There is an undercurrent at the pastor’s book launch (or community-garden opening or when she flies to present another workshop). A raised eyebrow, some crossed arms or whispered questions shake the positive mood: “How does she find time for this?” “I wish I had time for side-projects like she does.” “Is this going to benefit the congregation at all?”

Anticipated jealousy shows up as anxiety at the joint council retreat between two congregations exploring the concept of “shared ministry.” It would be discriminatory to say, but the same feelings are in the room when the call committee interviews the clergywoman who has young children or could potentially have them in the near future. Our pastoral care, youth ministry, worship or education life will suffer without her complete attention, we worry. Congregations full of human beings get jealous. We want this “call” to be everything to our pastor.

But what if a pastor’s divided attention is what we actually need to be the church?

I believe outside interests actually make pastors healthier leaders and congregants more empowered members of their faith community. Here’s why.

We are living in an age of great change for congregations. Although the inclination of some members is to grip tighter to what we think we can control, another path is to listen for what God might teach us through this next phase. If worshiping in a declining denomination causes you to worry, imagine being the one expected to worry about it full-time. Church leaders maintain a precarious sense of “calling” in systems with uncertain futures, as the central magnets for that anxiety. Pastoral leaders question their own success or even faithfulness when growth or even stability are elusive. Preachers are criticized from all sides for addressing crucial justice issues of our time, yet to only speak about Jesus’ words and actions as in the past and not related to today is unfaithful.

Developing an outside focus that takes some of their attention but also extends their ministry gifts to a different audience beyond the congregation can be a life-line, circumventing burnout for clergy. Alternative outlets for a pastor’s sense of calling can enable longevity in a particular congregation and in ministry for the individual leader in general. This meaningful impact may be even more important than the supplemental income some bi-vocational leaders need to support their households.

Every Christian needs to be about this relational ministry, not only the paid professionals.

Embracing church leaders’ “outside” loves could shift members’ understanding of ministry in significant ways too, including what lay members of a congregation are being equipped to do or be. The work of knitting together a faith community is relational, more of an art than it is any discernible list of tasks, and it necessarily involves all of us expanding our reach and understanding. In order to tend relationships, we each need to get into deeper conversations with those unlike ourselves and keep redefining what loving our neighbor means today. Every Christian needs to be about this relational ministry, not only the paid professionals.

The leader with divided attention requires others to step up. Clergy parents will always have some conflicts between showing up for their children and being ever-available for pastoral care. A pastor who travels to present workshops or consults on leadership initiatives creates the same opportunity for lay members to provide care-giving, enforcing the communal responsibility to do more than count on the pastor to visit the sick or hospitalized. The pastor’s other commitments call everyone else into our shared responsibilities within the faith community.

Crucially, when it is time for a pastor to leave a congregation, having a ministry identity outside of that congregation makes for a healthier exit. An assistant to the bishop recently described this to me as “being amphibious”: if you are a creature that can breathe in air or water, but you never get out of the water, you will have no idea you can actually survive out there. Much healthier is the pastor who will not lose her 0r his sense of calling or identity by fully exiting her or his sphere of influence in a particular congregation. And much healthier is the congregation that can fully embrace its next phase with a different leader.

Lee Ann M. Pomrenke
Pomrenke is an ELCA pastor, writer and mother living in St. Paul, Minn. Her website is leeannpomrenke.com.

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