Since the beginning of my time in ordained ministry, I have sought the guidance of wise people for serving out my call. I took to heart the words of caution from my first bishop, Peter Rogness, in the Greater Milwaukee Synod (GMS). He said that pastors who isolated themselves tended to find themselves in the most trouble. He knew this common denominator well--when Melanie and I arrived in the GMS in 1998, the Synod had experienced several changes in the clergy roster due to sexual misconduct, including my first call congregation, Our Savior's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland. Over the years I have seen the consequences of pastors who isolate themselves. The results are not pretty.
Isolation is a more tricky concept in this age of social networking via the Internet. Pastors can have contact with all kinds of people, yet they can strictly manage their contact, as social networking in this manner doesn't relay communication like body language. It's much easier to retreat when one is uncomfortable with the subject matter. Good networking in this day and age for pastors involves multiple levels of contact outside relationships with people in the congregation: basic friendships, collegial relationships, mentoring relationships, spiritual growth relationships, educational relationships and coaching relationships. These relationships need to be spread across various venues. Some of these levels of relationships can overlap, but in essence, I find that I truly break out of an isolation mode when I am surrounded by people who ask me good questions that cause me to reflect on my life and challenge me to act in a way that is pleasing to God (I know that this is not the basis for my relationship with God--it is my response). My wife is really good at this--as it should be--but I also have a cadre of folks who take on this role of offering me good, reflective questions in one form or another. They are certain family members, friends, colleagues, church officials and mentors. Sometimes I contact them out of my own will, other times, they check in with me. Congregation members can sometimes fill this role, but a pastor who only seeks counsel from congregation members has a shallow pool of relationships (this is probably another blog post) and can still be considered isolated.
Yesterday I met online and over the phone with someone I call a coach--though some might call him a consultant. It's been a few years since I hired a coach, but I realized I had a new set of life conditions, working and cultural conditions that called into question my ability to interpret my surroundings. I desire to follow a path faithful to my calling and God's mission in the congregation and community. He asked me questions I had not considered related to the health of the congregation, plans related to the transition, and my own thought processes related to the health and transition at First Lutheran Community Church. This wasn't a synod staff member thinking about lining up candidates for a call process or being concerned about mission support to the Southwestern Washington Synod (these are important points, but not necessarily relevant to my ministry practices). Since I live with a synod staff person, and worked with synod staff in the past, I know it is rare that someone on a staff has a blog of 60 minutes to regularly devote to asking me critical questions about what I am observing and doing in ministry. They have other pressing responsibilities. The session I had with my coach was valuable on many levels. He had great questions and also met with me on gotomeeting.com, pointing me toward wonderful resources that will help me now and in the future.
I didn't want to turn this blog post into a particular commercial for my coach (he works nationally, and sets up great web meetings), but if you are interested in a more detailed level about his work with congregations in transition, let me know and I will get you in touch with him. What I do want to emphasize for my colleagues in ministry and people in congregations that support pastors is to encourage them in developing their web of relationships, and to also consider coaching. What I also appreciate about a coach is that any idea of competitiveness that can occasionally come in collegial interactions is absent with a coach. It's well worth the investment of your time and resources--and an important piece in reflecting and acting faithfully in ministry practices.