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.
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" (http://www.clergyleadership.com/clergy/ai.html ) or a workshop from the Alban Institute (http://www.alban.org/ ) 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.