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Get Thee a Sisterhood, Part 1

A network of female friends is an irreplaceable lifeline in ministry

Even though I expected this question, my heart felt as if it would beat right out of my chest. I stood before the group who would either affirm or confirm my "outer call" to ministry, as we Reformed-tradition folks say. Based on the essays I wrote and upon how they experienced me that day, these fine people would determine whether I could become a candidate for Minister of Word and Sacrament. I prayed that God would help me not to see them as gatekeepers or judges to impress, only people who loved God, the church, and me enough to examine my fitness for ministry. Nonetheless, I wriggled with anxiety.

Giddy with idealism, and seeing ministry through rose-colored glasses, I gushed my answer to the question.

"I love God, I love God's people, and I want to serve, love, and do mission with God's people in Christ's name."

The biggest smile ever to cross my face took control of my mouth. I struck a confident-yet-humble pose. A passerby seeing my nonverbals may have mistaken me for a Miss America contestant. I dug into the people's eyes and searched for approval.

They smiled, nodded, and went on to the next question.

Looking back, I wish they would have done more. I wish they would have told me about the great paradox of ministry: that those who follow God's call into it are those with a heart for people, and conversely, that the pastoral leader is often the loneliest person in her congregation.

Author and pastor M. Craig Barnes confirms this in a recent article. He writes about a "holy distance" that the church creates when it ordains a person to ministry. The elders who lay hands upon a pastor at her or his ordination are led by the Holy Spirit to push the reverend away, says Barnes. "They [are] essentially saying, ‘We are setting you apart to serve us. So you can't be just one of the gang anymore. Now you have to love us enough to no longer expect mutuality.'"

I would argue that the same is true for all pastoral leaders, clergy and lay. Ministry is a demanding vocation. Ministers, like the Hebrew prophets of old, carry the weight of the presence and word of the Lord and the cares of their people with them at all times. Sometimes nights are restless because ministers do not lay down these holy burdens as they lay themselves down to sleep and pray the Lord their souls to keep. There are few who truly "get" the life and plight of the minister. As much as church members want to "get it" (and maybe believe that they do) and be there for their pastors, they don't and they cannot.

And as for ministers, as much as they may want to be friends with their congregants, it is not to be because of that "holy distance." Still very much human, pastoral leaders need friends and accountability partners outside their churches, people to whom they can bear their souls and not hold back.

This is where a minister's network comes in. It is a group of like-professioned and similarly-faithed folk who gather regularly. Here the minister can be who she truly is: a human being called by God to fulfill one of the most difficult tasks on earth—serving God's people. She can speak honestly of struggles; complain (if need be) openly and authentically of church processes and people that are vexing and hurting her; find companions who are journeying the same path she is—people who "get it"; describe situations as case studies and check her actions as her colleagues respond to her; and gather ideas for worship, pastoral counseling, youth group activities, Sunday school curriculum, and so on. The possibilities are endless.

While I served in congregational ministry, I was blessed with two network groups: one that was coed and another that was female clergy only. Both were lifelines for my ministry. My colleagues kept me grounded, they kept me sane, and they helped me to remain in love with God even though I occasionally struggled with loving God's work and people.

There were times, though, when my needs were more specific. I needed people who innately knew the language of my soul's deepest groans when I could barely speak for good or for ill, people who "got" me.

Ain't nothin' like a sisterhood.

To be continued in Part 2…

Rev. Angie Mabry-Nauta is a writer and an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America (RCA). She served in congregational ministry for six years. A member of the Redbud Writer's Guild, Angie blogs at "Woman, in Progress…" and on the Church Herald Blog of the RCA. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @Godstuffwriter.

March21, 2013 at 10:58 AM

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