In her first sermon before the Congregational Church of Patchogue, the Rev. Jeanne Baum called all the children to the front pew, held open a bright green book, and began to read the familiar lines of Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.”
She called it “a story for all ages,” and the message resonated with the Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter, who began a three-month sabbatical a few days earlier, but in “typical” fashion, was working Sunday anyway.
To Wolter, an important part of “The Giving Tree” message is the undercurrent -- the receiving. He said those who give so much, rarely take anything for themselves -- including times of rest, peace and reflection.
“In my experience, the people who are the worst at that are the clergy,” he said. “We are programmed and predisposed to giving but we are not very good at taking care of ourselves.”
Wolter’s sabbatical will focus on the theme of renewal, both for himself and his church. His sabbatical and activities geared toward revitalizing his congregants are being paid for by a $42,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program.
The Lilly Endowment, a nonprofit organization founded by family members of the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company, awards up to 150 grants per year for up to $50,000 each. A maximum of $15,000 is to be spent on congregation expenses, which emphasizes the program’s focus on the clergy.
“They said, ‘Dwight, what will renew your soul?’” Wolter said. “No one’s ever asked me that before. It’s usually, ‘Will you take on another assignment, will you come visit so-and-so who is dying?’ Those are all very important things, but they are exhausting.”
The leader of the 220-year-old congregation, which has a building on Main Street that dates back to 1893, will spend the majority of the summer traveling through Germany and South Africa with his 17-year-old son, Casey.
He said he chose those locations because he wanted to see firsthand communities that have experienced a renewal after turbulent times.
“How do they recover?” he said. “How do they renew? What does that look like?”
Wolter said the past few years have been difficult for the Patchogue community and for members of the church -- locally and worldwide.
On his own turf, there was the 2008 killing of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero, whose funeral, attended by a crowd of 1,500, Wolter presided over. Racial tensions remain, he said, as well as other growing pains of Patchogue’s changing demographic.
In the church, attendance is down and pressure on the clergy is up.
Wolter said he works seven days and four nights a week. He is responsible for both the spiritual needs of his community and the practical demands of a multifaceted business. His church also hosts community forums, a weekly soup kitchen, a clothing and food pantry and regular bicycle drives.
He is also a single father.
“He’s going, going, going all the time,” said Kathy Ljungqvist, Wolter’s administrative assistant and a member of the church choir. “I don’t think everyone sees that. He really needs the rest and he’s going to come back full of fresh ideas. It’s going to be a great thing.”
As the congregation gathered for a barbecue after services on Sunday, many wished Wolter luck and said their temporary goodbyes (though some will spend the next week with Wolter at a retreat on Shelter Island, also paid for by the grant). There was a general feeling of excitement both for the opportunity afforded to their pastor and for the prospect of great benefits to the church.
Marcie Deedy, 83, who has lived in Patchogue for all of her life and joined the Congregational Church in 1953, was a member of the sabbatical committee, a group that helped write the grant application for Wolter and discussed the trickle-down effect for the church.
In trying to describe how the church culture has changed, she couldn’t.
“All I know is what used to be and we can’t just keep doing what we used to do,” she said. “It’s time to move forward, time to be renewed.
“We’re excited. We don’t know exactly why, but we’re excited for something.”