In praise of Sabbaticals
April 16th 2021 was a very special day for me. It marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of me setting foot in Osijek in Eastern Slavonia Croatia in 1996. I have been reliving that first week when I met the staff at the Centre for Peace, Non-Violence and Human Rights and heard all about the peace-building work in that part of Croatia which had seen fierce fighting and the destruction of Vukovar, a lovely old town on the bank of the river Danube. It was to be a life-changing visit and it altered the whole direction of my work and ministry. What is significant for me is that the visit was made during a Sabbatical.
I have been very blessed with having had four Sabbaticals, the first of which was in 1989 when I was very involved in making church links with East Germany. The recent TV series on Channel 4, Deutschland 83,86 and 89, has been requisite viewing for me as I watched the demise of the German Democratic Republic and the opening up of borders between East and West Berlin. On that Sabbatical in 1989 I witnessed the powerful services for peace in the Nikolai Kirche Leipzig which were attended by hundreds of people who poured out onto the streets when the services had finished to demonstrate their desire for more freedom watched by the dreaded Stasi, the secret police.
It was the second Sabbatical in 1996 that proved to be the most productive in terms of the direction of my future ministry. I have always seen my work as learning to live in a reconciling way and I have been greatly inspired by the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland and its commitment to reconciliation. What inspired me most in Osijek was witnessing grass roots reconciliation work. I was introduced to Dušanka Ilić and Bench we Share, a grass roots project encouraging people of all nationalities to sit together on the bench again after the benches outside people’s houses became empty in the war in 1991/2 as the country of Yugoslavia disintegrated into chaos.
I was drawn into the peace work almost immediately and the link with Bench we Share evolved into Touch of Hope. With the help of generous grants from the Methodist Church and people together with grant making bodies the work of Touch of Hope has expanded from Croatia to Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In our twenty fifth year we continue to offer a series of workshops in reconciliation and we offer training for people to be local facilitators in leading workshops. The need for our work is still pressing despite Croatia being a popular holiday destination.
Sabbaticals are a real gift from the Church to the Church. I shall never forget that sense of freedom I felt from the pressures of circuit life when on day one I stepped into the unknown of what the Sabbatical was to offer. It was strange at first not having to think about next Sunday’s sermon and who needed a visit. That is why it was important to travel away from home very early on to take advantage of the time and space I had. Returning from my travels it was lovely spending time with the family in the evenings and not have to rush out to a take a church council!
I felt it was also good for my churches to ‘let me go’ for three months and when we were reunited it was good to reflect together on what the three months had meant for me and the congregations I served. I was blessed with a supportive congregations in the Birmingham Elmdon circuit when I came back from Osijek, and I was encouraged to develop the reconciliation work by them.
While I was in Osijek, I also became aware of how important mediation is in transforming conflict. I saw how mediation was being used when people who had been forced to leave their homes were now wishing to return to their communities. Mediation was available in the tensest of circumstances. I was determined to initiate a Community Mediation service on my return to circuit. This desire became a reality in Leamington Spa where Mediation and Community Support was formed. Like Touch of Hope, our work has grown and we offer mediation in neighbour, workplace and church disputes. We also offer training in different aspects of handling conflict to the community including to churches.
On that Sabbatical in 1996, I realised that within my call to being a Methodist minister, I was also receiving the call to exercise a ministry of reconciliation locally through the mediation service and also internationally through Touch of Hope. It was not easy at times to articulate this call in the Church and I went through a lot of turmoil and heart searching. However, I always experienced a deep peace when I knew that I was being true to that calling. Little did I realise that when I stepped off the train at Osijek station in 1996 and not knowing a soul, how much my life and the lives of so many others would be transformed by God’s reconciling love.
Rev Clive R Fowle
Supernumary minister in the Coventry and Nuneaton Circuit.
Updated June 2021