Although ministers are on call 24/7, Connection Christian Rev. Dawn Weaks and her family are taking a sabbatical this summer to learn about plying their craft in the oilfield.
The opportunity is thanks to a $15,000 grant, which she applied for from the Louisville Institute in Louisville, Kentucky.
Her sabbatical starts May 12 and goes through Aug. 10.
“Our church, our denomination in fact, encourages sabbaticals at least every five to seven years for clergy. And so the congregation has given me and my co-pastor, and husband, Joe Weaks, three months of renewal, study, and recreation to refresh ourselves for another seven years of ministry in this community,” Weaks said.
Knowing a break was in the offing, Weaks looked for some grant opportunities to do something more than a staycation.
Weaks learned about the institute 10 years ago when she took her last sabbatical.
“I received a grant from their parent foundation, which is the Lilly Endowment, the pharmaceutical company. So that’s how I knew that there was additional money available,” she said.
The grant is called Anointed by Oil, to minister in oilfield settings.
“My goal is to learn more about being a faithful church within an oilfield setting,” Weaks said. “A church should not be something that you could just pick one up and plop it in another context. A church should be made up of and responding to the context that it’s in. Some things are unchanging; you know, the theology some of that, but it should reflect the community that it’s in. So it’s really important to study the context that you’re doing ministry within, so that’s my goal is to do more study about oilfield settings and what churches are doing to be effective in being a part of sharing the healing gospel within their context.”
The plan is threefold. One is interviews and conversations with people that are in the oilfield from rig workers to executives.
“The second is the trip that I took last summer with my family, which was to Casper, Wyoming, and all the area around there; learning about oilfield and mining like coal mining in that setting and interviewing churches and their ministers in that whole Wyoming shale area. And then the crown jewel is a trip to Stavanger, Norway. Stavanger is the Odessa of Norway. It’s the main oil town for Norway. Of course most of theirs is offshore drilling, but Stavanger is the place where all the workers are and there are a couple of international churches there that I’ll be interacting with one I’m there to see how they minister in that context,” Weaks said.
“The Norway trip is still tentative because they have yet to open to international travelers, so we’re waiting to hear. If it doesn’t happen this summer, my grant will be extended to be able to go next year. But I’m going to go ahead and take the time this summer because it’s timely; it’s opportune. We’ve kind of gotten through the hard part of the pandemic, knock on wood, and it’s time for me to act on what I learned from last summer in terms of reading and research and keep moving the ball forward. Even if we don’t get to go to Norway this time, we’ll go as soon as they open up.”
She added that when you’re away, you see things in a different light and more clearly.
Weaks said Connection Christian Church members are a mix of people. Many of them are educators, but there are a dozen or so who are connected to the oilfield.
“Those are some of the people I’ve already been talking to and interviewing. … My dad was from Lamesa. He worked in the oilfield as a kid, but that’s the extent of my firsthand knowledge of what it’s like, what people deal with, the mobility issues and the economic issues and the blessings in that; real challenges,” Weaks said.
During the time Weaks is gone, the church will have nine different guest preachers from all over the country, all related to the Christian Church Disciples of Christ, which is Connection Christian’s denomination.
She added that the guest preachers will include people from disaster relief and racial justice ministries, among others.
“It’s going to be a good, rich time for the congregation while we’re gone,” Weaks said.
She added that it will give the congregation a chance to figure out what they have to offer and give them an opportunity to step up.
“I wish more churches would do this for their ministers,” she said.
There is a team of elders, who are basically lay ministers, or volunteer pastors, who can conduct hospital visits and activities like that.
“The church is very is very bottom up. It’s about the average person doing ministry, and so we don’t have restrictions on who can offer communion, or who can make visits that kind of thing,” she said.
One thing she wants to do is study well and reflect on the theology around oil, what people believe about God and natural resources. They will not be preaching while they are away as it is part of her commitment.
“I’ll be … writing about that. My requirement for the grant is to produce a book-sized reflection on the theology of oil and what churches are doing to minister in oil-related areas. … Then for my congregation what I hope I bring back is a well-rested minister who has taken time to really think and pray, and study about our context and how we can continue to grow in being a healing presence in this oilfield setting that we’re in,” Weaks said.
As a side note, she said the church, which turns 150 years old in June, will be moving services inside as of May 16.
“We’re feeling like numbers are good enough that we’re comfortable having everything inside, but we’ve been hybrid, meaning we’ve had indoor and outdoor worship since October. So people have options. And, of course, we’re always online and there’s always that option.”
If anything, she added, the church has done five times the normal outreach that it do.
“We’ve done Monday meals, which is just a meal of encouragement that we’ve taken to all kinds of places, to the hospital staff, to the sheriff’s office to the Crisis Center … the Boys and Girls Club; wherever we could encourage staff. … We’ve been at the (West Texas) Food Bank weekly for months, and now we’re just doing it once a month; just lots of ministry,” Weaks said.
“Even though it’s been hard, we’ve found ways to serve …,” she added.
Judy Williams, moderator of the church board, said it will be good for the Weaks family to see what people in other areas of the country and world include in their worship, how they can help people, help the environment and move the church forward.
Williams said Joe and Dawn Weaks have brought many outreach programs to Connection Christian Church that the congregation gets really involved in, such as working with Medical Center Hospital on a COVID vaccine day and volunteering at the West Texas Food Bank. Whatever the ministers take from their experience will have a big impact on the congregation.
“She and Joe are highly respected throughout the community for their outreach. This will bring another element,” Williams said.
Church member Rhonda Lewallen said when people are off work, they can separate from their work.
“We talk about the latest shows we’re watching, how our nephews and nieces love T-ball or dance class, or about our cute dogs. Preachers, on the other hand, are approached anywhere, anytime, by anyone who knows they are in pastoral care. Their nature is to be caring and altruistic, so they graciously listen and try to help. They truly care about people and therefore will absorb other’s worries and keep them in prayer. Sabbatical is a necessary time away when they can recharge their batteries, so to speak. They can rest and reflect on their faith,” Lewallen said in an email.
While Connection Christian may be serving in a new location, it has deep roots.
“It’s been great. And of course our Connection Center has six nonprofits in it and we just love it; (we) love having those organizations in our building. There’s just a lot of synergy there, so it’s fun …”