Ministry is a hard and increasingly challenging vocation. Yet despite the difficulties clergy face every day, I have found they are a delightful group of people to work with. As a group, they are optimistic, confident in their calling, and genuinely interested in the welfare of the church and its members.
Some clergy members struggle. Others stand out because they know how to thrive no matter what their circumstances. Usually, thriving is the result of an ecology of factors, including having a sense of meaning and purpose in work and ministry, investing in self-development and growth, cultivating self-awareness, and enjoying a sense of authenticity.
But how can these beneficial factors be developed? In part, by having the luxury of a time and place to engage in the work of cultivating them.
This is what we try to provide at Columbia Theological Seminary through our Pastoral Excellence Program (PEP), which is part of the seminary’s Center for Lifelong Learning and funded in part by a Thriving in Ministry grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. The goals of the PEP include providing a forum for clergy to explore the issues that are particular to their own contexts and ministerial trajectories; helping them redefine and re-envision their vocations in peer-oriented, supportive environments; and providing challenging and stimulating peer group experiences for renewal and challenge. More than 100 clergy participate annually.
What have we discovered from the conversations we have with participating clergy?
A good congregation makes all the difference. Clergy and their families need a supportive community of faith to help them thrive. When clergy feel wounded or frustrated, it’s often because they find themselves in a difficult church situation with either a lack of support, a lack of responsiveness from parishioners, or acute conflicts in which they, and sometimes their families, come under attack. This holds true regardless of the size of the congregation or how financially fit it is.
Clergy face all sorts of challenges. In the past year, several of them have shared the challenges they have navigating political issues within their congregations. Some are politically at odds with the majority of their parishioners, while other struggle with how to speak prophetically from the pulpit about critical social and religious issues. Being prophetic is risky business and can be costly.
Coping with transitions within the church is also important. They can be a cause for growth if clergy have supportive networks and receive help on the journey. This help can come from peers, friends, and families, but also from programs, like ours, that are designed to provide frameworks for interpreting the experience of transitioning.
For clergy who have been terminated, the PEP offers a wellness retreat. Pastors who have lost their positions often experience a sense of failure and betrayal, and they often question their own calling and competence. The pastor’s spouse loses a church community, friends, and life structure. Their children experience trauma and a loss of trust in the church and God. We have found that clergy who decide to participate in the wellness retreat are wounded and are often surprised at the intensity of their emotions when they share their stories with other participants.
In all our programs, we have found that clergy are eager to learn, but they don’t want to be treated as students. They desire time with peers in a supportive and affirming context. Clergy are hungry for collegial relationships that are deeper and more intimate than what most of them find in denominational networks. For too many clergy, peer support is hard to find and cultivate.
We have found that most clergy are facing the same kinds of challenges, regardless of context or demographic. The most common are transitional discernment, motivation and stress, life-work balance, family issues, money and finances, and dealing with conflict within the church. By identifying and helping to address these challenges, we’re doing our part to help clergy thrive in ministry.