Pastor to bring lessons from Europe trip to Salem congregation

Pastor Rob Toornstra told his family not to get their hopes up about the Clergy Renewal Program Grant, a competitive national program that he’d applied to again this year after being rejected in 2017.

But the dream had stuck in all their minds regardless, imagining a trip to Europe where they could see sites significant to their faith and family history. 

“I was turned down before, so I figured I’d be turned down again,” he said. “I found out at the end of August that my grant had been approved. When I saw that email, I prepared for it to be the rejection letter. But I opened it up, I was just blown away that it was approved.”

The Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program gives congregations up to $60,000 to give pastors a chance to take time off and reflect, while making deeper connections with their faith through things like travel or research. Toornstra said it will help prevent him from burning out so he can stick with the profession for the long run.

This year, the program selected 207 congregations nationwide, and two are from Salem. Toornstra, who is the pastor at Sunnyslope Christian Reformed Church in southeast Salem, was selected, as was Rev. Christopher Bechtel at Evergreen Presbyterian Church.

Toornstra will be using his sabbatical for a trip to Arizona and three sites in Europe, each with a connection to his own family history. The trip will be a time to recharge his batteries and process what he learns without the pressure of a deadline to write a sermon.

“I love being a pastor, but there are times where I find you just don’t get the time to study as much as you want because there’s always people to visit or there’s always sermons to write,” he said. 

The theme of the trip is a “walk in the footsteps of faith.” Toornstra said his application was stronger in this attempt because of its central theme. He’s walked over 600 miles in Salem this year, which he integrated into his grant proposal.

“I said I wanted to walk in all these places that have shaped me and my church,” he said.

The three-month sabbatical will start in June with a weeklong retreat with his wife to Prescott, Arizona where they’ll relax and reconnect.

In July, he, his wife and their children will embark on their three-week tour of Europe, starting in Holland where his grandparents grew up.

“I’ve never really taken the time to learn much about that. So I’m looking forward to learning about where my grandparents were from and their story. They’ve both been gone for years and years now,” he said.

Next up will be a week in Switzerland, walking the same streets that reformation thinker John Calvin did in the 1500s.

“His thinking shaped so much of who we are today. I think many people have been influenced by the Reformation even if they’re not people of faith, because the Protestant Reformation had such a wide-reaching impact on culture,” he said. 

The last part of the trip will be a journey throughout Greece in Thessaloniki, Corinth, Athens and Philippi to see where the early church was established. He’ll be taking classes to study Greek church history before they embark.

About six years ago, he taught abroad in Romania and took a day trip to Athens.

“Even in that time, I was amazed at how much I’d learned. There are parts of the Bible that now I understand better because I was in Corinth and stood on the place where Paul preached in Athens. That kind of thing really sticks with me.”

Toornstra will be using his experience to develop new curriculum for his congregation back in Salem. He plans to teach classes on the history of the Holy Land and the Mediterranean region.

He also plans to virtually take his congregation to the sites via the church’s YouTube channel.

“I’m definitely not a cool kind of blogger like my kids like to follow,” he said, laughing. “I’m not super formal but I’m also not one of these hyped-up YouTuber people like Mr. Beast, that’s just not me. I’m hoping it’s engaging, that the content is interesting and informative.”

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.