While there may be something to the idea that as ministers we should always feel like we are “in over our head” (or else we may not be taking our calling seriously enough), there is no point in drowning! Joining with our peers to figure out what makes ministry so hard can help us keep our heads above water. While loneliness is traditionally one of the hardest parts of professional ministry, we do see signs today that pastors are changing this. There are many members of the clergy who are not struggling and who want to join peer groups because they relish the chance to reflect on work they enjoy (even if they find it challenging) and desire to improve. Peer groups are, in short, for those who are keeping their heads above water and want to stay there.
Pastors need to get a collective grasp, first of all, on what contributes to the loneliness they experience. I am not pointing out anything new by saying that the ministry is considered a lonely pursuit. Nearly every conference I attend or piece I read on the formation of ministers stresses our need somehow to change the culture of loneliness for clergy and other religious leaders.
At some point, someone invariably brings up the metaphor of the Lone Ranger, implying that ministry may be compared to traveling all alone across a vast landscape. Indeed, loneliness in their work is frequently given as a primary reason why ministers seek out their colleagues. Many acknowledge that ministers are hungry for the companionship of others. Simply belonging to a group of peers that gathers regularly, whether it be for fellowship, spiritual formation, or continuing education, can go a long way toward meeting clergy’s felt need to break out of their isolation.
And yet the experience of isolation, as hard as it can be, does not by itself explain the loneliness of ministry. Ministers do not simply experience a lack of company. The Lone Ranger metaphor is not really apt, for ministers do not really spend all that much time alone. (Indeed they often complain about just the opposite: the clamoring of other people after their attention; the endless rounds of meetings, appointments, and events crowding their calendar; and the constant ring of the phone and ping of the e-mail server.) If anything, ministers tend instead to report that they long for more solitary, quiet moments in their days. They do not necessarily desire the presence of more people. Therefore I don’t think peer groups are simply meeting a need for companionship. They meet a need for the companionship of peers who do the same thing they do. The nature of their work often keeps them from rubbing shoulders with peers in the everyday exercise of their calling, something many other kinds of professionals more readily enjoy. Having a peer group provides them at least some time in their ministry where they can be among those who occupy the same role as they do and who share similar, if not the same, experiences. Ministers yearn for the company of others who get what they are going through.
When ministers step into a pulpit or youth group gathering or vestry meeting, they can feel much more isolated than they do in their studies, surrounded there as they are by the commentaries, study guides, and blogs authored by their own colleagues in the religious enterprise. These forms of communication essentially create communities of exchange, even if invisible ones, connecting individual ministers. It is in times of ministry “out there” in the church community that the minister can sometimes feel stranded. She is typically the only one bearing her particular understanding of and relationship to the ministry. Her role in it is not easily shared or replaced because her identity is special.
Loneliness is a reality many ministers must face. Even those with a low theology of ordination who affirm the ministry of all believers still know that their status and role cause them to be viewed differently within the church. Ministers are put on pedestals not of their own making or are held to different standards or simply have expectations cast on them by virtue of their being ministers. They have also been shaped by years of formation and immersion in kinds of theological discourse that others in their communities simply have not experienced. Again, ironically, ministers search for conversation partners not only in the more scholarly activities of ministry but also when they are challenged, say, by disgruntled parishioners or dysfunctional committees or frustrating denominational structures. Everyday moments like these challenge a minister’s sense of self and even theology. They can render it hard for us to make sense of what is happening to us. We can turn to parishioners in such times, of course, but our colleagues often more readily get it.
I would guess that many ministers fresh out of seminary do not envision this kind of loneliness. It is difficult to imagine not having peers around when one is a student in school (although part-time and commuting students can more easily imagine this, and a lot of seminarians can remember feelings of being stranded when they were adjusting to seminary at the start). Most of the students I work with anticipate that time management will be their biggest challenge in ministry, followed closely by the need for self-care. Their concern is to strike the right balance between the long hours they know they will have to spend alone preparing sermons and the equally long hours needed for visitation, committees, administration, and so on. If anything, they imagine isolation as simply one mode in which time gets spent, contrasted with the mode of frenetic busyness. What many of my students don’t yet realize is that you can be busy and lonely at the same time. When you are the only one there like yourself, you can be surrounded by the company of others and be lonely. This is the loneliness of role, not surroundings. As a congregant who is also an ordained minister, for example, I have found that sometimes the pastors of the churches to which I belong have turned to me to share anecdotes or offer observations about the congregation, knowing that in me they have an understanding audience. I have stood in their shoes.
I like the image of ministry as community property. It has the potential to revolutionize the church, and peer groups are one way to make ministry community property. They are intentionally created spaces for sharing thoughts and feelings about what is going on in the ministries of individual ministers. Beyond that, they are venues for “writing up” ideas, trading best practices, exploring new developments. In them members find a supportive venue for talking about what it means to occupy the role of minister (in a world where that role sometimes feels like it is changing all the time). A peer group is one place where your ministry is rendered less isolating because it is shared, examined, and owned, at least for the moment, by a group of your sympathetic colleagues. These groups should incorporate some process that lets members bring their experiences before the group for serious reflection. Ministers no longer need to suffer alone in silence—and if peer groups become standard and universal practice in the ministry, there will no longer be any excuse, either.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog
Adapted from Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry by Barbara J. Blodgett, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry
by Barbara J. Blodgett
Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be unapologetically urges clergy readers to develop practices that will help them become more excellent ministers. A long-time field educator, now serving as a denominational staff person responsible for ministerial formation, Barbara Blodgett believes excellence is a matter of doing simple things with care and consistency. Ministers who commit themselves to excellence will grow and flourish, and even become happier in ministry.
A Generous Presence: Spiritual Leadership and the Art of Coaching
by Rochelle Melander
Gifts of an Uncommon Life: The Practice of Contemplative Activism
by Howard E. Friend, Jr.
Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry
by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly
The Grace of it All: Reflections on the Art of Ministry
by F. Dean Lueking
April 5-7, 2011
Simpsonwood Retreat Center, Norcross, GA
Leader: Dan Hotchkiss, Alban Senior Consultant and Author
Last Chance: ACT NOW!
|Who should attend?||Board chairs, lay leaders, clergy persons, lay staff|
|What will I learn?||A new approach to congregational governance, effective planning, and board leadership|
|What difference will it make?||You will learn to help your governing board end micro-managing, streamline decision making, and focus on mission and ministry|
These three days with Dan will change the way you think about congregational governance forever!
Bonus #1: With your registration, you will receive a copy of Dan’s best-seller, Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership
Alban’s 2011 Event Calendar
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