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Finding relational sanctuary

Two men talking privately

Faced with increased ministry burnout, pastors need to discover places of sanctuary and creative spaces for discernment, and clergy leadership cohorts may be a helpful resource.

Senior Director of Leadership Development
United Methodist Foundation of Michigan

During my first few months on the Foundation staff, I have been listening to pastors. The stories have been intense! Several pastors have shared stories of trauma and the detrimental effects of stress and conflict. The aftermath of these incidents is often depression, isolation, and loneliness. Recently, I shared these words with a clergy colleague who expressed these feelings: “You are not alone.” He was relieved. If you, too, are experiencing traumatic stress and related emotional responses, you can take heart in knowing that you are not alone.

Over the summer, I connected with numerous church-related leaders in various capacities and organizations. Clergy emotional health was a recurring theme in every conversation. During one conversation, a colleague mentioned a podcast episode called Pastor Dan White Jr., and the Great Pastor Resignation (found wherever you listen to podcasts). White raises many of the hot-button issues which pastors face. His account is the most severe that I have heard. It is frightening, enlightening, and engaging. I listened, and my heart ached. Yours will too.

The interview unpacked theological, political, and personal conflicts in Pastor Dan’s first twenty years of ministry. Initially, he denied that ministry impacted his personal health. Eventually, he was diagnosed with Cumulative Traumatic Stress Disorder (CTSD). He mapped out with his therapist nearly two hundred small traumatic events that happened over his twenty years of ministry. His therapist described these incidents as a cumulation of multiple small deaths. The pandemic only intensified his health situation to the point of incapacitation. The truth is that his reality is replicated over and over again in other clergy members.

Have You Found a Sanctuary?

Many pastors are starved for authentic relationships and a place where they can be vulnerable. The missing link for many pastors is what Ronald Heifetz describes as a sanctuary. He says, “To survive, you need a sanctuary where you can reflect on the previous day’s journey, renew your emotional resources, and recalibrate your moral compass.” This holy space keeps you from falling into the abyss, especially during the most challenging times.

Tod Bolsinger, in his book Tempered Resilience, describes how pastors need to create three layers of relationships. First, the front stage includes our allies and teammates who share a common goal. Second, the backstage is comprised of supervisors, mentors, and coaches. These people help us lead better. However, most pastors stop here. They do not create the third layer, the offstage. This layer consists of an intimate group of confidants. These confidants build us up and protect us. Bolsinger challenges us to widen our circle of confidants to include spiritual directors, counselors, and support groups.

Who Are Your Confidants?

We need to widen our circle of learning in the offstage and move beyond best practices. Many of these practices are not working and, quite frankly, have not worked for some time. The world has changed. Leaders are now facing multiple adaptive challenges. We are frequently leading in this uncharted territory. It is a difficult task to lead in this space on your own. Church leaders need support as they tackle these new challenges. Based on my conversations with leaders across the country, I have discovered that a common way to widen our circle is to gather pastors in small cohorts.

Is a Leadership Cohort for You?

The formation of a cohort is not a new idea. However, these innovative groups now focus less on content and more on creative space for discernment. They are specifically designed to create holy space to birth conversation of discovery and new ideas. Tilled and watered, ideas can grow and flourish. Group facilitation is another distinctive of these cohorts. As a facilitator, I help guide the discussions as leaders help other leaders.

A leadership cohort will likely help you learn, reflect, and navigate those small traumatic events of everyday ministry before they overwhelm you. Like Pastor Dan, you will find many of your colleagues searching for wellness. Following a season of burnout, Pastor Dan eventually opened a retreat center for weary pastors in Puerto Rico. Pastor Dan successfully returned to ministry. It is a story of good news. God is good!

Let’s find a time to chat about your ministry and discover places of sanctuary and creative spaces for discernment. Watch for future details about the formation of clergy leadership cohorts which will help build your offstage. I’m excited to come alongside your ministry and to help you fully and confidently live into God’s call.

For more information about leadership cohorts, contact me at [email protected].

Last Updated on October 4, 2022

The Michigan Conference