Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Isolation That Is The Ministry

If you are a fellow member of the clergy then you will not be surprised when I say that the ministry is incredibly isolating.  When a member of the congregation asks you how your week was, and to be quite honest it was shitty, you can't say that.  Nor when they ask how you are doing, can you say, "not very good, how about you?"  And you can't say that because most don't want to hear you talk about how you were beaten up during the week by people they consider dear friends.  How you had to do both a funeral and a wedding in the same day and you are physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted.

They want you to be their pastor and being their pastor means not dragging the dirty laundry of the congregation in front of them. nor most of your issues.  Sure there are some you consider "friends" that you want to blow off steam with, but sometimes that puts you in uncomfortably situations as well.  A bigger problem is that in the ministry, especially in small churches, you don't have any other coworkers with whom you can sympathize.

In a regular business, if some customer yells at me I can talk about it with the other people who work with me, the church does not afford that opportunity.  Even in clergy gatherings, unless they are covenant groups, it doesn't really work because it often quickly becomes a complaining session or a "you think that's bad, listen to this" session.

I am currently serving two small churches.  I can spend time in my office during the week and never have a single interaction with anyone coming into the church, and even for an introvert that gets to be hard. Yes I know I can go out and interact with others, and I do, but sometimes it would just be nice to be able to do that while I am still working.  It would also be nice to talk with someone who understands what it's like to work in the church, which is not really like anything else.  In a small town it's also impossible to go out and just be around people without having to interact simply because that reality does not exist.  There are no places in which to do that.

At the recent gathering to discuss the issues of young clergy in the UMC, one of the participants said she was told that because she was young and single and just out of seminary that she would be sent to a small, rural church, which is typically true.  While I cannot talk with my wife about everything that goes on in the church, I at least have that support system, if I was single this would be even harder and even more isolating.

A number of years ago, the Anna Howard Shaw Center at Boston University conducted a study about why female clergy leave the ministry at much higher rates then men.  They found many causes, but I have to think that isolation has to be one of them, although they did not name it as such.  This really struck me as I was reading The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, in which she talks about how much more the female brain is hard wired for being in relation with others than is the male brain (and before you attack me please read the book).  So if I am feeling lonely and isolated, how much worse might it be for some female colleagues?

I remember once another colleague talking about how doctors of multiple disciplines were coming together to form practices in order to try and eliminate some of their isolation, and they thought it sounded horrible.  They couldn't imagine working alongside pastors of other denominations in the same office, and to me it sounded absolutely wonderful.  I would love to be able to go down the hall, or next door, and close the door and simply bitch to someone else who knows what I am talking about and has no connection to the people I am talking about.

I know that accountability groups can help, but they won't solve all of the problems, because they are not as immediate and because they don't recognize the isolation of everyday life of the ministry, most especially for those of us serving small, rural locations.

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