KEARNEY — “I know you preach,” someone once said to Pastor Tyler Wilterding. “But what else do you do?”
Wilterding, 39, pastor of The Table Church at 522 W. 11th St., offered a lengthy answer. He preaches. He teaches. He leads. He comforts. He guides. He gives. He listens. Around the clock.
“A physician in the ER can go home after working 24 hours straight, but a pastor is on call 24/7. It takes an emotional toll, but it’s difficult for the person in the pew on Sunday morning to understand.” Wilterding said.
Next April, he will catch his breath. Wilterding is one of just 150 clergy across the country chosen to receive a $48,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment for a 13-week sabbatical in 2020.
“Many people say, ‘I don’t get time off like that!’” Greg Gangwish, the church’s congregational representative, said. “But the rate of burn-out in ministry is staggeringly high. Most people earn bona fide vacations as part of their job structures, but pastors live in a different rhythm from most people.”
Gangwish, himself a pastor currently working as a health-care consultant, added, “How do we help our pastor be his best? God really commands a balance for all of us. This will be a crystal-clear picture of not only where Tyler has been, but where he needs to go.”
Wilterding’s sabbatical will begin April 18, 2020, the Sunday after Easter, and continue through early August, interrupted only by his two-week summer duty as a chaplain with the Nebraska National Guard.
He plans to read 20 books ranging from spiritual themes to fiction. He will attend a retreat in Colorado for ministers starting the second half of their careers. He will make wooden planter boxes because “I love working with my hands. It’s the opposite activity of ministry.”
Travel is on the calendar, too. He and his wife Karmen, who owns Kearney Massage and Day Spa, plan an 11-day trip to Greece to retrace the steps taken by Paul in his missionary journeys. Also, they will take their five children, aged 4 to 16, to visit relatives in the Texas Panhandle because “it’s hard to get time away for family trips,” Wilterding said.
The family also will relax and reconnect in Kauai, Hawaii. “I asked the kids to pray and dream. If they could go anywhere, where would they go?” he said. “I thought they’d say Florida or Disneyland, but they said, ‘We want to go to Hawaii.’ They were really excited.”
Gangwish added, “This enables the whole family to enjoy the gift of sabbatical together. This is truly a luxury.”
A lengthy application
Wilterding, a native of Atkinson, stumbled upon the Lilly Endowment grant when he was poking around online for teaching and training resources he might use in a sabbatical. The grant, funded by the Lilly Endowment and administered by Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, gives pastors up to $50,000 for extended time away from their ministerial responsibilities.
Wilterding knew the entire family would benefit. “The kids see me giving a lot of my time to my church members. It takes a toll on Karmen, too,” he said.
Wilterding plunged into the application process last January. It took him three months to complete. He had to detail his sabbatical activities and the cost of his absence both financially and personally to the church. He had to explain how the sabbatical would benefit the congregation, and how it would enrich his ministry after he returned.
He wrote a 20-page, double-spaced essay on how and why a sabbatical would be spiritually energizing and restorative for himself and his family.
The application deadline was April. He had to wait until August to learn whether he was accepted.
On the third Saturday in August, Karmen suggested, “Why don’t we drive by the church and see if a letter is in the mailbox?” They did. Sure enough, a white envelope from The Lilly Endowment had arrived. “Karmen said, ‘Open it,’ but I said, ‘I’m not ready to open it.’ I was afraid it would be a ‘no,’” Wilterding said.
They went home. Before opening the letter, they talked about how they would deal with a rejection.
As Wilterding nervously opened the letter, his fear fell away. He had been accepted. Overjoyed, he drove to Gangwish’s house to share the news.
Wilterding will be paid while he is gone, and an interim pastor will serve during his absence. Each church member will receive a book about the need to balance work and rest.
“Sometimes pastors struggle to give themselves permission to go on sabbatical. They say, ‘Maybe I should . . .’” Gangwish said. “This will work for the congregation, too. This is a team effort. It will not only revive the pastor, but allow everyone to be in a better place.”
In God’s hands
Wilterding was not raised in a church. When he was 18 years old, “a pretty girl invited me to a church service.” He was as drawn to church as he was to that pretty girl, Karmen, now his wife. “The message of the Gospel resonated with me. It wasn’t long after that that I knew I wanted to spend my life proclaiming that message to others,” he said.
He went to Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio, and then returned to Nebraska with Karmen. After attending a funeral in Kearney nine years ago, they felt called to plant a church here. “There are a lot of great churches here, but a lot of people weren’t connected,” he said.
They first met in homes, apartments and coffee shops. The church moved to its current location 18 months ago. The Table Church (“it’s named for a place where everyone can come to the table”) strives to make disciples in the community through worship, small groups, community and mission work.
“I love what I’m doing. I consider it a privilege. This is what God has asked me to do,” he said. “I am overcome with thankfulness for this congregation. They’ve been so affirming. The shepherd feels loved by the sheep.”
But he knows, too, that, like Jesus, he needs time in the desert, alone. “Slowing down will be a valuable time for me to process God’s calling in my life regarding who I am not just as a minister but as a child of God, a dad and a husband,” he said.