This week’s post is written by Rev. Dr. Gail Cafferata, who has undertaken a special research project on pastors who close churches. Her study included surveying and interviewing UCC pastors for this project. I’ve posted previously about this study; but here is Gail, in her own words, sharing with the UCC an initial summary of the results of her research.
“No One Should Have To Do This Alone!”
I asked a pastor about her experience serving a church that had closed: “So what was especially trying or hard for you?” She said, “I did pretty much feel all alone out there and I tend to do things myself…The [lay leaders] were very much in the process, very much there and doing what they needed to do for the church but I just was being out there and not having other pastors understand what goes on in rural areas, and my not knowing how to communicate what my needs were because [closing a church] was so different, I never really got that support.”
Pastors have feelings of loneliness and isolation not only in rural congregations, but especially when they’re serving unsustainable churches. Among a 2014 national ecumenical (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and UCC) study of pastors who had experienced the closing of a church, one-third reported feeling lonely and isolated “very often,” and one-third “fairly often,” two-thirds in all. Compare this with only one in six clergy reporting these same feelings in a survey of U.S. pastors in all kinds of churches (Jackson Carroll’s God’s Potters: Pastoral Leadership and the Shaping of Congregations, 2006). These feelings matter. Carroll shows that feeling “lonely and isolated” has significant consequences for clergy’s physical health and emotional health. It is not surprising then that nearly six in ten “last pastors” rated “caring for yourself” a “somewhat” or “great” challenge in serving their congregations—more challenging than all other tasks such as “dealing with member conflict” or the process of discerning whether the church should close. Nearly one-third of pastors who experienced a church closing reported “my health worsened” when they served their congregation.
It’s not surprising that one last pastor / prophet said, “No one should have to do this alone.” Many don’t. Pastors who experienced the stress of serving a vulnerable congregation reached out to supports that helped them through their stressful experiences. Intentional family/couple time (81%), exercise (74%), journaling (28%), personal friendships (88%), and a therapist (20%) were resources whose importance deepened with the level of stress the pastor experienced. Other sought-out resources included scripture study/daily office (88%), contemplative prayer (74%), Sabbath time (77%), non-church-related hobbies (77%), and clergy study/support groups (64%).
Even when feelings of isolation and loneliness develop, shame can keep a pastor from seeking out collegial resources when the emotional burden of ministry is overwhelming. One pastor said, “Churches, you don’t expect them to die, you really want to believe that our life is the Holy Spirit so if a church is dying, does that mean that the Spirit leaves us and why? So there’s all of that … feeling like we failed, we are shameful.” Pastors in ongoing support groups didn’t experience the barrier of shame. One pastor belonged to two clergy groups, one a prayer group that “would meet a couple of times a month and kind of share our stories and pray for one another, and knowing that they were undergirding me was important.” She also belonged to a group of churches (one of them had closed): “All of us were struggling churches. So everybody knew. They walked with me through…all of these [events] … so having those really close friendships, I think, and also having the respect of those people, because people who didn’t know me well pitied me. It was people who did know me well who were saying, ‘Well, you have a lot of courage. I’m so proud of you! Important work you’re doing.'”
When I served a church that was unsustainable, I too felt lonely and isolated. A few colleagues told me I should just leave, many kept their distances, while others walked with me through the darkness and unknowing of death with prayers and compassion. I couldn’t have gotten through that time without family and friends and all the personal resources mentioned above, but it was my sisters in a long-standing clergy support group and a few trustworthy colleagues who listened when I had to talk, kept me accountable when I needed that, surrounded me in prayer when I cried, who held my story with love and blessed me in ways my family and friends would never understand. We’ve all been told that being in and building relationships of trust and respect are vital to the health of pastors. What I learned in this study of “The Last Pastor” was that challenges of ministry reveal how important they really are, and why.
The Rev. Dr. Gail Cafferata
Center for Practical Theology
Boston University School of Theology