By Rev. Mary Huycke
Across the last two years, I’ve talked or worked with somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 clergy from all parts of the United States and all levels of church life. It’s the rare individual (although there are some) who hasn’t been exhausted. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard some form of, “I’m not sure why I’m doing this anymore” (meaning ministry). There have been more sabbaticals, leaves, and early retirements than I’ve ever seen in my 30 years of ministry.
There’s a tiredness that comes from busyness, but that pales in comparison to the mental and emotional fatigue that arises from navigating competing expectations while feeling responsible for keeping everything going.
You tend to the spiritual and temporal well-being and development of the congregation and provide overall organizational leadership while immersing yourself in the individuals’ private pain, grief, and trauma. What’s needed from you changes hourly and on a dime. The demands may each be small, but they’re constant, and you’re assumed to always be on call. At any one time, a good percentage of your congregation is displeased with something you’ve done…or haven’t done. There is always a group chatting about your perceived limitations and failures.
It’s not so much that the work itself is hard. The work involved in other fields can be far more demanding. It’s navigating the various expectations, shifting gears between the various roles, and dealing with the various projections people place on you. You’re either killing the church, or you’re saving it, depending on who’s talking. It’s watching a congregation choosing a path of slow death, a denomination coming apart at the seams, and living in a world that increasingly sees your job as irrelevant or weird. All of this was true before, but COVID-19 has exacerbated it while eliminating from your work some of the things that brought you the most satisfaction.
It wouldn’t be uncommon for your social group to be comprised primarily of parishioners, and if you’re partnered, for your family to be involved in church life. The lines blur between your personal and professional identity. Although there is no time clock to punch, you may feel like you are always working but never quite measuring up.
The world sets into making what it would like us to be, and because we have
to survive after all, we try to make ourselves into something the world will like better…
and in the process of living out that story, the original, shimmering self gets buried so
deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all.
– Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets
It’s the great irony of the profession. We work to create a taste of the beloved community but often experience loneliness and isolation. We counsel others to live into the uniqueness and beauty of who God created them to be while finding ourselves nudged towards living a fictionalized life. Not a lie, just a cleaned-up version packaged for the edification of others. We work to not “bleed” on the congregation in our preaching or overshare in our teaching. We know to steer the conversation away from ourselves in pastoral care. You are there for others, but who’s there for you?
Jesus’ words, “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly,” are meant for clergy, too. It’s both for the pastor’s sake and for the sake of those with whom they work. I remember a long-ago clergy colloquy where the speaker startled us all by beginning, “when a shepherd is hungry enough, he or she will eat the sheep.” When we neglect our own emotional and spiritual condition, our friends, family, and congregation are the recipients of our sharp words, our emotional distancing or our inappropriate sharing, behaviors that then leave us feeling even more alone and anxiety-ridden.
For the sake of their well-being and that of those around them, clergy need a regular set-apart space and a person with whom they can reflect on their work and its impact on them. When this kind of reflective space is perceived as safe, supportive, and frequent, practitioner well-being increases dramatically. Clergy in a recent U.K study reported increased well-being and decreased anxiety, strengthened boundaries, better role clarity, and an increased ability to deal with change, conflict, and complex dynamics.
A few of the denominations in the U.K. and Australia recognize their responsibility to the pastors they place and are creating systems to provide this kind of support. A British denominational executive told me that it seemed like malpractice not to. Until our system finds a way of delivering this, it’s up to each of us to find it for ourselves.
I hate putting the work back on you, but I’m going to do it anyway. If you don’t already have it, make this the year you find a space where you can step off the dance floor of ministry and onto the balcony to catch your breath, notice who you are and how you are, observe and explore the patterns of your work. The insights that await will serve both your well-being and your professional development. Most of us will benefit from doing this work with a trusted partner. Therapists, spiritual directors, coaches, and reflective supervisors each have their own approach, but all are trained to hold reflective space. Another alternative would be to gather three or four colleagues and create your own covenanted group where you each bring an experience from your ministry (the exciting as well as the troubling) to explore it critically and its impact on you as a person and on your faith.
Please, take the step of giving yourself the gift you give others every day.
Rev. Mary Huycke lives in Yakima, Washington and is appointed to Courageous Space Coaching & Consulting. She is a professional leadership coach and diplomaed in pastoral reflective supervision through Wesley House, Cambridge