Rev. Jenny Partch
On the night before Snowmageddon last February, I was standing in the church kitchen with two men from two sizeable Presbyterian churches in town. We were making spaghetti before opening the doors for our homeless guests, when one of them asked, “So are you it, are you this church, I mean, do you have other people here?”
Every alarm bell in my head went off around proper work boundaries, empowering laity, not enabling, etc. In the previous 24 hours, the other guy and I had pulled off getting an emergency severe weather shelter for the homeless opened up in my church building, which meant a building inspection and permitting, securing four volunteers to stay overnight, blankets and supplies for eighty people, plus grocery shopping and myriad other tasks. Yes, I was the one there turning the heat on, putting up signs, directing them on what to cook and creating the shelter code of conduct and sign in sheets. I managed to stammer out something about being part-time and how it was a small congregation, but we did have a few part-time employees and another part-time pastor.
He looked around the kitchen as if noticing all the needed repairs and said, “Wow! It’s incredible what you’re doing here! My church would never have been able to do this.”
What I had thought was a damning question about my workaholic tendencies or shaming me into acknowledging our small congregation and its maintenance-deferred building turned out to be envy in how we were able to offer our building in service to the community on such short notice. (For the record, we ended up with over 108 volunteers taking over the work of running the shelter for the ensuing two weeks—Wonder Woman I am not!)
That interaction caused me further reflection though. Being a licensed local pastor of a small congregation has its perks—your governance can be nimble enough to make a quick decision, and your building with all its quirks and challenges is not a pristine showcase that has to be protected from housing the homeless. The health and wellness challenges to being a licensed local pastor for me are not so much about the work, the time or the schedule. What challenges me is mental health around vocation.
Finding my place and being satisfied with my place in ministry and remembering my giftedness in the midst of balancing a never-ending to-do list has been a difficult journey. I was 39 when I began the Course of Study to become a licensed local pastor. Many ordained clergy encouraged me to go to seminary, that the life of a licensed local pastor would mean part-time appointments, not having enough educational background to be credible, etc. Others affirmed my call but were silent about my route. I only received voiced affirmation and encouragement in my choice to pursue Course of Study from other licensed local pastors.
What I have since discovered about myself and many other licensed local pastors is our giftedness often comes from whatever it was about us that made going to seminary impossible. For me, initially, it was money and small children that prevented me from pursuing graduate school. As I have grown into the work of a pastor, I realize I am creative and resourceful in doing things without money, which is invaluable in churches who never have enough money. I prefer intergenerational ministry because I have always had to consider how to involve my kids in my work life.
I also had to separate being smart from having an MDiv. I learned that I am smart, but my learning style does not thrive in traditional academia. Learning to love myself and not feel resentful that I most likely will never finish the Advanced Course of Study and go through the ordination process has helped me to love my neighbor more deeply. The congregation I serve has many people with learning disabilities or mental health challenges who need reminding of their belovedness. I have discovered God is faithful to me in my vocation when the layperson who refers to me as “not a real pastor” asks me to pray because I was the clergy person who showed up at the hospital in a time of need.
As the Chairperson of the Fellowship of Local Pastors, I had the privilege of convening a conversation with the Fellowship about remembering our calling at the Clergy Retreat last fall. It surprised me to hear person after person relay a story of how they were told they could never enter pastoral ministry because of “insert prejudice here.” Some of these folks will move on in the process to ordination, but many of us will remain licensed local pastors. Some of these folks were rejected from ordination but offered the opportunity to continue as licensed local pastors.
In our hierarchical church system, there are plenty of ways we marginalize people called to ministry whether it is because of culture or language, gender identity, educational level or school attended, sexual orientation, marital status, financial status, physical ability, learning disabilities, age, etc. Our wellness as pastors depends on our ability to focus clearly on God’s claim on our lives as beloved; our ability to let the opinions of other clergy and laity alike run off our backs like rain and not interfere with our self-worth; and our ability to remind each other of our giftedness and belovedness.
When the messages of success and “career ladder climbing” from the secular world seep in, God surprises me with reminders of Kin-dom living—usually in the form of a witness of rejoicing and gratitude from a sibling living on the margins in my community. “Blessed are you; holy are you.”
Rev. Jenny Partch currently serves as Associate Pastor at Highline United Methodist Church in Burien, Washington. She is also the Chairperson of the Fellowship of Local Pastors for the PNW Conference.