Published June 27th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
The pastor knew he was in a safe place with other religious leaders sworn not to discuss in public what they talk about inside the group, so he let loose:
“One of my constant struggles now is with the church. I’m not 100% sure that the church really is interested in caring about its pastors. I think they’re much more interested in having churches be successful and when someone falls, they don’t want to be honest about it. They don’t want to talk about it. I think they would just as soon have that person and that problem go away.”
When another pastor assured the man he wasn’t alone in thinking that, the first pastor added: “The church just sort of sits there and folds its hands. And they’re the one that says, ‘thoughts and prayers.’ Well, horse hockey.”
He needed to get that out of his system, and for a couple of years now a Kansas City area group called “Shepherds Helping Shepherds” has provided him and others a chance to share struggles and to encourage one another. Until the coronavirus pandemic, the group met quarterly in person. Then it began meeting monthly. But for a little over a year, it has met weekly via Zoom.
With the group’s permission, I sat in recently — with the understanding that I wouldn’t identify any member except for two of the organizers, the Rev. Robert Lee Hill, pastor emeritus of Community Christian Church, and the Rev. Michael Brooks, pastor of the Oasis Church International in Raytown.
Brooks said that when COVID slammed into faith communities, “Just having some best practices shared helped us navigate a whole lot better. We could be vulnerable with each other and share each other’s concerns.”
Hill added, “If I have any regrets it’s that we didn’t start it (the group) sooner.”
Not everyone among the dozen-plus regular participants is a member of the clergy, but all are religious leaders in some capacity. That means they deal with enormous stress and expectations daily, and often don’t have a consistent way to process what they’re going through in a safe way outside of the congregation or ministry they serve.
However, in a “Shepherds Helping Shepherds” meeting, they can say things like:
“The struggle I have is that I still don’t think that after all we’ve been through in these last 16 months, all these police shootings, all we went through last year, all these conversations about race, I still don’t think America gets it. And as long as the church doesn’t get it, America is not going to get it. We’re still having the same conversations that we had years ago. If we go right back to what we were doing before the pandemic I think that’s an injustice to the God we serve. I don’t think our voices are loud enough. I think the pandemic has given us an opportunity we might have missed — to be louder, to be clearer, to get more poignant.”
And this: “There are still young people leaving the church in droves and I don’t think we have an answer for that because nobody has the guts to ask them why they leave. And I’m not even sure we care because in some instances we don’t want people messing up our routine. We’d rather see the thing crash and burn instead of listen to young people.”
The group began as a way of helping clergy with addiction problems. One of the people who helped create the group said that “people who work in isolation — physicians, for example, who work in small towns or by themselves — are set-ups for heavy incidences of alcoholism and intellectual burnout. It struck me in my discussion with Bob (Hill) that this is exactly where most pastors fit. There’s a tremendous amount of isolation. And because many churches have hierarchies, the opportunity to get help without having to talk to your bishop or whoever is a real issue. How do I get help without making myself naked?”
So at noon each Friday, shepherds gather to bare their souls. Sometimes they use words never heard in pulpits: “Who knew rabbis could talk that way?” one member said, laughing.
And, yes, participants aren’t all Christians. Nor are they all white, as the presence of Brooks and others shows. In fact, said Hill, the racial, age and religious diversity in the group “has been very intentional.”
Because there’s not space for more participants in this particular group without making it unwieldy, “Shepherds Helping Shepherds” leaders hope others will create similar groups here and around the country. Both Hill and Brooks are willing to guide someone through that.
That would provide a chance for a pastor, imam, rabbi, priest or other leader to share something like what a black female leader shared with the Shepherds group recently:
“I’m struggling with how the church explains and helps congregants deal with loss and death and how the church helps those who are in that experience find peace. We all know that this life is temporary. We always pray that people will be healed and the sickness go away, but that’s not always what’s going to happen. But we never talk with our congregants about the other side, when people aren’t healed and situations aren’t rectified. How do families handle that loss? It sounds like such a downer but that’s honestly my struggle.”
Clearly, a safe harbor like this for religious leaders will help not only them but also the people they serve. Wounded healers, after all, can’t be as useful as healed (or healing) healers can, which is what “Shepherds Helping Shepherds” is helping to create.
Bill Tammeus, a former award-winning columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is “Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.