gen-x clergy and isolation

I was reading the UM Reporter when I found the article below. Very often, Andrew Thompson says things that I wish someone had said earlier but the larger church often has been slow to recognize what younger clergy see as obvious. I was nodding my head about the isolation and relationship building.

When your calendar is already bursting where do you put time for relationship building? Yet, how can you survive without the relationships that sustain and nurture your soul? I’ve got the questions, anyone else got some answers?

GEN-X RISING: Gen-X clergy struggle against spiritual isolation

By Andrew C. Thompson
Special Contributor

Isolation.

It is the plague of our generation.

No, not physical isolation. We are around each other as much as we ever were. It’s a spiritual isolation.

The kind of isolation that comes from living in a world that moves too fast for the human heart to keep up. The kind of isolation that we try to combat with TV, the Internet, cell phones, PDAs, and iPods. Or through losing ourselves in our work. Or through masking our stress with more traditional, chemical outlets.

Isolation is a problem for all of us. For young clergy, it can be deadly.

I spoke recently about pastors’ experience of isolation with Eric Van Meter. Eric is a 32-year-old pastor in Little Rock, Ark., who spends a lot of time thinking about the challenges Generation-X clergy face. The experience of isolation among young clergy is near the top of his list.

I asked Eric what he believes is the most difficult challenge facing Gen-X clergy today. “I’d call it the sense of floating that many of us have right now,” he said.

“On one hand, we have a church that is just beginning to wake up to a looming crisis in leadership, as pastor retirements flood through the denomination in coming years. [This] sets the churches on edge and places a burden of expectation on younger clergy.

“On the other hand, many Gen-X and Gen-Y clergy are still discerning their calling, unsure if professional ministry in the UMC will be their lifelong vocation.”

The itinerant system means that younger clergy often move more frequently than their older counterparts. Eric points to the difficulty this creates in allowing young clergy to “form solid relationships within the community.”

While the itinerant system itself may not be the root of the problem, there are consequences associated with it. Eric specifically mentions “isolation, transition, lack of peer group, the generation gap between young pastor and older congregation, and the gap between a young associate and a veteran senior pastor.”

Gen-X clergy also serve congregations that are simply much busier with other activities and obligations than they have ever been. Paradoxically, local churches are busier than ever while congregations seem to be less cohesive. Pastors always seem to be doing “ministry on the run.” And that is chronically exhausting.

To avoid career-threatening burnout, young clergy need to be grounded in a nurturing peer community. For United Methodist pastors, this has traditionally come through connection with other pastors of the annual conference. But the pace of ministry makes such relationships more difficult now.

Eric realizes this, and he is trying to do something about it. During their probationary periods, clergy are brought together for workshops and retreats as a part of the ordination process. But after ordination, there are no such formal structures for mutual support and fellowship. So Eric decided to create some.

The practical steps he has taken sound commonsensical: an overnight retreat on a beautiful mountaintop, frequent contact through an ever-growing e-mail list, and a fellowship dinner for Gen-X clergy during annual conference meetings.

But these are also the building blocks of a connection, in its true Methodist sense. Our connection is not by virtue of the fact that we all serve churches with the name “United Methodist” on the door. Instead, connection comes through relationship. And relationship has to be nurtured and cultivated in intentional ways. When it is, a network of relationships can grow into a real community of love and support.

Eric hopes that just such a nascent community is forming among the young clergy of his annual conference. Attendance at fellowship events is climbing, and the Gen-Xers of the conference are getting to know one another better.

“There’s no substitute for time together,” Eric told me. Conference staffs might try to put programming initiatives together for clergy development, but Eric contends that such things are “of secondary importance to building relationships.”

Those relationships — and the community they create — have the power to banish the demon of isolation. In that sense, Eric’s work is profoundly important for the spiritual health of young clergy in his annual conference. We can only hope that there are others like him elsewhere in our great connection.

The Rev. Andrew C. Thompson is an Elder in the Arkansas Conference who is working on a doctoral program at Duke Divinity School. e-mail: andrew@mandatum.org.

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About Sarah The Vicar of Hogsmeade

I'm an United Methodist clergywoman with two daughters. I read. I geocache. I look for excuses to laugh. My Ph.D. is on Clergywomen and Grief.
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