Ten days ago, my blogging friend Will Grady wrote this heartfelt post: Loneliness in Ministry « Ramblings from Red Rose. He poses important questions about church leadership.
There are structural attempts to support, but they tend to have inbuilt defects. A Methodist District will run a group for those in the first five years of ministry (the so-called ‘Under 5s Group’ – kind of like playgroup for ministers). Some Districts even run these groups for those in the first ten years. I remember being ordered to avail myself of the fellowship – something wrong there! A lot depends on whether you get on with the leader and the other members.
The same is true of the regular circuit staff meeting. That, though, has a further handicap: you can be consumed with business and forget the soul. It does have the advantage of being a good place to talk through difficult issues, but whether you bare your soul there is a judgment call, especially as the superintendent minister is your ‘boss’ and could be involved, if there were disciplinary issues. What exactly can you confess?
That in turn has a connection with the rôle in our system of the Chair of District. At one stage, District Chairs were seen as pastors to the pastors. I don’t doubt that many intend to be so, and on the odd occasion one has been so for me. However, one gave the game away in an annual letter when he said that each minister in the District was entitled to one hour of his time a year. Thanks, but no thanks, I thought. Furthermore, they would be even more closely involved in any disciplinary procedures, so a certain caution can inhibit you, especially if you’re thinking some non-Methodist thoughts.
Where have I found support? I’ve learned over sixteen years to look for it outside the structures, and often outside Methodism. That isn’t a criticism of Methodism, it’s just a fact about the tendencies of structures and institutionalism. Friendship is vital, and in my first circuit while I was single the local URC minister (herself also single) spotted my need for support, and invited me to join one of her church’s home groups. It was a generous move on her part. Out of that group and some other work came a bunch of us who used to meet socially on a Friday night for pizza, a video and some red liquid you wouldn’t use in a Methodist communion service. Those people became among the dearest friends I have ever had in my life.
In the last circuit, it was the monthly meeting of a group of similarly-minded church leaders from across the denominational spectrum. We worshipped and prayed together, shared our news and supported each other.
I have also found the need for inspiration from outside. In the first circuit, I travelled regularly to St Andrew’s Chorleywood while David Pytches was the vicar, for leaders’ days. These were held about six times a year. I was also a member of the (now defunct) Evangelical Forum for Theology, a small academic Methodist network. Our annual conference/retreat was a highlight.
Here, I meet monthly or so with a vicar friend as prayer partners. We have a similar outlook and have similar church situations. Other support has been more difficult to garner, and I often feel quite dry spiritually. There are some possibilities, but diary clashes have been the usual problem.