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Thursday, June 03, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - Loneliness in the First Call

My heart goes out to our questioner this week, as she grapples with loneliness and staff issues during the first year of her ministry. I know from experience how hard it can be as a young, single, female solo pastor in a small town. The challenges involved can create a vocational and even spiritual crisis. Our colleague is really struggling right now, and our matriarchs offer their thoughts. Read on...

I am a newly ordained pastor, coming to the end of my first year as a solo pastor in a small city where I know only other pastors in town and nobody else outside of my church thus far. I have quite a nightmare of a problem with a staff person that I have been led to believe at this point will never be fired, because churches don't do that kind of thing. So there are two huge problems. My overwhelmingly lonely existence, and a staff person who makes me dread coming to the office each day.

I have never been a terribly orthodox person of faith and have often wondered if I really have the spiritual strength to be a "person of the cloth." At this point, not even a year into my ministry, I am tempted to walk away from the church altogether. To move to a town where I know people, even if it means working random jobs to make ends meet and pay the bills I have racked up as a student in ministry.

I am tired. I am physically tired. I am emotionally tired. I am spiritually bankrupt. Most days I feel like I have nothing to give to the church and its people, and I what I have remaining I want to keep for myself and my own sanity. I know that the first year of ministry can be hell. And yet I am not sure that I should continue on this path as a minister if I question God's existence in my life right now to the point that most days I do not believe in the divine. Is this the kind of hell that the first year of ministry is, or am I in a pit so deep I need to claw myself out without regard for the consequences to my church and my "career"?

Just FYI, I am seeing a therapist and a spiritual director, and am actively seeking ways to meet people in the community, it is just really hard for a young, single person, no less a minister, to meet people in a small town.

rev lonelygirl

Jennifer responds:

Dearest lonely one,

Your note is heartbreaking. I think many of us completely empathize with the suffering you’re experiencing. Ministry can be dreadfully lonely, if we let it be, and it can be really difficult to be a single pastor in a smaller community.

You sound exhausted. I’m wondering if you’re taking your days off and your vacation time and continuing education time. All of these times can be restoring, whether it involves traveling to be near people you know and love, or simply taking a deserved break from the stress of daily ministry.
Your staff problem seems to be very difficult and it’s clear that you’re stressed at the thought of going to work. Do those who have led you to believe that the staff person is there to stay understand your feelings? Have you explored every avenue there?

It’s challenging to try and tackle your challenges at work with a tank that feels like it’s on empty. I commend you for seeking therapy and spiritual direction. Do you have any leftover energy to talk with someone in your higher governing body about a match with a clergy colleague who has “been there/done that”? You’ve done a brave thing to write to us, but there may be some clergywomen in closer proximity who could be your buddies. From personal experience, nothing beats a pedicure in a convenient locale with a clergy pal…

You’ll be in my prayers, hoping that you’ll continue to reach out a little more to involve others in your search for answers to your personnel problems and your own needs for friendship.

And Mompriest offers:

I am really glad to hear that you are seeing a therapist and a spiritual director - that is awesome self-care through this difficult time! Sadly what you experience is not just the trials of a first year minister but something that anyone of us can, and probably will, experience some time in our call: loneliness, isolation, and difficult staff and or difficult parishioners. (Often all at the same time as you are experiencing, as I did once, too). Regardless of when it happens it does seem to call up the same kinds of questions about call, about God, about vocation and always about location. More to the point I'd wonder if this is the right place for you rather than whether or not you are called to ministry. It may be that you eventually decide to leave ministry but I think it's too early to know that. Certainly another call could make all the difference in confirming it one way or the other.

I wonder how difficult it is for you to search for another call in a location that would not be so isolating for you? Do you have denominational leadership that you can speak to and who can help you find another call OR manage this situation? to that end, is this staff person difficult for others or are you the only person who struggles to work with this person? Might you denominational regional leadership be able to come in and work with the congregational leadership and help them assess whether this person should remain in the position? Part of your job is to teach the leadership of the congregation how to be leaders and how to support you in your leadership. This is often done best by offering a leadership retreat and bringing in outside folk to lead it.

I do know many churches that have let go of a staff member, hard though it is. It is possible and, not surprisingly, often healthier for both the church and the person when this happens. There is some support for how to proceed with this through the Alban Institute. But I also hope you have some help and support from your regional denominational leaders.

Another option is for you to get additional training through something like "Appreciative Inquiry" ( ) or a workshop from the Alban Institute ( ) or a group in your area that studies family systems in congregations. Any of these might help shore up your leadership, give you additional support, and expand your options of how to move forward.

I have also found the RevGals blog ring to be a great source of support. Often we cannot write about the actual issues we face but we can say that we are facing a "number of unbloggable issues and would appreciate prayers..."

That said, prayers for you from me.

Wonderful advice and encouragement here from our matriarchs. What about the rest of you? What support and words of wisdom could you offer to our sister? Please offer them in our comments section.

And as always, if you have a question you would like the matriarchs to address, please email it to us at

- earthchick


  1. oh sweetie... i think there are 2 issues... (and i don't think lack of faith on your part is one of them.)

    (1) is the person a church member or not? that might make a difference in the approach... i would be direct with said person about what is working, and what is not.

    (2) married or single, ministry - can be lonely, sometimes isolating because many others don't quite understand "what we do"... i think you are wise to seek guidance; wise to reach out in the community...

    what has helped me to fight the lonely factor: attending highschool sporting events; showing up at community gatherings & festivals chit-chatting with whomever; seeking social outlets from those who offer it... dinner invites, receptions if i'm invited i go... sure sometimes it's draining, but in the midst of that i'm fed, i have "face time" in the community and forget the lonely factor...

    AND i call and write frequently to friends far away... that will preserve your sanity... uhm and if you're a pet person... get a dog. walking the dog, helps you connect with folks when you are out & about... people "know me" by my dog. (bonus the dog offers protection and companionship!)

  2. I talk on the phone to by best friend (who lives hundreds of miles away) nearly every day. That's the one thing that has saved my sanity in this place--and I don't live in a small town and I *do* have some old friends just an hour away. Ministry is isolating no matter where you are, especially if you had another kind of life before as the old friends don't always understand. Definitely cultivate a relationship with a phone friend!

    I don't know how old you are, but there is another community for those ordained before they turn 35. Check it out here. We are having a conference at the end of the month--I think the deadline just passed yesterday but there might be a way if you email the registrar. These are young women with a lot of the same things going on--and also a fabulous group to be involved in!

  3. As a young, single female solo pastor in a small town - know that you are not alone in feeling lonely and isolated. Like Teri, I call a seminary friend many times a week, though not quite daily. I'm also taking a dance class in the next town over.

    Do you have any interests that might lead to a class or group?

    co-ed adult sports leagues
    book clubs

  4. Such great suggestions here!

    I want to echo Hot Cup Lutheran's thoughts about a pet. My dog really helped me survive the loneliness of ministry as a young single woman in a very small town. And HCL is right about how a dog helps you get out of the house and connect with people (in some way other than church functions).

    Regarding the staff person, I am betting you are referring to a secretary/administrative assistant, since you said you are a solo pastor. In my experience, this can be a very powerful position, esp. if held by someone who has been in the position for a long time and/or in the community for a long time and/or is a member of the church. If the person in that position is not "on your side," she/he really does have the power to undermine your ministry. Is there a trusted matriarch or patriarch in the church that you might talk with about how to deal with this situation? I think you need to be cautious and savvy about how you handle things, and it would help to have a long-time church member's thoughts and support.

  5. I want to thank everyone for the comments so far - there is much wisdom & loving support here.

    Another thing I find invaluable is a 'triad' (no, not a Chinese gang) - a trio of ministers - 2 friends from afar (so we don't normally work together & have an outside perspective for each other). We meet 3 times a year - put in the diary way in advance - just for 24 hours or so & each talk about one issue we are facing whilst the other 2 listen, advise, unpack & yes sometimes pull up short ("do you realise you just used the word 'guilty' AGAIN?").
    We write a single page summary of what is bothering us with the headings:

    What is the problem?

    Why/how is it a problem?

    What has been tried so far and with what results?

    What changes do I wish to see and why?

    What are the spiritual issues?

    These sheets are emailed round before we meet so that we can think about it a little beforehand. The triad is of course entirely confidential, and as time has gone on we have started supporting each other between meetings with little emails like 'Is it feeling better?' 'did you get that letter written?' 'sounds like you're making progress!"...
    If you can think of 2 people you trust, this might be worth trying..?
    Praying for you.

  6. Does your denomination have any sort of support for new clergy? Do you have anyone in your diocese/judicatory to whom you can turn for support? Is there anyone to whom you can turn for mentoring?

    In my first call (where I was not the solo pastor) I don't know how I would've survived without a peer support group--first in the form of a required monthly group (Fresh Start) and later with some clergy from my FS group. I've had less luck with ecumenical clergy associations--they just weren't meant to be support groups in my location--but that might not be the case everywhere.

    It is no surprise that your loneliness and isolation are sucking the life out of you. I am glad you have a therapist and spiritual director, but hope you can find some other sources of support as well.

    Same thing for the staff member--in most situations you as pastor would have the discretion to handle staff, but you sure need some back up either from your lay leadership or some denominational help. (And churches certainly "do" (and should) have to deal with dysfunctional staff.)

    On the friends front, I have no good advice. I'm an introvert and I draw lots of support from online friends. What about joining a gym or looking for a book group?

    Good luck, and know that your sister clergy in cyberspace are here for you.

  7. I am a first-call tent-making lay pastor in a small town, and the ordained woman who preceded me left for very similar reasons. Small-town ministry is a unique challenge incomprehensible to those who've never tried it.

    Although I have a second occupation and a second circle of acquaintances in the town where I live, one technique that has helped me is to determine which of my needs really can be met by members of the congregation. Clearly when a congregant is driving me nuts, I can't use another as a sounding board, and I have to be careful in political discussions. But when I just want someone to share coffee, go to the greenhouse in the next town, pin up a skirt, it's ok to reach out to a church member. As long as I keep in mind that a line exists, and where it lies, I find that some of my social needs can be met more easily than I first thought.

    For deeper issues, though, it's very difficult, in a small town, to build an intentional community that's sufficiently distanced from the congregation, and as a newcomer, I am not aware of all the complicated ties. That's where I depend on a network of phone and computer friends, and my mentoring pastors.

    But, as others have said, ministry often is isolating, and unless you can forge the connections you need, it's not sustainable. You are in my prayers, and I'd be glad to be an online supporter!

  8. In addition to the many wonderful suggestions, I wonder if you've done any work with Family Systems Theory. Ed Friedman is a pleasant guy to read, Pete Steinke does a lot of workshops, there are other names and possibilities depending on your area. I was in a small group that processed case studies using the Theory, and I found it very helpful. I think it would help you with the personnel issue, and with the boundaries you need to let yourself have friends in the congregation, while still being their pastor.

    Say yes to time off, to massages, to the spiritual director. All that self-care is an investment in your ministry. This is not the time to worry about carbon footprint. Drive to whatever town you need to drive to, to get the outlet you need: symphony, baseball, rock-climbing, Starbuck's, college bookstore....

    Affirm your wonderfulness as a child of God. You're in a hard place, a steep learning curve. Remember it's not about you personally, when "they" become "they." Pray, work towards the "us."

    peace to you.

  9. Lonely girl here-thanks so much for all of your support and suggestions. I am getting to a point where it looks like I might be able to fire the staff person by the end of the month, and yet I know that there will be a great fuss in the congregation when that happens, if it happens (still not sure that it will) I am just not sure that after all of this drama, I have anything left to give to this congregation. I am working to find outlets in the community, yet if a job closer to friends comes through as a result of all of the resumes I have been sending out, I just don't think I would think twice about leaving ministry at least for now. Is that wrong?

  10. Hi lonely girl .
    only you know your context and call. I am still in my first placement, 4 years so far, and at times I wondered if I had anything more to offer, and at times I felt like looking for another ministry place for one reason or another. the last 6 - 12 months have been wonderful for me, and the congregation. but that is this place, and I had good denominational links and support right from the beginning.

    I would wonder at the logic of removing the staff person, and not sticking around for a while to see if you can make a go of it. a lot of trouble and stress, but it may help the next person.

  11. I hear you one hundred percent! I hope you don't mind me posting, as I'm a lurker on this site and not a member. I've been in ministry for just under a year now, and have faced some very similar situations, thoughts and emotions. Thankfully I just had two weeks away doing a different kind of ministry that enabled me to catch my breath long enough to get a sense of myself again and to realize that I only have another year to give where I'm at. I find setting a timeline has helped me tremendously. But that doesn't necessarily help your situation.

    I don't think you're wrong if you're thinking you want to leave the ministry. I wonder if you can take some time off to discern this? Is stress-leave an option for you?

  12. I would echo the blessing of support from others. One of the best class "assignments" I ever had was to put together a list of people I could can "ANY TIME" when I was needing prayer. I didn't like doing it at the time because it seemed like busywork. BUT - they have become my backstop and have helped me keep the main thing the main thing. They also kept me from shooting myself in the foot, ministerially speaking. Two of them are pastors. One of the them is a church leader.

    Hang in there and know you are not alone!!!

  13. Lonely Girl,

    Last fall, when I was going through a hard time at my church, I started filling out my papers, really just as therapy. The process of doing it was the release I needed from that period of stress.

    It sounds to me from your questions, like you're afraid you will be judged for leaving ministry. Our culture puts a ridiculously high priority on not being a quitter. I'm guessing that simply deciding that it is, in fact, a perfectly reasonable option, might give you some relief.

    I wonder if you can also focus on the anticipation of all the good things that can happen once the problem staff person is gone. As you can start seeing that, you may be able to share that vision with the people who still need to buy into that possibility.

    Maybe these two mental/emotional exercises can help restore your emotional well. Best wishes and prayers!


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