Learning from colleagues

I do a couple of check-ins with other pastors each week. One is the gathering of pastors of the United Church of Christ in the Black Hills. This meeting usually has more retired clergy than those actively serving congregations, and most of the retired clergy belong to my congregation so it is a mixed occasion for me. On the one hand it is a gathering of colleagues who discuss professional issues. On the other hand it is a gathering of members of my congregation, whom I have been called to serve. It isn’t exactly a place where I can let down my hair about what it means to serve as pastor of a congregation. It is also a place where congregational members raise issues of concern about my congregation in addition to a place where I can consult with colleagues.

The second clergy gathering is an ecumenical gathering where I am the only person from our denomination. This group of friends has drawn close over the years, but we still maintain our professional responsibilities. We speak in general terms about the issues of our congregations, but are careful about keeping confidences and not telling stories that are not ours to tell.

The first group has, in the past, focused on book study, choosing a new book after each one is discussed. The second group focuses on study of the lectionary texts for the coming week.

Both groups have gone to video conferencing instead of face-to-face meetings given the need to limit contact during the pandemic. Meetings tend to be a bit shorter when we are on the computer, but they also tend to be a bit less focused. In the past couple of weeks they have been little more than just going around the group and checking in to see how each person is doing, if there are any special needs and the like.

Most of the time I don’t compare the two groups. They have different functions and different agendas and I simply participate in both groups. But since we’ve gone to video conferencing, I do find myself making comparisons more often. The group with a majority of retired clergy has several members who are shut in their homes and, frankly, are getting bored. They want to talk a lot and seem to me to be significantly underemployed. In the other group we are all working much harder than we were before the pandemic. In addition to the regular business of the church, we have added social media management, livestream worship, and creative fund raising and management. We still have members who are in need of care. We still have people who get sick and go to the hospital. We are doing more ministry over FaceTime and the computer and have less face-to-face contact with our congregations, but there is a lot of work that needs to get done. And we are woking with less support staff. I don’t have an assistant to answer the phone any more. That doesn’t stop callers from asking for one of them. I agree to take messages for them, but the messages are mostly things that I need to do. I’m the one who enters all the data and lays out the worship bulletins in the computer each week. I’m the one who posts the thank you notices in the church newsletter.

I’ve spoken with other professionals who are continuing to work during the pandemic and finding that they are experiencing the same thing. It is typical for them to say that their work load has gone up by 50% during the time of physical isolation. This big increase in work load is something that is unique to this crisis in my experience. The result is that it is almost impossible to communicate what we are going through with our retired colleagues. I try to be polite and to listen carefully, but I end up feeling more and more distanced from those people. I don’t have time to explain to them what I’m going through. I need to keep working just to survive.

The problem is that I am on the cusp of retirement. Within a few months, when we have gotten moved to our new home, I will be in that category for all of my colleagues - another retired minister. And I’m moving to a place where there are already a lot of retired clergy. I don’t want to be out of touch. I don’t want to be a person who can’t understand what my colleagues experiences are. One of my biggest fears of retirement has to do with the fact that unlike other phases of my ministry, I don’t see mentors and models who I want to imitate.

It makes me wonder about those who are retired. I never intended to retire. I wanted to keep working, but there are dynamics that are larger than me and I need to make choices that are in the best interest of the congregation I serve. I always thought that when I reached this phase of my career there would be a small congregation or an interim position or a chaplaincy or some other professional engagement where I could keep my hand in the business. I have good health and I am capable of working. And I really don’t know what is going to happen. I may find just the right call for my age and stage in life. It now seems possible to me that similar dynamics may have engulfed the retired clergy in my circle. Their lives might not have all worked out according to a plan. They might find themselves in circumstances that they never imagined would be their story. I hope I am developing a bit of compassion for them as I go through this stage of my life.

For now, however, I don’t think I can imagine what it would be like to look forward to more meetings. I’m just trying to survive all of the meetings I have.

It is clear that I still have much to learn.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!