering their identity and mission together over years of collaboration.

“Inquiring about how the community shapes the church and the church shapes the community in each unique locale was stimulating,” she said.

Dee found that churches with lively, sharply defined mission and ministry to the community were doing well.  Ministries grew by a process of mutual discernment of the pastor and lay leadership.

One church, which had a ministry with homeless people, releases their senior pastor to work half-time with the church and half-time with a housing nonprofit.

Several churches have food related ministries.  One leases nearby farmland and grows tons of produce for food banks while learning to care for soil.  Another has a weekly community meal, raises money for global hunger relief missions and supports summer lunch programs for children.

Another church responded to changing neighborhood demographics by welcoming Chinese families moving into their neighborhood.  They started an intercultural ministry with ESL classes at the church.

Dee and Eagle Harbor are in a discernment process on ministry.

Like many mainline Protestant churches, Eagle Harbor does a little of this and a little of that, serving meals at homeless shelters in Seattle and Bremerton, building homes with Habitat for Humanity, offering an active youth program, opening the church building as a center for use by community groups, and being involved in ecumenical and interfaith work.

Dee hopes to draw on the sabbatical experience to inspire her own spiritual practice and sharpen the local church’s identity and mission in its distinctive location.

For information, call 206-842-4657, email or visit



Pacific Northwest United Church of Christ News © November-December 2016


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