No Different Than Anyone Else

Rachel Boehm

(Article first appeared in the December 19, 2011 issue of the Christian Courier.)

For nearly a decade now, I’ve been writing articles about sustaining pastoral excellence. In approximately 20 articles, I have tried to share tips, experiences, and the latest research about healthy pastors and congregations, covering topics like peer support, looking after the pastors’ family, lifelong learning and how to prevent stress and burnout.

Along the way, I learned that pastors – despite their unique position in the church – are not special or unique in terms of what they need to thrive. Like us, pastors need to be surrounded by peers who support them, hold them accountable and encourage them. Pastors, like all of us, need time to relax and opportunities to learn and sharpen their skills. They need to be able to devote time to create healthy marriages and families. Finally, like all of us, pastors need to be a part of a loving community and have meaningful relationships.

Peer Support
Many of the tips for wellness shared with me by pastors revolved around peer group involvement. Rev. Henry Kranenburg, pastor of Immanuel Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Hamilton, Ontario, put it this way: peer support helps leaders “fight against the tunnel vision of their own particular style.”

“Peer groups help pastors learn that the value of working together is in being challenged to think outside of one’s normal paradigm,” he said.

In recent years, peer groups have thrived in the CRC and other denominations. But peer support isn’t limited to participation in structured groups, and neither is peer learning the exclusive domain of pastors. By taking part in mentoring relationships, joining book clubs or study groups or even participating in a hobby or sports club, peer support can make us stronger and help us find solutions for challenges we face.

Healthy Marriages and Family Life
Devoting intention and time to healthy marriages and home lives is also crucial. Churches, like many employers, sometimes forget how important family relationships are to productivity at work. “We realized that many church councils weren’t taking seriously enough the task of caring for the pastor and the pastor’s family,” said Rev. Ed Gerber, one of the authors of Marriage and Ministry published by the CRC’s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program. “We also concluded that many pastors neglect to care for their marriages and families to the extent that they should.”

“Experience has taught us that healthy marriages contribute to healthy homes and healthy children, and happy homes support and contribute to healthy and vibrant pastoral ministries,” said Gerber.

Work-Life Balance
In a caring profession, it can be easy to let service of others takes precedence over caring for oneself. However, many pastors told me that, without self-care, it eventually becomes impossible to properly care for others.

Rev. Bob Zomermaand, a retired parish pastor, learned the hard way. “I myself fell victim to the temptation to work too much,” wrote Zomermaand in his article “Caring for Pastors.” “I became fatigued in my spirit, in my emotions and my body. As a result, I lost my ability to be a useful tool in the Lord’s hand. The very thing I so desired to be and to do was beyond my reach.”

Lifelong Learning
Part of self-care is taking the time to learn and grow. As in any workplace, technology and new practices constantly evolve and can shape church ministries for better or worse. Those who fail to keep learning new skills will not be as resilient in the face of change.
Seminary should represent the beginning of a pastor’s learning journey, said Rev. Kathy Smith, Director of Continuing Education for Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Instead of trying to teach students everything they need to know, we try to teach them that they will have to be responsible for their learning from here on out.”
Don’t Go It Alone
Pastors face unique challenges in developing friendships because of their unique position in the church, but those barriers aren’t insurmountable. Pastors can seek to establish friendships through school or community connections. They can befriend other pastors or take part in ecumenical groups.

“Pastors are no different than anyone else,” said Rev. Mark Vermaire, pastor of Crossroads Christian Reformed Church in San Marcos, California. “We were created by God to live in community.”

What pastors “really want is to know and to be known,” concluded Rev. Don Orange, pastor of Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Greeley, Colorado. “Isn’t that what everyone’s heart is crying out for?”