Jacksonville’s First Presbyterian pastor, family spend 3-month sabbatical in Scotland
By David Blanchette
A Jacksonville minister and his family have recently returned from a three-month sabbatical in Scotland during which they traded pulpits with a Scottish minister who spent the summer in Jacksonville.
Rev. Jonathan Warren, the minister at First Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, and Rev. Gary Noonan of the Houston & Killellan Kirk church in Scotland, took part in the exchange from May 25 through August 25.
“That first Sunday in Scotland was really special. We were the ones who had different accents, and they were excited about ‘the American minister is here,’” Warren said. “And I was excited because I had never done anything like this.”
Warren carefully prepared the sermons he delivered at the church in Houston, a suburb of Glasgow, by having Rev. Noonan review them for any language nuances that may not mean the same thing to the Scottish congregation as they would for the American faithful.
“I had a story about Abraham Lincoln and had to explain who Abraham Lincoln was, that wasn’t a character that everybody in Scotland was familiar with,” Warren said. “I also did a few things differently in the service than they were used to, and they were really sweet, kind and gracious about it.”
Warren was looking forward to participating in a special communion service held the first Sunday in July at the ruins of the original 11th century Houston church. But rain and muddy conditions meant that Warren had to instead lead the service from the “new” church dating from the 17th century.
The idea for the Scottish-American minister exchange began while Warren was a pastor in Knoxville, and heard about a similar exchange involving a friend. While looking into the possibility, Warren learned that his grandfather, a Methodist pastor, had done a similar exchange to Ireland.
Warren continued to pursue the idea after he became the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville seven years ago. Warren’s wife, Rev. Siobhan Warren, is also a Presbyterian minister.
“Jonathan just started emailing Presbyterian churches in Scotland saying, ‘Hi, would you do a swap with me in the United States?’” Siobhan Warren said. “And people were like ‘No, I don’t know who you are.’”
Jonathan Warren then asked a seminary friend in Scotland to share the request with pastors there and was put in touch with Noonan, who was enthusiastic about the idea. The next step was to find a way to pay for the exchange.
The Warrens applied for, and received, a $50,000 Lilly Foundation Clergy Renewal Grant for a three-month sabbatical to Scotland. While most sabbaticals don’t involve work, the Warrens’ sabbatical was structured to include preaching a sermon every Sunday in the Houston church, which received $15,000 of the grant funds to help accommodate the arrangement.
Siobhan Warren said the Houston congregation couldn’t have been more accommodating.
“To some extent church is church no matter where you are, their liturgy is similar but they sang more hymns,” she said. “We had afternoon tea and we had haggis, which we all liked. We knew what it was but it was tasty.”
“At one home we had Balmoral Chicken, a chicken breast stuffed with haggis and wrapped with bacon. The wife was from England and the husband was from Scotland so she wanted to have a little bit of English food also,” Warren said. “So she got scones and clotted cream which they don’t have so much in Scotland.”
The Houston congregation quickly felt like family to the Warrens.
“It was surprising during those four weeks how much we felt integrated into the community, so it was surprisingly difficult to say goodbye,” Siobhan Warren said. “The last Sunday after church they gave us some gifts and everybody sang Auld Lang Syne, it’s a song that has more cultural significance to them. They circled around the church and we all held hands.”
The three-month sabbatical wasn’t all work, and the Warrens took their daughters, 14-year-old Hannah and 12-year-old Lydia, with them for their trip of a lifetime. The family visited all of the traditional attractions including castles, cities and the famous Scottish Highlands They also “glamped” at Warwick Castle in England, with overnight accommodations in fancy tents during an ongoing Renaissance fair.
One of the reasons Jonathan Warren chose Scotland as his exchange destination was that the Presbyterian Church has its roots in that country. But during the process, he discovered that his own roots are in that country as well. A DNA test that his wife gave him for Christmas last year showed that he is 40% Scottish.
Now that they are back in Jacksonville, the Warrens maintain contact with the Houston congregation and are discussing with them ways that the two churches may become sister congregations. Jonathan Warren also plans to incorporate some of his experiences in Scotland with the worship services at First Presbyterian.
“Every November our church has a St. Andrews Sunday with bagpipes, that is already part of our tradition,” he said. “One of our hymns, ‘Morning Has Broken,’ comes from Scotland, and I plan to have a sermon series on family and heritage.”