Posted October 1, 2021 in Featured News

A small group of pastors walk the labyrinth at Swarthmore Presbyterian Church as part of the “Cultivating Enough in the Care of Clergy” program the Presbytery of Philadelphia is organizing.

Pastors care for their congregants, from those who are in church on a regular basis to those members who are homebound with illness, in hospitals recovering and shut-ins who are mobility challenged. But who checks in on the clergy to see how they are doing, especially during this coronavirus pandemic when burnout seems to be at an all-time high?

In the Presbytery of Philadelphia, making sure pastors are receiving the proper care and support is now handled by select leaders in a program called “Cultivating Enough in the Care of Clergy.” This two-year outreach offers different stages of care to the pastors.

“The goal is to prevent burnout, to cultivate a sense of ‘enough’ within themselves and to help them feel encouraged and supported in their ministry,” said the Rev. Sarah Colwill, the director of the program at the Presbytery of Philadelphia.

The target group for the program is pastors who serve small churches, churches of color and those in church plants and re-plants. The pastors are invited to participate in the program, with a dozen making up the first official class, which is broken into small groups that meet monthly. Eleven others from the pilot program are beginning the second stage of the program. The three stages are called “Being Enough,” “Practicing Enough” and “Offering Enough,” which includes:

  • BEING ENOUGH – “Instilling a sense of confidence and call in them.”
  • PRACTICING ENOUGH – “Living into what it means for their communities and churches to be enough just as they are.”
  • OFFERING ENOUGH – “Using the gifts and skills that they’ve learned to keep growing.”

“This stems from the level of burnout that often comes from pastors in these contexts because of the demands of the job and the isolation that they often feel,” Sarah continued. “Almost all of these pastors are single, solo pastors. It was an effort by the presbytery to both recognize that and validate some of the concerns and stresses of the pastors in these positions and try to offer them, not only some resources and tools to boost their own confidence and their own sense of ‘being enough,’ but also to connect them with other clergy in similar situations so that they can develop some deeper collegial friendships among their peers and also glean some resources and ideas that can help them with their own creative ministries in the context that they serve.”

The funds used to create and begin the program came from a Thriving in Ministry Grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. The Presbytery of Philadelphia was one of only three presbyteries in the country to receive the Lilly Grant, which is worth $1 million and covers the program for five years. The presbytery had also received a Planning Grant of $50,000 in the spring of 2020 to start the pilot program for the “Care of Clergy” initiative, and that incubator helped the presbytery lay the groundwork for the larger grant it applied for and was eventually awarded in November.

“We are so privileged to be able to come alongside our pastors at this critical moment in history – especially those pastors serving in smaller congregations, communities of color and church plants,” said the Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace, the executive presbyter at the Presbytery of Philadelphia. “Although our pastors are all challenged in many ways, those serving in these areas of ministry often experience those challenges in acutely unique ways. We are looking forward to walking with the Rev. Sarah Colwill as she shepherds our pastors through the gifts offered through this initiative over the next five years.”

So far, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the pastor meetings have mainly been held online. Among the things being discussed are spirituality, self-care and leadership development. Sarah also led them in Lectio Divina (a practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer) so that they can “have that own spiritual nourishment.”

“These are things that sometimes they lead but we know it’s so much different when you’re leading it than to be able to experience it and participate in it,” Sarah said. “It gives them an opportunity to take a breather, renew and refresh themselves using those different tools.”

The fact that this program is available during this pandemic makes it even more meaningful.

“It is perfect timing,” Sarah said. “The endurance it has taken to be doing this for so long, the pressure, the struggle and having so much of their joy of ministry be absent in these past 18 months has proven to be pretty providential that this is the time to have this program to support pastors.”

Also part of the program after year 2 is that the participating pastors can apply for a small presbytery grant to support a new initiative in their congregation or community. The funding for that grant is available from the Lilly Grant money the presbytery received.

For Sarah, who is in charge of arranging the workshops, setting up the small groups and planning an annual retreat, this outreach is near and dear to her heart. Prior to coming on as the program director at the Presbytery of Philadelphia, she was a pastor in the presbytery for more than six years at the Church on the Mall in Plymouth Meeting. By having the experience of leading a small congregation, she knows how valuable a program like this one can be.

“It gives me a sense of understanding and empathy for the pastors,” Sarah said. “I have been there. I understand the level of stress, being a solo pastor and having so much of the church’s expectations, hopes and future weighing on your shoulders. In the midst of covid, the responsibilities of trying to keep the congregation safe, and being bogged down with those questions, meetings and not able to do things that really fill you up in ministry.”

This understanding gives Sarah a special bond with those in the program, and based on the early responses to it, it has been well received.

“The pastors really seem to appreciate the opportunity to connect on more of a spiritual, deeper level,” Sarah said. “A lot of them know each other from being in the presbytery, but this actually gives pastors a place where they can be honest about their experiences and the realities of what’s going on in their congregations, both their joys and their struggles.

“I’ve been really surprised and encouraged by how willing the pastors are to open up about those things with each other. That to me has just been an affirmation of how much this is needed, that space to just be able to talk with people who know what it’s like.”

It’s truly been a needed time and space for these pastors in the Presbytery of Philadelphia who are talking part in the program, one that will pay great dividends down the road.

“I see God’s hand at work in the way that the pastors have been supporting each other in the small groups and in our reflection times, just in the affirmations that they’ve been able to reflect back on,” Sarah concluded. “Hearing the pastors reflect to one another that ‘You are enough,’ which is what our program’s all about, that God loves you, has called you to this place, is still using you and is working through you to touch the lives of your congregation members. Seeing that is where I really see God’s hand at work in all of this.”