The Reverend Dr. T. Janel Dixon exudes a positivity and boundless energy that give the impression that she can do it all. And, in many ways, she does.
Rev. Dixon has served Cedar Park Presbyterian Church since 2013, when she became the congregation's first female pastor. Located in her hometown of Philadelphia, Cedar Park is a small, 104-year-old African American congregation with an average age of over 65 years — "seasoned saints," as Rev. Dixon affectionately calls the congregants.
Along with her responsibilities at Cedar Park, Rev. Dixon of course has responsibilities at home. In addition to raising two children with her husband, she served as the primary caregiver for her mother from the time she accepted the call at Cedar Park until her mother's death in March 2021.
"Caring for [my mom] and the congregation took a lot out of me," Rev. Dixon said. By early 2020, she began to recognize signs of burnout: She felt her energy and creativity start to wane, and she didn't feel as sharp as she normally does.
"I'm kind of a workaholic at times, but I realized that I needed to start doing a better job with self-care," said Rev. Dixon, who also serves as Co-Moderator of the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. "So that was the impetus for me wanting to do a time of Sabbath."
Having served the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as a full-time installed pastor for more than 20 years, Rev. Dixon had never taken a sabbatical before, assuming she couldn't afford it. "Also, being a solo pastor, we wear many hats, and the responsibilities are overwhelming at times," she said. "I couldn't imagine being away from my congregation for two or three months."
While participating in Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations, a financial education program through the Board of Pensions, Rev. Dixon learned about another Board of Pensions program: Sabbath Sabbatical Support, one of several grants offered through the Assistance Program. Sabbath Sabbatical Support provides eligible ministers with a portion of the support they need — up to $3,000 — to engage in planned activities for personal and professional renewal.
"For a solo pastor in a small church like me, both of these programs — Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations and Sabbath Sabbatical Support — are truly a blessing," she said. "I could not have been more blessed to serve a congregation like Cedar Park and to be in the Presbytery of Philadelphia and to be a part of our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the way in which it provides intentionally for the wholeness and the care of clergy."
Rev. Dixon submitted her Sabbath Sabbatical Support grant application to the Board of Pensions just as much of the world, including her corner of it in Philadelphia, was coming to a halt because of the coronavirus pandemic. "It was a very anxious time for the congregation, not knowing how we were going to function in ministry and mission," she recalled. "I had really debated whether or not this would be the right time to take Sabbath."
After much discernment, Rev. Dixon embarked on her sabbatical in July 2020. In addition to receiving the Sabbath Sabbatical Support grant from the Board of Pensions, she also received financial support from the Presbytery of Philadelphia's Commission on Resources and Communications and from her congregation's session, which was "totally invested in my well-being," she remarked. "These three sources together helped me to fund a very life-changing and meaningful time of Sabbath that I could not have dreamed of before that."
With travel restrictions in place in response to the pandemic, the theme of Rev. Dixon's sabbatical was Becoming a Tourist in My Own Hometown. "I decided to put together a plan to explore various places right here in and around Philadelphia. … Tourists come in, and they are excited to learn all the history. We are right here, and sometimes we miss it," she explained. "I wanted to go on a journey to find out more about the place that I call home."
Because Rev. Dixon is visually impaired, she does not travel alone and needed a companion to drive and assist her throughout her journey. She included expenses for a travel companion in her Sabbath Sabbatical Support application and was thrilled when the Board of Pensions covered those expenses. "It was huge for me that not only would the Board of Pensions consider it, but that they would honor it and help support me in that way. I am very grateful," she said.
Rev. Dixon's travels took her to Philadelphia's Constitution Center on Women's Equality Day (August 26), which held great significance for her. Other stops focused on reconnecting with God through nature, including watching the sun set at Sandy Cove Ministries, in North East, Maryland; admiring the aquatic life at Adventure Aquarium, in Camden, New Jersey; and meditating in Hershey Gardens, in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
"I love being in nature. Those are places and spaces that I find myself drawing closer to God," said Rev. Dixon, who made it a priority throughout her time of sabbatical to disengage from daily tasks and engage in prayer, reflection, meditation, and journaling, the latter of which continues to be a daily practice for her.
"Part of the goal of my Sabbath was reconnecting with God. … David talks about the Lord filling his cup, and it running over. By the time I went on Sabbath, my cup was just about empty. I wanted to focus on refilling my cup and, when it was all said and done, my cup was running over because I felt that reconnection with God," said Rev. Dixon.
After two months of sabbatical time, she returned to her congregation restored and rejuvenated. "I think [the congregation] could see the difference in how I was going about ministry, even in the midst of COVID — the fact that I was rejuvenated and serving with great resilience and more creativity," she said.
As Rev. Dixon reflected on her experience, she expressed a deep gratitude for those who helped provide her with the opportunity to take her first sabbatical in more than 20 years of ministry. "I am so grateful and indebted to the Board for their care of us as clergy. It means so much when you know you are supported," she said. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart for really saving my life … because now I feel a sense of sustainability. Praise God."