Nothing could have prepared Rev. Jane Whytefield (not her real name) for the isolation she felt in her first pastoral charge. Aged 43, and ready to fulfil God's call, Whytefield accepted the posting at a rural northern two-point charge. The churches gave her a warm welcome and complimented her preaching. Whytefield intended to integrate herself into their lives and get to know the community. But the only apartment she could afford on her salary - it was a half-time position - was in a different town, 25 km from either church. She soon began to feel out of the loop.
"I was involved with people mostly through church activities. But there were whole other parts of their lives that I didn't share and didn't know about," she says. "I found that my presence made folk feel guilty that they hadn't been in church. I spent a lot of time alone." She left the position a year ago.
Many ministers share Whytefield's feelings of loneliness and isolation. About a year an a half ago, 42 ministers from across Canada were interviewed for a survey, funded in part by the United Church's Employee Assistance Program (EAP) committee. Some met to talk in focus groups and others were interviewed by phone. As the conversations progressed, it became clear that isolation is more than a question of geography.
Some of those surveyed said: they feel they're living in a vacuum with no kindred spirits; they lack input at General Council and feel distant from the church's structure; they're living a vocation but are expected to be social workers; they have constant financial anxiety; they have a ministry and personnel committee that makes their lives miserable. And while they are part of a church that preaches inclusiveness, they say they often experience exclusion in terms of gender, or "acquired" reputation, or sexual orientation (whether they are gay or straight, single, partnered, or celibate) or even financial and community status.
Conclusion: the ministers surveyed feel generally unsupported in their work - theologically, spiritually, structurally or financially - and the cost is high. Counsellors who have treated ministers experiencing isolation point to high stress levels (in 80 percent of those they saw); 61.5 percent were experiencing conflict in their congregation, and 60.7 percent were having trouble balancing personal and ministry needs. The impact, ultimately, is a disillusioned segment of the clergy questioning their future with the church.
The survey results wouldn't surprise anyone working in the church today, certainly not the committee on ministry and employment policies and services (MEPS), which now has documented statistical evidence to back up what had been just hearsay before.
Carol Gierak, the pastoral relations policy specialist for MEPS, wants to put a response into action. Since the survey was presented for information last August to the General Council in Wolfville, N.S., a task group has been established to study isolation in ministry and deliver recommendations sometime this year.
Jane Whytefield certainly felt let down by church structures, particularly when her isolation was compounded by separation from her husband. The Presbytery's pastoral care team seemed unsure how to minister to her during that difficult period and the ministry and personnel committee was "mostly non-functional," she says. The personnel minister was "very helpful" but had no time. She tried joining area ministers for breakfast once a month but found herself at odds with them theologically and politically. "They just met and talked and mostly I felt left out. When I was really down, I just didn't go."
One minister in New Westminster, B.C, believes the church's support structures have inherent problems that contribute to isolation among ministers. "Ministry and personnel committees, for example, have a dual role of support and accountability. Well, you know, it just doesn't go well together. [Committee members] are the same people you go visit in the hospital, so it's awkward," Rev. Wendy Bily points out. Presbytery pastoral relations conveners are mandated to care for ministers but often don't have the time, she adds. "It takes one case of misconduct in a congregation and they're up to their eyeballs."
Bily is working to establish support groups or "support pairs" among ministers throughout British Columbia Conference. She has been meeting with a support group of five ministers for the past 15 years. The group was especially helpful when a ministry and personnel committee put Bily through a stressful evaluation process. "Ministers need something separate from the structures of accountability. Congregations and Presbyteries can give some support, but it's not the same as what happens when you can be with a colleague and have something confidential." She believes the church needs to be pro-active in establishing and facilitating such groups. Otherwise, as in Whytefield's case, they might not be helpful.
According to the survey, the 42 ministers who participated really benefited just by participating in the discussion. Each group enjoyed animated conversations that lasted far longer than the allotted two hours. Some even phoned MEPS afterwards to thank them for the opportunity to be involved. Clearly, the clergy needed to talk.
While she doesn't want to pre-empt the recommendations of the MEPS task group, Gierak suspects peer support groups will be among the solutions to isolation. The oft-asked question - Who ministers to the minister? - appears to have an obvious answer: other ministers. "We need to encourage people to learn how to be in peer groups and support each other so there isn't this need either to find fulfilment completely from the pastoral charge or to be completely taken care of by the national church," Gierak said.
That's part of what field educator Abigail Johnson at Toronto's Emmanuel College tries to teach her students. Working in small groups after their internship year, they take everything they have learned and ask, "What are the pressing questions now?" As they work together, they "experience collegial support at its finest," she says, and they see "how important it is to have a network of colleagues."
The question of isolation and alienation really begins much further back, though, when the prospective candidate first feels a call - which is "not an individual, pietistic event. The church has a lot to say" about it, even though the focus during their student years may seem to be "all about you."
Pre-existing psychological factors may cause trouble down the road, as well. A student may arrive "with a deep inner need for blessing," says Johnson, and they "cannot look to the church for that kind of nurture." If your role is minister, "this kind of work is rigorous, demanding and satisfying, but it requires tremendous intellectual and spiritual maturity."
Certainly Whytefield's experience in an isolated situation taught her how crucial it is to look beyond the pastoral charge for fulfilment and support. She joined community clubs and volunteered for a charity. The friendships she made helped her to manage the isolation. "You have to build networks wherever you can find them. Having friends outside the situation that can reflect on it with you is a real asset."
With files from Donna Sinclair
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