Clergy need a life outside church

Are clergy lonelier than other folks?

A short but insightful column on clergy loneliness, by Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal priest based in NYC, has been floating around the Web in recent weeks, thanks largely to Religion News Service.

It’s worth reading:


A Facebook group to which I belong held a discussion of loneliness among senior pastors.

People commented that pastors tend to have few friends with whom they can relax and be themselves.

Clergy said they need to be guarded about what they say and wary of being judged on superficials, such as their attire. They said their work is so all-consuming that they rarely have time for friendships outside the congregation.

It isn’t just senior pastors, participants said, but all clergy, and indeed most organizational leaders. Hierarchical leadership leaves them cut off from sustaining friendships, even cut off from their families.

My immediate contribution to the discussion was to say this:

— The No. 1 need is to have a life outside church — a life filled with nonchurch activities and nonchurch friends, where the pastor can be just a guy or gal. If the pastor has a family, life outside church should put family first. Children need a parent, not a role model standing in a pulpit.

— Second is to have healthy boundaries, where church work ends and rest of life begins. Fuzzy boundaries lead to loneliness.

— Third is to have realistic expectations of church members. To them, the pastor is never out of role. True intimacy with church members tends to be problematic.

Loneliness takes a serious toll. It can lead to sadness and depression. It can lead to boundary problems, acting out and inappropriate behavior. It can sap the pastor’s energy and self-confidence.

Some laity impose isolation as a way to keep clergy under control, which is also a way to keep God small and nonthreatening. One pastor told me, “Many laypeople are unwilling to treat their leaders as human beings who need a compliment or kind comment from time to time.”

Another told me, “I turned down a call to a small-town parish once because the chairperson of the calling committee said, ‘We always know what’s going on in the rectory.”’

Most constituents, I think, contribute to the loneliness unwittingly by making comments that treat their pastor as a curiosity and by not including the pastor in certain activities.

Politicians learn to exploit such behavior — although they still get into boundary troubles — and celebrities ride it to the bank. Clergy occupy a strange middle ground: needing to be political but not possessing the politician’s thick skin; serving as a local celebrity but not equipped to manage the spotlight.

As church staffs shrink and church institutions provide less collegiality to clergy, the pastor’s loneliness seems likely to worsen. Dealing with that loneliness should be a primary task for both congregations and their denominations.

Nervous clergy might be malleable, but the Gospel is better served when clergy feel able to preach boldly, to tend to all constituents and not just the powerful, and to lead with godly vision, not paycheck anxiety.

Clergy who have full lives, including friendships, downtime and acceptance (of both their personalities and their flaws), will be more likely to connect with their constituents’ lives.

Isolated clergy tend to get too institutional because institution is the one place they feel safe and competent.

It’s unclear why, as clergy report, denominations have stopped working to promote collegiality among clergy. Maybe denominational leaders are themselves too lonely to imagine better. But they should take the lead in breaking down their mutual isolation.

Dolan: Catholics not unenlightened

The AP’s Rachel Zoll interviewed Archbishop Dolan today.

Here’s an updated draft:

AP Religion Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — New York Archbishop-designate Timothy Dolan said Monday, on the eve of his installation, that he will challenge the idea that the Roman Catholic Church is unenlightened because it opposes gay marriage and abortion.

In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Dolan said he wants to restore pride in being Catholic, especially given the damage the church endured in the clergy sex abuse scandal, which he called a continuing source of shame.

“One would hope that through education and through the joy that we give by our lives that people will begin to see that these fears and this skepticism we have about the church are unwarranted,” Dolan said.

He said Catholics also must defend themselves against bias, which he said was still deeply ingrained in American culture.

“Periodically, we Catholics have to stand up and say, ‘Enough,'” he said. “The church as a whole still calls out to what is noble in us.”

Dolan, 59, will be installed as leader of the Archdiocese of New York before thousands of well-wishers in services Tuesday night and Wednesday in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The former archbishop of Milwaukee, Dolan succeeds New York Cardinal Edward Egan, who is retiring at age 77.

In his sermons this week, Dolan says he will ask Catholics not to be so consumed by their problems in these difficult times that they turn inward and away from the community.

His daily life has been a whirlwind since the Vatican announced his appointment seven weeks ago. He celebrated Mass on Easter Sunday in Milwaukee then flew with relatives to New York.

On Monday, speaking in the archbishop’s residence, which is attached to St. Patrick’s through a dining room door, he said he was still unpacking.

The job of New York archbishop is the most visible in the church in the United States, and has been filled by men who became giants not only in the American church, but also in broader society. Among them are Cardinals Francis Spellman and John O’Connor.

Dolan will have a daily reminder of his predecessors’ achievements every moment he’s in the residence. Imposing portraits of the clergymen line the entrance hall and stairways.

On Feb. 23, the day the Vatican announced his appointment, Dolan asked Egan to take him to the crypt in St. Patrick’s, where the previous archbishops are buried.

Dolan said he wanted to pray for them and ask for their prayers, and to see where he will be buried, so he can remember his goal: to live a holy life and “be with God forever in Heaven.”

Dolan is known for defending church orthodoxy with a friendly face. At one service in Milwaukee, he donned a cheesehead hat in honor of the Green Bay Packers. Dolan often jokes about his girth; he had said that one of his previous church jobs was so demanding that he forgot to eat and lost one of his chins.

Still, Dolan said he struggles with how best to convey Catholic teaching. Among his heroes is New York Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who was a 20th century pioneer in TV and radio evangelism.

Dolan was given a rosary used by Sheen and said he prays with it every day. He plans to talk about the church “as our spiritual family,” which people need despite its flaws.

“We need you. We love you. The church is your family,” he plans to tell alienated Catholics. “Please come back. We miss you. We’re sorry if we hurt you. We’ll listen to you. It’s not the same without you.”

The archbishop is taking the New York job at a time when same-sex couples need only drive over the state border to be married — in Connecticut, Massachusetts and later this year, Vermont. New York Gov. David Paterson ordered state agencies last May to respect out-of-state gay marriages.

Dolan said he would challenge any efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in New York, but insisted that his position was not anti-gay.

“We love them,” he said of gays and lesbians. “We would defend their rights.”

However, marriage must remain as it always has been, between one man and one woman, he said.

“If we let that definition of marriage go and begin to include other relationships, it will be to a detriment to the civilization,” he said.

Regarding the fight against abortion, Dolan said that the University of Notre Dame had made a mistake by inviting President Barack Obama to give this year’s commencement address, in light of Obama’s support for abortion rights.

Dolan said that the invitation and the honorary degree the president will receive sent the wrong signal to students that “we hold him up as a model to you.”

But the archbishop said it would also be wrong to freeze out abortion rights supporters and that Catholics should instead engage them. He said Obama could have been invited to Notre Dame to speak without honoring him.

“The word we have to keep using is engagement,” said Dolan. He does not deny Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who break with church teaching. Obama called Dolan on the day of his appointment and the archbishop says he prays for the president daily.

Dolan joked that he had crows instead of butterflies in his stomach at the prospect of taking over the New York archdiocese, which serves 2.5 million parishioners and is the nation’s second-largest diocese after Los Angeles.

But he said, “I hope at my core, I hear Jesus say, ‘Timothy be not afraid,'” he said.

“Then I take a deep breath and say, ‘Let’s go,'” he said, “and I’m going to enjoy it and I’m going to give it my best.”

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

A modern disaster?

A thought for Monday morning before I head to NYC for an interesting interview…

I was talking to a Presbyterian pastor over the weekend who noted that churches have become real good at responding to natural disasters. The horrible flooding in Fargo provides several good examples.

But the time is coming, the pastor said, when churches may have to respond to the tumult caused by the Recession in a similar way…

Dobson retiring from Focus on the Family

One of the most powerful figures in evangelical Christianity, James Dobson, is retiring as chairman of Focus on the Family, the ministry he started 32 years ago.

Dobson may not be as well known in New York as he is in much of the rest of the country.

But when people talk about the leaders of the “religious right,” they’re talking about Dobson and a few others. He has been a tremendously influential figure, promoting conservative values in society and government.

In a statement, Dobson says:

One of the common errors of founder-presidents is to hold to the reins of leadership too long, thereby preventing the next generation from being prepared for executive authority. I have wanted not to make that mistake with Focus on the Family, which is why I stepped back, first from the presidential duties six years ago, and now, from board chairmanship. Though letting go is difficult after three decades of intensive labor, it is the wise thing to do.

‘Have them delay our heavenly dessert…’

I’m a bit surprised that I haven’t heard a peep about Alec Baldwin’s visit to a Catholic church on the most recent 30 Rock.

It’s a popular show, isn’t it?

Briefly: He’s gone to church because he wants to please his girlfriend, played by Salma Hayek. But he’s antsy because the Mass is going too long and he doesn’t want to blow their Valentine’s Day reservations at a top-tier restaurant (where a $1,000 dessert awaits).

So he “adapts” the Lord’s Prayer:

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