There is a strong biological incentive for us to avoid isolation. Like humans of today, early humans were dependent upon one another for survival. If a person was deemed by the tribe to be unclean, unfit, sick or inferior in any way, that person was marginalized from the group. Perhaps that person was excluded from the group. Left alone, without the support of the tribe, that person will struggle in life and perhaps even die. From these early beginnings, humans have figured out that there is a risk to do anything that might lead to exclusion from the tribe. This is part of the reason we do not do so well with criticism - if someone criticizes us then we run the risk of being excluded or pushed out.
Perhaps one of the more common feelings among clergy is that of isolation. I have heard from many clergy who feel isolated and they say they don't have a close friend they can confide in. Clergy often don't have the time to invest in relationships beyond the walls of the church. Additionally, the relationships that clergy do foster are often asymmetric, in that the clergy person cannot let down every wall and be completely vulnerable. Finally, the demands of the clergy role have gotten to the point that are so stressful that clergy are at higher risks for depression and anxiety.
What we face here is a feedback loop of destruction. Humans have a fear of being isolated, so we work harder to prove ourselves as worthy of the group. More work leads to less self-care and greater feelings of isolation.
This is compounded in the area that I serve because our area's focus is on "energizing and equipping local churches". It seems that one of the unintended consequences of this goal is there is less energy given to clergy health. When we choose to focus on energizing and equipping local churches we make decisions that, over time, exacerbate the feelings of isolation among clergy. Perhaps an example might be helpful.
In an effort to equip local churches with more resources, efforts are made to save money on a conference level. One money-saving action taken was cutting the number of districts. This resulted in lower apportionments, but fewer District Superintendents (DS) to support clergy. This puts more demands on a DS. More demands means less time to engage clergy in regular clergy meetings. These meetings between a DS and clergy are a place where clergy are expected to attend and support one another. With less clergy meetings, most clergy do not see any other clergy but a few times a year. The understood expectation is that with less clergy meetings, clergy are freed up to be at the local church, ensuring the "vitality" of their church. Clergy wanting to prove they are good enough to stay at their local church work harder to prove they belong there. And we quickly find ourselves trapped in the feedback loop mentioned above.
The more we as a conference focus on the local church, the more clergy are expected to take care of themselves - by themselves. Whereas the clergy connection was once fostered by the district it now is the sole responsibility of the individual clergy. There was an attempt to create a loose connection of clergy through "cluster groups." For a number of reasons, this was unsuccessful as envisioned. At one time, Texas Methodist Foundation created clergy groups, but even fewer new groups have been formed in the past several years. Without an incentive that is stronger than the current push to focus on the local church, the model clergy-driven group formation will be limited. Group formation will be reserved for those who have a support staff to stay at the local church while the clergy attends these gatherings.
Perhaps the most tragic of ironies is that not focusing on clergy health, achieving the goal of energizing and equipping local churches is in grave danger. Not just because we will see more and more clergy drop out of the ministry because of stress, anxiety, and feelings of isolation, but because the local church itself is very limited to do anything that creates lasting change in the world. Most churches do not have resources to make a measurable difference in their community because the problems are complex and a local church does not have ability to scale up to meet these problems head on. Local churches are doing their best to do vital ministry, but are coming to realize that band-aids do not do much in a world that is so deeply wounded. Churches are constantly on a treadmill of addressing problems for years without any progress. How many churches have a food distribution ministry but Texas still has higher than the national average of people who are food insecure? It is not that these ministries are bad, it is that they are too small and often cannot be scaled to the size they need to be to treat the problem of hunger.
In a effort to streamline the leadership of the conference, we have created districts that are connected in name only, supervisors (DS) who do not feel empowered to bring clergy together out of fear of being seen as one who creates "another thing" for clergy to do, pastors who feel more and more isolated in a system that claims connection as its cornerstone, and churches with ministries only able to address the symptoms of a deep social sickness.
How do we move out of this feeling of disconnected churches, overextended District Superintendency, isolated clergy and "symptom ministries"?
Might I suggest we look to chickens.
If you have read to this point then I thank you and will let you know that the next post will unpack a little more about how chickens can help with clergy isolation.