Get out of Town

24 Jul

One of my own campus ministers, now retired, says that the secret to his success, longevity, and happiness in campus ministry was to get out of town.  Always use your continuing education, he said.  Change your location, the scenery.  Immerse yourself in something else, somewhere else.  Being with other campus ministers, other clergy, or just others helped him keep his perspective and eventually return to daily life and the specifics of his calling refreshed.

Some of us are diligent about fulfilling continuing education requirements.  Some of us are steadfast in our use of vacation days.  Some of us pray every day and get plenty of exercise, never leaving it for the bottom of the list.  But from my observations, most of us can use some help and encouragement.  Most of us work long hours, called to these jobs we love, but still feel slightly guilty when we choose not to answer the phone during dinner, or after 9pm, or when we are on vacation.  Most of us (and most of the culture around us) have a hard time tuning out for a while.

Let me ask you this:  When a harried student comes to talk with you, hyped up on caffeine, lack of sleep, fear of failure, heartbreak, and exam season, what do you tell him?  Do you tell him to just keep plugging away and somehow it will work out or do you tell him to turn off his phone and get some sleep?  When a distressed student’s thinking has become so circular that it’s hard to get a word in edgewise, what do you say to her?  Do you encourage her to keep running in circles until she happens upon an answer or do you suggest that perhaps a walk outside or a meal might bring some fresh air and perspective?

If we are so generous and wise with others, why are we often so stingy and short-sighted with our own lives?

A couple of years back, my Presbyterian colleague inspired me with her email signature, which, down at the very bottom of all the other important information listed, has this simple heads up phrase for her correspondents:  “I check email Sunday – Thursday.”  I didn’t copy it right away.  I talked with her about it.  I asked her if it worked.  I wondered aloud about the “permission” that it gave her.  Eventually I slapped that sucker down at the bottom of my email, too.  I check email on workdays, Sunday – Thursday.  I give a heads up to the eternally-connected that I pause each week and step away from the computer.  (Yes, we have retreats and other things that sometimes happen on Fridays or Saturdays and then I log in.  But I also try to take some time at other points in the week to make up for that time away from my family, my home, and the other parts of my life.)

It doesn’t always work.  The day I sent this post to Cody was a Friday, the day before my vacation.  But I didn’t look at the inbox.  And today, when he posts this, I remain offline and out of touch.  My away message declares that I am “blissfully unconnected.”   Sure, I’m curious to see if you “like” it or if anyone comments, but my need to be a bigger, balanced, more joyful person is more pressing.  And really being away is part of that.  Really being wherever I am at the time – instead of 10 steps ahead, planning for the next event.  Really being with the people I am with – instead of jumping to respond and react when someone else somewhere else pings me with a message.

It doesn’t always work but I keep trying because I truly believe that I, too, deserve sleep, rest, vacation, a change of scenery to engage another part of my mind or heart, time to Be and stop the doing, the time and space to go for a walk, cook a meal, or read a novel.  I understand that when Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest,” he is talking to me, too (Matthew 11: 28).  And I understand that I can’t save myself.

So I give up.  To turn a phrase on its head, I Turn Off, Tune Out, and Log Off.  I let someone else answer the phone and I go to the NCMA conference.  I ask someone to cover for me and I take a Sunday off.  I relent at the end of a long day or a long week and say “enough.”  I take every bit of my vacation.

Let me ask you another question:  What kind of life do you pray for, for your students?  Because I guarantee they are watching.  They are hoping you will show them how it’s done, so they are paying attention – not just to what you say but to how you live.

Thomas Merton once wrote about those engaged in social activism and peace work, “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.  The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander).  This applies to us, too.  We can’t help students plan for whole, joyful, God-centered lives if we neglect our own lives.  Our frenzy and refusal to get out of town, tune out, or log off negates what we are trying to do.

My campus minister was right.  Getting out of town is vital.  Living by a different rhythm for a few days every now and then is vital.  And taking smaller increments of time each day and each week to “turn off” is what builds up in us as a spiritual discipline.

I will give you rest.  It’s a promise.  It will build you up.

Even when the students are here.  Especially when they’re here.

Go on, get out of town.


Deborah loves hiking, cooking, reading, and a good strong cup of coffee. She believes that a rainy day is one of God’s great gifts and that When Harry Met Sally can never be seen or quoted too many times.  When she is not throwing pottery on the wheel, she also enjoys writing, sometimes for the online magazine catapult.   She is an ordained elder in the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and serves as director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Virginia.  She has been in campus ministry for 11 years and shares the journey with her husband and stepson.

3 Responses to “Get out of Town”

  1. paul walley July 24, 2012 at 4:27 pm #

    Love it, Deborah! So spot on. Hope you are enjoying your vacation rather than reading these comments! (or take a quick peek and then get back
    to your rest and renewal).

  2. Vickie July 27, 2012 at 7:11 pm #

    Her campus minister must have been Glen Tyndall.

  3. Deborah Lewis July 30, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    Nope, it’s Jim McDonald, but I know Glen, too.

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