Why the Pilgrimage?

Heading to Max Patch

After discussing briefly the “What?” in that last post, let’s back up a bit to the Why?

Why did I feel it was necessary to spend several weeks in the woods hiking a few hundred miles on the Appalachian Trail?

Sabbatical. Pilgrimage. Spiritual Quest. All these descriptors for my journey could help explain the “Why?” as I reflect on what necessitated such a drastic undertaking. And it was a bit drastic or desperate by some standards. Since I had never spent more than 3-4 days hiking or backpacking, suddenly deciding to spend about 40 days on the Appalachian Trail (my original goal) certainly made some folks wonder about my mental state, especially my mom.

But after 15 years of youth & worship ministry…then another 11+ years of college ministry at the University of Cincinnati, I found myself at an interesting crossroads of sorts. For one thing, I was emotionally & spiritually (some days physically) exhausted. This is why sabbaticals can be so critical for those serving in full-time ministry. I’d say that after every 5-7 years of vocational ministry, one needs to take 4-6 weeks for spiritual refreshment and renewal.

On top of what you might call burn-out or ministry fatigue, I was also dealing with some personal spiritual demons. About 5 years ago (give or take a year maybe), I began to have some major battles with skepticism and doubt. It may sound strange to some, but there were some foundational assumptions and beliefs that started to feel a little flimsy really for the first time in my life.

When I made the transition from high school to college, I was actually experiencing a peak season of spiritual growth. I felt a call to ministry during my freshman year of college, changed my major from chemistry to biblical studies and never really looked back (much) for about 25 years. But something happened over the past few years and I entered a (mostly private) season of deconstruction. For the first time in my life, I was giving myself space to take some beliefs and ideas apart and decide in my early 40s what really made sense to me.

So I won’t go into the gory details here, but if one has a “house of cards” model of faith (which I don’t recommend), I was definitely wiggling a few critical cards which could jeopardize the whole arrangement. And for a couple of years now, I have been in a holding pattern with my own spiritual growth…unable to heal, grow, and reconcile some of those doubts and questions. Something deep within me seemed to know that I needed a fresh time of spiritual immersion.

Like learning a foreign language, you can learn a lot from books and language apps, but nothing works like immersion. Jumping into the deep end so to speak…so that you have no choice but to learn and survive. For me, I knew that jumping back into the ”deep end” spiritually might look like 40 days of hiking on the Appalachian Trail (or something similar).

That is why this journey was necessary. I found myself, as a pastor to college students, with a less than vital and vibrant spiritual experience…questioning some core things about Christianity. I am embarrassed to admit that many of the questions were encouraged more by my own stale Christian experience than by legitimate issues which might undermine one’s faith. And what happened during the first week of my trail-sabbatical was quite surprising!

We will get into that next time.

What is a pilgrimage?

While I was out on the Appalachian Trail for 23 days, perhaps the most common question put to me was something like this: Why are you out here?

Typically, I would tell people that I’m on a pilgrimage and that would usually prompt the next obvious question: What is a pilgrimage?

To put it mostly simply, a pilgrimage is a physical journey with a spiritual purpose. (My definition)

Others have defined ”pilgrimage” in some of these ways…

—a long journey to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion

—a spiritual quest

—a trip taken by a pilgrim, usually for religious purposes

I would also bring up the word “sabbatical” at some point because the AT hike, for me, was also part of what I would consider a ministry sabbatical. After 11+ years of college ministry, I decided to take about 5 weeks as a sabbatical to pursue spiritual renewal and guidance for future ministry & vocation.

Sabbaticals are often taken by academics or people serving in ministry. The etymology of the word is obviously connected to “sabbath” which refers to the seventh day of Creation in the Bible in which God ceases from his work and then rests. So a ministry sabbatical is a release from the routine of one’s calling in order to pursue physical, emotional, & spiritual rest for the well-being and health of the minister.

Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing a series of posts sharing some of my experiences on the Appalachian Trail while also processing the spiritual & emotional benefits I received from this time away and the last 2 weeks of my 2020 sabbatical. Any questions and comments are welcome along the way! Feel free to make this more of a conversation than a monologue. 👍🏼