This blog is a 2-part series discussing women in ministry in honor of Women’s History Month.
No Man (Woman) is an Island
Ministry is one of those jobs that can be hard for other people to understand, and given the need for confidentiality in our work, it shouldn’t be surprising that pastors tend to feel isolated.
Even before I started seminary, I served on Committee on Ministry and heard more than one pastor in some kind of trouble naming isolation as a factor.
“I had no one I could talk to,” they said, naming existential angst that has both spiritual and psychological implications.
Clergy of all genders needs relational support in order to thrive.
In honor of Women’s History Month, it’s important that we understand how women in ministry can face extra barriers to finding that community.
Although the percentage of women serving churches has increased in many denominations, isolation is a daily reality for many clergywomen.
It is particularly problematic for women who, whether via search and call, an appointment system, or some combination, come to serve churches in places they find isolating geographically or theologically or both.
Even in moderate-to-progressive mainline denominations, the default preference for most churches is still a white, male pastor.
Women thus tend to be called or appointed to pulpits in less desirable social, theological, and/or geographic locations, where they live in a social fishbowl and a collegial desert.
Women Supporting Women
Women have a heightened need for collegial connection because unlike men, they deal daily with the sexism both of North American culture and our religious institutions.
Luther Seminary professor Karoline Lewis writes in her book She: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Women in Ministry, “One of the absolute essential truths of thriving as a woman in ministry is to have girlfriends who are also in ministry. While girlfriends are absolutely essential in the whole of your ministry, they are perhaps the most critical when it comes to dealing with sexism. You will need to know that you are not alone. You will need to be affirmed in the fact that you are not making this stuff up. You will need spaces to cry, be angry, scream, and swear.” (p. 140)
The Importance of Community
In 2017-18, with the support of a Pastoral Study Project grant from the Louisville Institute, I undertook a study, Alleviating Isolation: The Role of Online Community in Sustaining Clergywomen.
As part of my research, I held eight focus groups with forty-six clergywomen and conducted a digital survey to which 778 clergywomen responded.
They represented 42 denominations or were non-denominational, although more than 75% were affiliated with five mainline denominations in the United States: United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (USA), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Methodist Church, or the Episcopal Church.
When asked where they find community, women in the focus groups named shifts in contemporary life, away from neighborhoods and toward activities.
They described ways that they find community locally through common interests (knitting, running, softball, belly-dancing, water aerobics, children’s sports and other pursuits, caring for grandchildren).
Most of the women who attended face-to-face groups live in a city or in a near suburb of a city.
All of them named resources we might expect in and around a modern metroplex.
The story was different for those who came from more remote areas.
They described being instantly recognizable in their small towns, having no privacy if single, and serving churches with limited resources for continuing education as well as limited pastors available to cover if they can muster the resources to get out of town.
Clergywomen from rural areas or conservative small towns shared about receiving negative treatment from other pastors and churches in the community.
One told us about a group in her town that “prayed against” her.
While the face-to-face groups skewed toward women with adequate and in some cases ample personal and vocational resources, the participants who came from more isolated areas, both geographically and theologically, offered a preview of the digital survey results, in which over 51% of respondents indicated geography as an isolating factor.
In other studies, clergymen and clergywomen report a similar level of both emotional satisfaction and emotional exhaustion, so this is not simply a gendered difference, but a locational one.
Clergy and Loneliness
Neuroscience supports my supposition that isolation diminishes pastors and their ability to do ministry well.
Human beings are “obligatorily gregarious,” concluded John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick in their book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.
We are made to be connected to others; this is not simply a theological concept we can draw from the relational nature of the Trinity, but a physiological one. Loneliness diminishes our executive control, which is to say, lonely people make poorer choices about what to eat or drink, whether to smoke, even about sexual behavior.
The pastors telling Committee on Ministry what led to their misconduct were not just making excuses.
Feeling isolated at the very least contributed to their poor choices.
Further, feeling lonely feeds on itself.
When we feel lonely or isolated, we are likely to make it worse for ourselves. And inversely, when we feel satisfied and safe, our capacity for creativity and collaboration are increased by what Cacioppo and Wright call “psychological uplift.”
We cannot change other people (or other pastors), but we can provide opportunities for them to connect and be changed by their interactions.
Membership, belonging, social support, connection, community — whatever term is used to describe it, clergy need it to do their work well, and clergywomen need each other.
In part two of this series on Women in Ministry, I will explore the value of both face-to-face and digital community for sustaining clergywomen.
Looking for opportunities to join a recreational faith community? Click here to view our upcoming courses and programs such as The Women of Color Colloquy and Writing Together in Creative Community (Online).
Martha Spong is a United Church of Christ pastor, an ICF-accredited coach, and the executive director of RevGalBlogPals. She is the co-author of Denial is My Spiritual Practice (and Other Failures of Faith) and the editor of There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor.