mmfAdvUThis week’s question is an opportunity for honest reflection on the balance between loving our ministry life and finding/enjoying a life apart from the church. We also explore the benefits for the congregation and the pastor’s ministry when we do that work, and the consequences when we don’t.

Dear Matriarchs,

This may or may not be a problem, but here goes:
I love being a pastor! I’ve served my current (first) congregation for 5 years. I was able to take a 3 month sabbatical leave over the summer which was mostly rest and relaxation.

By the end of the sabbatical, I was more than ready to be back at church. As much as I probably needed the time away, it started to drag on. I found myself thinking about, and then working on, plans for when I got back in the pulpit.

To be honest, my life is my ministry, and vice versa. I am a single empty-nester and the congregation has become my family. I don’t have any need or desire to venture beyond what we are doing as a community of faith. Some of my colleagues have suggested that I need “outside interests” and “other friends.” I’m not sure if that is true, or if it is, what that means and what to do. I’m happy with my life as it is. Am I missing something?

* * * * * *
Martha Spong begins our conversation with an illuminating example:
While a congregation we serve can be our church family, it’s not within my understanding of professional boundaries for those folks to stand in the place of actual family and friends. I know too many stories of pastors who met all their personal relationship and social needs within a congregation, then could not cut or even adjust the ties later, with difficult results for all concerned. I’ll offer one example. I’ve served a church where a previous pastor, gone for seven years, did not interfere directly in my work. Yet his ongoing ties to several families called back to what had been perceived as favoritism during his 24 years at the church. Because he continued to be active in those favored relationships, the strain between church members never went away. Both he and his wife had put all their friendship eggs in the one basket of that particular church and developed no other connections or relationships. That’s not just unnecessarily limiting for the pastor in question, it’s potentially detrimental to the church family and the colleagues who will serve them in the future. So I would ask, in all love, how do you imagine establishing good boundaries when you leave this call, whether to serve another church or to retire?

Martha offers some practical steps:
Think ahead to the time when you are no longer the pastor of this congregation and visualize how you would want to spend your time. What activity in the community calls to your heart? What kind of people would you hope to know? Where else in the world would you like to live? With hopeful imagination, picture these possibilities, then begin to look for them in real time.
This is a huge shift in perspective, so I would advise doing this work in conversation with a spiritual director or a counselor or a coach.

To this advice, Sung Min Moy says: “Amen!”

Ruth Everhart cautions against wasting your sabbatical rest time:
Value your sabbatical because there are plenty of clergy who will never get one.

Sarah Howe Miller encourages exploring new venues:
Book clubs, knitting groups, REI day hikes are places ready made for meeting other people. Go meet other people and when they ask what you do answer “this is my space to be off work” “did you see the amazing sunset/sunrise how big the moon was?” Or “what is something interesting that happened to you today?”

Dee Eisenhauer speaks from her own ministry experience:
I have been serving the same church for a long time and recognize that my life is deeply (and mostly delightfully) intertwined with the lives of my parishioners. Yet I don’t want these folks to be my whole world. I can’t enter into a reciprocal friendship with any of them because our relationship is defined by my role as pastor no matter how “friendly” we might be or how much mutual love there may be. It would be unfair and unprofessional to burden my folks with my emotional needs. I try always to correct people if they refer to me as their friend as if that is the leading characteristic of our relationship. Metaphorically, I believe I am like the bay leaf in the spaghetti sauce–I will flavor the church, and they will flavor me, but I cannot dissolve into the sauce without damaging both of us in the long run. Eventually I will need to leave like the bay leaf that gets plucked out. I hope you will find places where you can make friends outside the church–with colleagues in or outside your own denomination, or through book groups or hiking groups or other interest groups. It will be good for both you and the church.

Thank you, Matriarchs, for calling us to more excellent ministry by creating balance in our lives. I would add: I am so glad that you are open to questioning the status quo in your life and ministry. If you are leading your congregation to make some changes — and what pastor isn’t? — your own willingness to get out of your comfort zone is essential. Also, stay in touch with your local ministry colleagues and get some ideas from them. May expanding your world be wonder-filled!

* * * * * * * *

How about you, dear Reader? How do you keep church life from becoming your whole life? Have you ever let that happen due to lack of motivation to expand your circle? How have you made changes? What advice above would have been helpful?

Has any part of your pastor life gotten out of control? Send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com

Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX.   She is a contributor to the RevGals book, There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.

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2 thoughts on “Ask the Matriarch: Church is My Life. (Is that so bad?)

  1. I echo the love of the bay leaf metaphor. I’m also single, but am chief caregiver to a disabled adult child. I struggle to keep her bounds as well as my own. Well meaning parishioners sometimes want to know a great deal about her, wonder why she never comes to church, etc. I just explain that she’s an adult and I encourage her independence wherever she can take it. Retirement is 10-12 years from now and I’m paying close attention to the need to find life outside the parish. Very important.

    Liked by 2 people

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