This blog is a 2-part series discussing women in ministry in honor of Women’s History Month. To read part one of the article, click here.
Together but Apart
I entered ministry determined to seek support from and relationship with colleagues, learning from the example of my mentors in ministry.
I had a great clergy network in person, but when I wanted to talk to other clergy moms, I discovered there weren’t any living in my area.
It was 2004, so I turned to the internet, writing a blog and using search engines to seek other women in my situation.
I felt like an outlier at the time, and when an informal group of bloggers first formed the organization I serve, RevGalBlogPals, in 2005, it was so innovative as to be suspect to some.
Where can I find a tribe now?
Today, connecting with colleagues in digital spaces is the norm.
Nearly all the women surveyed or interviewed for my Louisville Institute Pastoral Study Project, Alleviating Isolation: The Role of Online Community in Sustaining Clergywomen, rely on some form of digital connection.
98% of digital survey respondents named Facebook; 92% texting; fifteen other modes included Facebook Messenger, Twitter, blogs, Instagram and various forms of video chat such as Zoom, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts.
Some of the longer-serving pastors informed me that clergywomen have been finding community online since the 1990s, both as users of Ecunet, a religious online network similar to Usenet, and as participants in the PRCL (Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary) listserv.
Many named RevGals or Young Clergy Women International (YCWI) as important in their lives, as well as NEXT Church (a PCUSA initiative with a popular annual national gathering) and UNCO, an annual ecumenical “unconference,” at which participants determine the topics of interest together and lead workshops themselves.
Those four groups, and particularly RevGalBlogPals and YCWI, were offered up again in answers to one survey question, “Where have you found support specific to clergy? Clergywomen?”
Other organizations named were the International Association of Women Ministers (IAWM), National Association of Presbyterian Clergywomen, Academy of Parish Clergy, Women Touched By Grace, Sustaining Pastoral Excellence, CREDO, Coordinating Center for Women, UCC 2030 Clergy and NextGen Leadership Initiative, Bethany Fellows, and Baptist Women in Ministry.
Local clergy study groups were also mentioned. 82 respondents (10.57%), however, answered with some form of none, very little/not much, and even LOL.
What difference does it make?
The Lilly Foundation-funded Flourishing in Ministry Project at Notre Dame names collegial support as crucial for pastors.
“The degree to which a pastor experiences a sense of belongingness — community, fidelity, and mutuality — with other pastors appears to be one of the most important determinants of that pastor’s flourishing. Pastors who experience a strong sense of membership in the community of pastors are much more likely to experience and sustain high levels of happiness and thriving over many years. They also appear to be the most resilient and are among those most likely to experience a long and fruitful ministry.” (Emerging Insights, p. 35)
In other words, clergy colleagues get it, and they know when you do not.
Collegial relationships are therefore invaluable.
Pastors operate at a disadvantage when they lack community with other clergy.
The Flourishing in Ministry study also makes the case for interdenominational clergy groups, which “reduce or eliminate any potential … for intra-denominational problems.”
My study reinforced some things I held true: that virtual community is a real community, that it forms and re-forms more quickly than face-to-face community.
It also challenged me to consider that the two kinds of community work better together than virtual community might alone.
Over the past fourteen years RevGalBlogPals has grown from a few dozen to many thousands, but it is clear that the quality of relationship found by the inner circles who write for our website, moderate our online spaces, participate in our online affinity groups, and/or attend our continuing education events and informal gatherings is deeper and more abiding than that of the women who simply read our website offerings or visit our general Facebook group.
Acknowledge and Assist
For the church to thrive, pastors must also thrive.
Clergywomen who prioritize collegial community will seek it or create it if they do not find it.
Clergywomen isolated geographically face the greatest challenge to finding community in person.
In small towns and rural areas, clergy networks can be unwelcoming to clergywomen, particularly in areas of the country where faith traditions that do not ordain women dominate local culture.
While the most helpful digital connections may stem from or lead to face-to-face relationships, when geography and exclusion are both factors, online community provides a crucial means for professional development and personal support.
Judicatories and local churches can support clergywomen by acknowledging theological and geographic isolation, encouraging multiple forms of connection to colleagues, and funding technology that supports digital community.
Looking for opportunities to join a virtual and or in-person faith community? Click here to view our upcoming courses and programs such as The Women of Color Colloquy and Your Sacred Story: The Spiritual Practice of Journaling (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.