A Facilitator's Reflection of 30 Years of ZSR's Sabbatical Program Facilitator Jean McLendon Reflects on 30 Years of ZSR's Sabbatical Program

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Thirty years ago, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation established a Sabbatical Program to support North Carolina’s nonprofit leaders. As a part of the program, sabbatical recipients attend a retreat at the beginning of their sabbatical and at the end. I have been fortunate to serve as a retreat facilitator for each of the sabbatical groups since the program’s inception in 1990.

There are times when what we give is returned exponentially. Through this experience, I feel that I have been given far more from the sabbatical recipients than I have given them. I leave each and every retreat feeling enlivened and softened. Getting to know these soulful leaders and activists inspires me to be a better person. For that, I am grateful.

I have learned that while the sabbatical is a major event for the recipient, their organizations and families, it is more importantly an opportunity for the recipient to engage in a process of self-renewal and rejuvenation. At the end of the sabbatical, as we gather for the post retreat, indeed it is clear that most participants have renewed energy and vitality to carry on in a new and healthier way.

It does not surprise me that many of our service leaders lean into the needs of others in a rather habitual manner. As children in their families, many adopted generosity and caring for others as a basic orientation to life. Most of them had first-hand experience with suffering and struggle in their growing up years. Thankfully, with support from family, church and/or school teachers, they learned to heal and transfer their pain into compassion, empathy and action on behalf of others, rather than live as victims bound to the trauma they may have experienced. 

However, what many did not learn is that they too have needs, which often require self-care, help and support. 

The Foundation’s sabbatical application process begins a steep learning curve for many recipients. The act of asking for a sabbatical often leads a recipient to consider, maybe for the first time, their own needs, vulnerabilities, fatigue and pride. They might ask, “Do I really deserve such a gift?” So while each recipient is elated to be offered this incredible gift, they may also feel undeserving and even guilty to have been chosen to receive it.

When pondering a sabbatical for themselves, most recipients imagine a period of time off from their routine work, much like the stereotypical academic sabbatical…more work, but of a different kind including: investigating best practice programs, conducting research, doing long range planning, writing articles or a book, reading professional literature that is piled high in their office corners and finally completing the “I will do this one day” list that has grown over the years. Their sabbatical plans looked like just another day of too much to do and too little time and energy to do it. It is often surprising for the recipients to learn at the pre-retreat that the challenge is simply to attend to their own needs for self-care.

My agenda with the pre-retreats is to facilitate a sense of support among the recipients. I want them to have each other as allies on their special and rare journey. The sabbatical award is precious. I believe they need to talk about the many kinds of feelings that are engendered when they hear that they are selected. The act of giving seems easy for them, but the act of receiving is usually an awesome challenge.

It is my hope that each recipient will allow time on this special journey for:

  1. Reflection about any personal wounds that needs special attention;
  2. Stillness, silliness, quiet and rest;
  3. Mending and nurturing significant relationships that too often have taken a backseat to their activism;
  4. Reconnecting with their core yearnings;
  5. Coming to know their true value and worth, which is not defined by what they do or have done, but rather by who they are; and
  6. Creating improved habits of self-care.

I have used several frameworks over the years that are relevant for the recipients. My ideas are derived and distilled from a nearly 20-year mentorship with Virginia Satir, author, activist and pioneer in the field of Family Therapy. Satir’s axioms include:

  1. Self-esteem at its core is much deeper than competence and confidence and is our birthright. Each of us manifests a unique life force.
  2. In life, the problem is not the problem; it is how we cope with the problem that really matters.
  3. Every individual has the internal resources needed for coping.

Satir created a useful way to view change. The first step of change is the interruption of our status quo. When our status quo is interrupted by a foreign element, chaos ensues. Once out of chaos, we begin the practice and integration of a new status quo. For the sabbatical recipients, the sabbatical itself brings chaos, both internally and externally. How we manage ourselves in the change process is an essential leadership skill. 

Finally, activism is using our change artistry skills in the world among others. Activism is most sustainable when it is grounded in the skills within each of us, including the skills of self-awareness, acceptance and authorship. These skills are foundations for creating and maintaining authentic relationships between our self and another. Quality relationships provide the foundation for us to engage as activists among people of the world. When we are well supported, aware of our abundance and our unique life force, we can move more freely into the generativity of altruism. When not a sacrifice, altruism can be sustained more easily. When leaders do not develop a loving and respectful relationship with themselves and those close to them they are made more vulnerable to ego distractions, defensiveness and empathy fatigue.

My agenda for the post-sabbatical retreat is to provide a safe place for each to speak, be heard, challenged and validated about their personal and organizational learnings. Their reentry back into their work environment is a common area of exploration and discussion.

In March 2019, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation held a Renew and Refresh Retreat for all current and previous sabbatical recipients. During that retreat, I shared a meditation that I wrote for them.  Never had I written a meditation prior to leading one but on this evening, I so wanted my words to speak from my heart to theirs. I think the meditation speaks to our commitment with this program to support our leaders who give of themselves so whole-heartedly.

This is what it read:   

I invite you to feel supported in your chairs and allow yourself to be as comfortable as you can…giving yourself permission to take this time for yourself. If it fits for you allow your eyes to gently close as a signal to you that you will be attending to your SELF in your own private safe space. I hope my words can be kind, connecting and true for you.

There was a time early on when you first began to explore your surroundings with awe, wonderment, inquisitiveness and apprehension. What you found fortunately was a world that had enough of what you needed to support your growth and development. And as years went by you learned that you had a compassion and talent for helping those around you… people you new well and later those you did not even know. You learned the art of helping in a way that brought healing and growth for the ever-expanding world around you. You have now become known and recognized for the gifts you have given to so many. And as you sit here with others who are so much like you, it is our hope that you can feel a deep validation for who you are and the life you live.

You have told a few people just how weary at times you have been…. what it is like to mostly be fighting daily for justice and equality. You have come to believe that you can never afford to close your eyes on injustice and inequality. You have worried about budget shortfalls, inadequate staffing, more clients than you can serve, policies and laws that don’t work, and the list goes on and on. So much that there have been many sleepless nights and often you and your family’s needs have had to be put aside.

As you know you have a special friend in the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. They have seen you, they have seen what you have accomplished and they have seen the cost to you for your having given so generously and tirelessly. Their hope has been to let you know for sure that you are a treasure.  They celebrate you and appreciate you… what you stand for as well as what you have accomplished.

But before the Foundation could really extend its caring hand to you, you had to face your Self: your vulnerabilities, limitations and most of all your own needs. You had to take the bold and courageous risk of asking for something for yourself. You needed help to carry on…. You applied for a Foundation sabbatical.

For a moment let yourself remember what it was like to be told you were selected to receive one of their prized sabbaticals.

And as we have gathered this evening can you appreciate that even though you an exemplary fighter and provider for others, that your value to the world is enhanced by the care you learn to give to yourself.

It is our hope that these few days can be a time for you to be reminded of your unique worth, to feel the healing and spiritual lift that comes with genuine and authentic connection and to leave feeling you have enriched and refreshed yourself.

As you prepare to close out your day and prepare for rest, allow yourself to give yourself permission to again consider what you want and need for yourself during our stay. And once again give yourself a genuine message of appreciation for your life, your gifts and your humanness.

Preparing for this transition …will you let your eyes open gently? And let your eyes meet the eyes of some of the people at your table. Allow yourself to be seen and to see. And now before we leave, I invite you to stand if that works for you and give yourself and those at your table a standing applause.

We look forward see you in the morning. Sleep well.

(Written by ZSR's Sabbatical Facilitator Jean McLendon)