Building the Safety Net

It was getting late on Sunday afternoon and I was sitting alone in my church office after services, catching up on various administrative details while thinking about the week ahead, and musing on the week¬† behind me. As a bi-vocational minister serving a rural church 50 miles from where I live and work a full-time weekday job, quiet time in the church office is rare. In my senior year of studies for priesthood, I’d been at my new church for four weeks. Most of my time in the office to this point had been about unpacking, organizing, planning, and figuring out what I’d forgotten to put in the car on the other end of the drive between church and home.

In neglecting our personal time for non-essential ministry tasks, we weaken our own support system, and endanger the one we are called to build for our children.

In neglecting personal time for non-essential ministry tasks, we weaken our support system, and endanger the one we are called to build for our families.

That Sunday, I’d meant to get out of the office early to go home and enjoy the rest of the day off with my family. But as was getting to be usual for me, it was nearly 5 p.m. and I was still trying to wrap things up. Hearing a soft tapping on the glass doors in the hall adjoining my office, I poked my head out and saw a petite woman who looked to be in her 30s standing outside. Walking to the door, I noticed an old minivan in the church parking lot loaded with belongings strapped to the roof, a man sitting in the front passenger seat. The woman’s story wasn’t unusual. At first, it sounded like most other stories pastors hear from folks who come asking for help. They were traveling through on their way out of state, and needed money for gas and food, she said. Not really keen about giving out cash, and not having a gas card on hand, I loaded her arms with food from the church Pop-Top Pantry, a dry goods feeding ministry for walk-in traffic.

Ready to send her on her way with prayer and encouragement, the conversation took an unusual turn at the door. She’d stopped at our church – one of a number in our small town – because the name, St. Paul’s, called to her, she said, thanking me for the food. “My father was a priest,” she added.

That casual addition to the conversation caught my attention. Her father had died, was all she would say further about him. But she’d been raised in the faith, she said. We shared a hug as she left. “Peace be yours,” she said, unprompted, voicing a traditional Church greeting embodying God’s healing love in exchanged words of reconciliation. As we parted, I invited her to stop by the church again on her next journey through the area. As she got back into her van and left, I had doubts I would ever see her again.

Back at my desk in the church office, I sat thinking. What if her story were true? But how could it be? How does a priest’s daughter end up so desperately low as to go begging at random church doors for money? Not that clergy families are insulated from the turmoil and tragedies of life, but I just couldn’t fathom how it could have come about. Surely there was some safety net somewhere that should have kept this from happening. It frightened me to think of my own two children, and my new, busy bi-vocational life. I have no idea what happened in her family, but I could see the future of what might happen to mine if I allowed my new ministry, as much as I loved it, to completely consume all my extra time.

The complete story of who the woman was and what had brought her to my door would remain a mystery. Maybe God would bring us together again, but it was sufficient for now that he had done it today – a visit I was sure was anything but random, for either of us. Thinking of my own daughter at home 50 miles distant as I whittled away a free afternoon on non-essential paperwork and ministry self-analysis, I suddenly visualized a weakening in the portion of her safety net I was responsible for building. God had blessed me with two wonderful children, one already in college and one preparing to enter high school. In the midst of establishing a new clergy presence in this small rural congregation, I was on the cusp of forgetting that my call to motherhood had not ended because God has added a call to priesthood. In fact, my family was his gift to me, and spending time with them was a loving, supportive place to experience his restoration and joy. I closed my laptop, packed it and my papers up, grabbed my keys and headed out the door. The long ride home provided lots of time to think. There was no guarantee that my husband and I would be able to save either of our children from the kinds of decisions or circumstances in adulthood that could veer their lives off-course like the woman at my church door. But it was a virtual guarantee that if we didn’t keep family and personal time a priority, then all of our lives, and by extension our ministry, would suffer in the long run. No minister stays healthy for long if our lives at home, the foundation of our safety net, born in relationship with God and one another, are unraveling through neglect.

The best we can do for the children God places in our care is to continue as godly parents building their spiritual safety net, loving one another and our children within the holy covenant of the relationship between our family and our Creator. This model of family calls us to teach our children by word and example the image of the Body of Christ as his Church: holding each other up, guiding younger members, supporting older ones, offering accountability with love, encouragement in times of need, relying on God as our ultimate safety net. May God bless that woman in need at my door on a late Sunday afternoon as her words of peace blessed me, speaking into my need – to many a busy minister’s need – to recall that reconciliation begins at home.

Point of Light: Out of Darkness

“I can’t understand what it would be like, thinking of John that way. I can’t picture myself as not married to him – I don’t want to even think about him dying first, and me being alone without him.”

This was a conversation with a friend about her husband John (not his real name), as we discussed a new parenting class offered by my office for spouses going through divorce. We agreed it was a challenge, not having endured a divorce process, to understand why we had to teach parents to treat each other with respect, even after a relationship ends, for the sake of healthy parenting.

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Clergy can feel trapped, but we may be building the fence ourselves.

This conversation came to mind as I read a recent post at thehighcalling.org, in which Gordon Atkinson joined the most recent wave of bloggers talking about burned out clergy – specifically, clergy who feel trapped in ministry, longing to leave for careers outside of church, not knowing how or where to go. You can read his article here.

I’m familiar with burnout and the dangers it poses. I work full-time for a non-profit children’s advocacy center, where we deal daily with children suffering sexual and physical abuse, and the very broken families they come from. I have felt and followed the call of the Spirit to change careers, having been a journalist, then a corporate hospice chaplain, before holding my current paying job. I’ve always felt “full-time” in ministry, seeing each paid job as placement in a new mission field. That said, it has not been in my vocational vocabulary to ponder leaving my other job, a non-paid bi-vocational clergy. My call into ordained life and the ontological change with ordination occurred at a soul-cellular level. The identity imprinted in my spiritual DNA such that I cannot fathom anything different, other than different forms of clerical ministry.

Like my friend said about her husband John, I can’t picture myself without living in pastoral relationship to a flock and community, without the collar, without being a clergy person. It is a challenge to understand how, barring an obviously major wounding experience, a minister can lose their call. I do believe, however, that what these thousands of clergy Atkinson describes may be experiencing is not a loss of call itself, but a loss of connection to their call – something not that hard to imagine.

Atkinson says trapped clergy is something congregations don’t want to talk about, because it would require them to take an honest look at ministers’ lives. I think it’s high time someone did take an honest look at their lives – and I think ministers must lead the way. We have to take an honest look at how we may be, in large part, the cause of our own entrapment.

I ache for those feeling trapped in ministry, as Atkinson candidly shares he once was. But the reasons he offers for why so many clergy feel trapped seem to beg their own question. For example: ministers discover they are disillusioned, doing church like a business, he says. How about daring to do first the business of church, keeping business in its appropriate place in support of mission, instead of doing business-as-mission? Where will this structure ever change, if not with you? Your call is worth fighting for, and certainly so is the Gospel mission of the Church.

Burning the candle at both ends, clergy? So are your church members. They’re looking for how to manage life with grace, not how to walk on water.

Some ministers are not polished enough for high-paying spots, Atkinson says, dissatisfied with pay that leaves them struggling to get their kids through college. My son’s partial, need-based scholarship makes it just barely affordable for my husband and me, both working full-time, to keep him in the prestigious university he attends for undergraduate studies, so we can give him the opportunity to reach his dream of a doctorate in neuroscience. He had to turn down a full scholarship to an honors college at another university because we could not afford the remainder and still function financially, especially with a younger sister heading to college in a few years. My answer to clergy struggling with this issue is this: I feel your pain. Try to understand this struggle as opportunity: through our family’s financial belt-tightening, I have felt more in community and had more good conversations with parents in the parish facing college-bound financial issues and savings planning than I ever had before. Through it we formed a bond –¬† clergy and lay roles appropriately intact – while finding shared solace and encouragement in discussions of real-life faith.

This college funding experience can be mapped onto the other reasons Atkinsons lists for trapped clergy: loss of faith in message/denomination, loss of faith altogether, worn out, burned out, depressed. If you are clergy and are experiencing any of these, there is an urgent and serious need for you to reach out for help-to your leadership, spiritual director, counselor, and family. If you do in fact determine you want to leave your ministry, then the short answer is that there is a way out. It looks a lot like the way you came in: discernment, careful and sometimes painful, retraining for new skills, and a re-identification of self – individually, and in community.

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The Light of Christ in you never stops burning. It shines in the darkest night.

But if you stay, and if you are truly called I pray you do, it must be with a new understanding that as clergy, the varying degrees of success with which we encounter life as spiritual leaders is both a model of perseverance and a point of connection for your people who yearn for someone to both look up AND relate to. Here enters the practical side of ministry: Learn to recognize and respond to signs of burnout BEFORE they happen. Workshops and professionals are available to assist you, with a little effort on your part to seek them out. Never been in counseling? Get on a couch and start talking. Don’t refer church members for therapy while you skirt the rim of emotional breakdown. Lonely? Don’t skip clergy gatherings. The camaraderie is sometimes more important for your emotional/spiritual benefit than whatever book study or group discussion. People who keep themselves on islands tend to end up in trouble. Crisis of faith? Turn to those you trust to support and guide you as early as possible when you sense trouble. Take a sabbatical. Take a weekend. Take whatever it takes to reconnect with the call that is in you. Instead of burning out, find ways to keep your light of faith bright. You aren’t called to be a shining example-it doesn’t take a bonfire to lead others to follow Jesus – a single candle can light the way in the darkest room.