Tuesday, June 11, 2024

How a Clergy Support Group Provided Resilience During Challenging Times

Clergy Commentary by Rev. Christina Braudaway-Bauman

On the day COVID-19 closed the doors of all our church buildings, I remember checking my calendar to look for the date when my clergy Community of Practice was scheduled to meet. I’m sure I took a deeper breath when I saw the time was coming soon. But it’s always coming soon. We meet nearly every month. It’s been like that now for the last 14 years.

Christina Braudaway-Bauman

When we first got together, we talked about how we would use our time. If we were going to meet regularly, we knew we would need to be intentional. So from the start, we agreed that we would make room for each person to tell the truth about her own experience in ministry. We would learn together, keep confidential every vulnerable thing shared, support each other in life as well as in ministry, and hold each other in prayer. As the years unfolded, we kept a running list of everything we wanted to explore together. Think of any topic in ministry — every one of them has been a focus of our conversation. We’ve shared insights and ideas with each other, things we’ve read, resources our churches have developed, services, sermons, church policies, and prayers we have written ourselves. Most importantly, we have listened with attentiveness and care, listening, before checking to see if another perspective or a piece of advice is what anyone is looking for. 

We have walked with each other through significant life events — births of children, deaths of parents, miscarriages, divorces, and moves to new communities. We have shared with each other the deep joys of ministry with beloved congregations, as well as the inevitable difficulties — disgruntled parishioners, budget shortfalls, under-functioning staff, anxious congregations, and the whitewater ride of the current cultural and political climate.

I have always loved this group of women and appreciated our time together, but when COVID-19 landed and the practice of ministry changed overnight, I felt our meetings take on a new sense of significance and even urgency. We needed each other in whole new ways. It helped that we already had some practice with Zoom because I had moved to Colorado a few years earlier, while everyone else was still in Massachusetts. It helped that we already knew each other well, which made it possible for us to cut to the core of essential matters quickly. It helped that we were suddenly facing the exact same challenges – figuring out how to keep the members of our congregations connected even while physically distanced from one another, crafting meaningful worship with new online tools, sustaining what we could of familiar rhythms of church life while also observing the necessary separations, moving the church from inside to outside, and finding new ways to meet new needs in the wider community.

I suppose we could have each figured out how to move forward on our own. The solutions we came up with to every problem were as varied as our churches. But I’m quite sure that because we were able to lean on each other and learn from each other’s experience, each of us were able to pivot with greater agility, respond constructively to the particularities of our congregations and wider communities with a greater sense of calm, and meet every challenge with far more creativity.

Ministry in the midst of the pandemic was hard. It was intense. It was exhausting. And, it was not the only predicament we have faced in recent years. The members of my clergy group can all speak to the ways the enormously unfinished work of racial justice, the fragility of our democracy, the unyielding polarization of our country, the prevalence of gun violence, the vulnerability of marginalized populations, and the manifestations of the climate crisis have hit home and influenced our ministries.

In light of all the pressures, perhaps it’s no wonder then that so many clergy reported feelings of loneliness in the latest EPIC and Faith Communities Today studies. Along with the rapid pace of change in our culture and the sense that we are living in a time that feels shaky and precarious, the challenges of ministry seem to be multiplying. In the face of such uncertainty, perhaps the loneliness we feel, sometimes acutely, is not a surprise.

But I also know the extent to which the pastors in my Community of Practice have been able to engage our congregations in any of the critical matters facing us is related to our understanding that we do not face them alone. There are others, other congregations, other pastors, who reliably walk beside us, and who are praying and working as we are for the Spirit to guide us and for God’s promised day to come. The presence of trusted pastoral colleagues and friends, and our sense that the ministry in which we are engaged is a shared one, makes hope more possible. It’s also the best antidote I can think of to the loneliness that ails us.

Rev. Christina Braudaway-Bauman is the senior pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ-Boulder.