By Cyndi Alte
Clergy loneliness - have you heard of it? Are you feeling it? If you have or if you are, you are not alone:
When the church and I got into conflict, I was too embarrassed to let my colleagues know about it.
I didn't feel like anyone would understand that my marriage was in trouble, so I didn't talk with anyone.
I moved from a large staff church to a single pastor church and now it seems that I have been forgotten.
In seminary I had lots of people to talk to, but now in the church, there isn't much time for maintaining those friendships.
A recent Pulpit and Pew cites isolation as a potentially devastating problem for clergy. According to the study, clergy enter into the pastorate intending to establish collegial and congregational friendships. However, the time needed to develop and maintain practical ministry, family responsibilities, judicatory and community involvement means colleagues and friends slip down the priority list. Even pastors whose judicatories provide for small group experiences during the first years of ministry find that without that provision, relationships made during that time are difficult to maintain.
A 1991 study found that 70 percent of clergy say they have no close friends. Now, says one pastor, the issue hasn't changed much. We've just gotten older and unfortunately, most of us are used to it.
A more recent survey asked pastors how often in the past year they felt "lonely and isolated in their work." About 17 percent said "very often" or "fairly often" and another 51 percent said "once in a while." Only 32 percent said they had never felt lonely or isolated.
The result? Pastors are usually profoundly friend-deficient.
I was one of those profoundly friend-deficient pastors. Certainly, I had acquaintances and plenty of people with whom I could engage in small talk. But deep friendships? - rarely, in the first two decades of my ministry. I frequently felt isolated and lonely in ways that affected my ministry, my family and my faith.
All that changed 15 months ago, when I entered into a covenant group with six other extension ministry pastors. We are all United Methodist from the North and South Conferences; we are alike; and we are different; we have known each other and now we are beginning to know each other.
Initially, our discussions centered on work-related issues. Occasionally they still do, but for the most part, now we engage deeply in what is happening in our lives - about the struggles in our faith, the angst in our families, the hurts of ministry.
Our commitment is to meet monthly for three hours. Leadership of the meeting is shared, with the leader selecting the topic for the day. Each meeting involves worship and a time for personal reflections. Recently, we met in the afternoon and continued informally with dinner.
Perhaps the most significant time we spend together is on retreat. Earlier this year we spent four days in North Carolina exploring Native American spirituality. This month we plan to travel to Wisconsin to experience more deeply how art and music can draw us closer to God.
The meetings, the retreats, the phone calls and e-mails in between mean so much to me, but not nearly as much as knowing that whether I am in church or at a clergy event, I no longer feel alone in a group of hundreds. No more am I friend-deficient; I have holy friends who help me renew my passion for ministry and love for God.
I invite Indiana clergy to engage in a similar kind of small group experience. Thanks to the generosity of a Daniel F. Evans Center for Spiritual and Religious Values in Health Care grant, opportunities to develop clergy covenant groups will continue through August 2008.
The requirements are simple
Make a commitment to be a part of a monthly small group meeting with from six to 10 other clergy, and
Agree to participate in a fully paid retreat twice in the first year. Subsequent retreats will need to be self-funded.
Clergy may chose to form a group by inviting others to join - or may opt to join an interest group, such as a book study or related activity. Pastors are usually profoundly friend-deficient.
Any way clergy chose to be in covenant is important. If they are feeling friend-deficient or even friends-in-short-supply, they can consider this offer to make holy friendships a part of their life. They won't regret it, I know.
If you are clergy and interested in forming a covenant group, please contact the Rev. Cyndi Alte, 317-962-9330 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.