Autumn is my favorite season, especially when the trees and undergrowth reach their peak brilliance of color. I love the subtle gradations of red, yellow, gold, orange, and even a bit of purple. Nature is showing off, giving us a grand display before signing off for the winter. Sadly, the leaves fall far too soon for my liking. Even before the first snowfall, the trees have become barren, branches stark and dull without their usual clothing. The bare limbs are a portent of winter, a season of darkness and drear.
Often, human experience has seasons of its own, though not necessarily in alignment with nature’s seasons, therefore less easily predicted or prepared for. Winter can come to us all when we least expect it, and it is no respecter of our responsibilities or life’s demands. This may be particularly true for clergy. The seasons of the church have their highs and lows as well, times when much is expected and quiet times when not much is happening in the local church. The problem is that there may be times when clergy are knee-deep in Advent or Lent when a period of struggle or depression hits. Congregations still expect their pastors to function at top proficiency, managing the usual demands of the season without skipping a beat. What is the clergyperson to do? To whom do they turn for the comfort, advice, and encouragement they need?
For laity, there is an easy answer to this question—call upon their pastor to supply spiritual guidance. Yet who is the pastor’s pastor? Technically, the district superintendent is supposed to fill that role, but there are many drawbacks to that answer. One is that the district superintendent is just as busy, if not busier, than the pastors in their care. Another problem is that, as the pastor’s supervisor, some clergy might be reluctant to reveal too much of their struggle lest it prove to negatively impact their DS’s opinion of them. And sometimes the DS is just not a good fit for the kind of person that an individual pastor needs at any given point in time. Again, where is the pastor to go?
This is why I believe it is crucial for clergy to have a strong support network of fellow clergy, whether within their own denomination or from their ecumenical neighbors. Few people outside of ministry truly understand the unique demands that pastors face, the joys and struggles, the burden of congregational expectations, the unpredictable hours, the interruptions, the deaths and tragedies that require a caring and compassionate response and add extra hours to their regular duties. When one’s energy is flagging from just the “ordinary” demands of the job, adding the needs of a suffering parishioner and their family can be just too much. Especially when the clergyperson is experiencing a winter season in their own life.
Clergy need each other! If you are in a deep emotional winter, seek out the support of a clergy friend, someone who knows you well and knows what you need to climb your way out of the darkness and get back on your feet again. Identify those people you feel safe with, people you trust to hold your story in confidentiality, and most of all, people who you know will respond appropriately. You need someone who embodies strong emotional intelligence, who has an instinct for saying the right thing at the right time. You need friends who will hold you up and support you until the difficult season passes. And it will. Just as fall turns to winter and winter turns to spring, you can be assured that your own personal darkness will eventually, with God’s grace, be bathed in light.