By Rev. Cheryl A. Fear
I came to ministry late in life. I was 55 years old when I entered Vancouver School of Theology and 58 when I graduated. By the time I was ordained I was 62 years old. I had lived a rich, full life before I entered ministry, and continued to do the same while I was in appointed ministry and now as a retired minister.
One the best things I have done over the years has been to maintain longstanding friendships. Not all, of course—some just drift away in the natural ebb and flow of life. But I am still friends with a woman I met in the second grade 64 years ago. I am still friends with a woman I sat next to at the switchboard as I earned money to go to college, and she worked while her husband was serving in Viet Nam. I still keep in touch with my college roommate, and periodically share a meal with women I worked with at the phone company for 15 years. The midwives for whom I managed a women’s health and midwifery clinic remain two of my closest friends to this day. Sister Maureen, a Franciscan nun who was the principal where I taught school, remained my friend until she passed away four years ago.
Like me, these women went on to have careers in various fields, and throughout our lives their experiences and perspectives enriched my own. This was especially true when I was in ministry.
All of us know that ministry is a vocation that requires us to enter into meaningful relationships with others while at the same time preserving a spiritual perspective. We minister in the context of relationships, and yet this vocation can also be very lonely. Many of our relationships exist within the bounds of confidentiality which must be maintained at all costs, because others have put their trust in us. Yet we all need relationships that are less restrictive and don’t hold us to such high standards.
What I found in getting together with old and dear friends is that they were all willing to share about their lives and their challenges. They didn’t ask for my pastoral care because I wasn’t their pastor. I was their friend. I could relax and enjoy our conversations because they were just that—our conversations! I was free to be myself with them and they with me. This feels like an essential aspect of self-care to me.
When I was appointed to Cashmere UMC, I was invited to join the local Rotary International chapter, and I accepted. It was one of the best things I have ever done. It got me outside of the church walls and outside the limitations of the relationships that are available to us within the church context. What’s more, it educated me about what was going on in the community I served in a way that no other kind of group could have done.
In addition, some of us who went to seminary together have kept in touch over the years. We all serve different denominations in different regions, and yet we deal with many of the same issues—whether they be congregational problems or denominational polity. Keeping those ties was another way in which I was able to maintain perspective when I was feeling a little down.
Now that I am retired, I am part of something we call a Sacred Circle. It is comprised of one mental health counselor, one active Episcopalian priest, one dean at a major school in Seattle, and two retired ministers, of which I am one. Our lives had brought us together through various activities and we just liked each other. So, as often as we can, we get together and share our lives with all of their ups and downs.
If you are younger, and have not had the opportunity to make friends outside of denominational ministry, I encourage you to be intentional about reaching out and connecting with others with whom you find compatibility and mutual interests. Find someone to invite you to join a civic organization. Join a book club—not a church-based one. Find a group that suits your interests but not connected with the church, and join it. Not for the purpose of getting them to come to church, but for the purpose of getting you OUT of church and widening your perspective of the world in which your beloved parishioners live their lives.
Friends who are not involved in ministry will help you maintain your emotional balance, stretch your heart, and help diminish the occupational loneliness that comes with the calling. May this be the gift of relationship that blesses your life and ministry. Shalom.
Rev. Cheryl Fear is a retired United Methodist Elder who served the Cashmere and Garden Street United Methodist Churches before retiring in 2014.