By Brett Hetherington*
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
With these words from Matthew 11:28-30 Bishop Tracy S. Malone welcomed East Ohio Conference clergy to the Clergy Day Apart: An Invitation to Rest and Be Refilled. Hosted at Faith United Methodist Church (Tuscarawas District) in North Canton on Saturday, April 2 the day apart was designed to create a space for active clergy members to push pause on their ministry life, if only for a moment.
Bishop Malone shared in her opening remarks that, “This is a time where clergy are invited to leave their to-do list undone and just be. To breathe and take pause. To reset.” This day was not designed to be a one-and-done solution for all the struggles that clergy might be facing. The hope was that clergy who were present would have a safe space to share with one another, and a time to perhaps learn – or re-learn – how best to take care of their own selves when they returned to their respective ministries.
The day apart, planned over six months by a team of eight clergy, was birthed from a suggestion made by Pastor Charlene Thomas who co-serves five churches in the Firelands District.
“I emailed the bishop with my idea for a gathering like this, and she turned it around and asked, ‘how can I come alongside you and make that happen?’ She empowered me to make this happen,” Thomas shared during the opening of the Clergy Day Apart. Though her words were shared in a jovial manner, there was a deeper sense of gratitude at play as she thanked Bishop Malone for allowing her to lead and move forward with this idea.
The day consisted of several breakout sessions that were designed to engage clergy in five different areas for renewal:
- Reconnect: A Time for Fellowship
- Reflect: A Time for Sharing
- Respond: A Time for Self-Care
- Re-Center: A Time Spent in Prayer/Prayer Labyrinth
- Remind: A Time for Meditation
The Rev. Tawanda Prioleau, the Clergy Day Apart keynote speaker, shared of the many times in her own ministry when she wrestled with exhaustion and even burnout. The pastor of Christ UMC in East Baltimore, Maryland emphasized wise words that still resonate with her, words shared by a woman while Rev. Prioleau was in the midst of her exhaustion. “She said to me ‘Tawanda you are in the business of self-sacrifice. You don’t have a self to sacrifice!’”
The role of clergy is often viewed through the lens of one who is indestructible, until that clergy member falls. Even in the post-pandemic world we live in where mental health care has become a primary concern that is no longer shunted off to the margins and talked about in whispers, pastors are still viewed often as being beyond needing help.
The Rev. Jennifer Whitmore, who serves at Nankin Community UMC and Paradise Hills UMC (Mid-Ohio District) and facilitated the Reflect breakout sessions offered this perspective on the day’s events.
“It spoke to me that there is need for that kind of space for people. I think being in ministry is isolating. The common thread of exhaustion is very telling.”
Even in the midst of the pain of exhaustion and isolation, the day apart afforded clergy the opportunity to connect and worship together. Advice was offered and techniques were shared. A recurring need expressed during the Self-Care breakout session was the need to recognize that not all pastors are the same and what works for one in their self-care may not work for someone else in their own.
“I thought the planning team did an excellent job being very thoughtful of making it welcoming and being accommodating,” said the Rev. Abby Auman, superintendent of the Mahoning Valley District. She spoke highly of the team making allowances for those who may have needed to simply listen and for others who may have needed to speak and share, who had not been granted such an opportunity of late.
“I thought it was good, I thought it was useful, the fact that someone was watching my kids made me able to do it,” offered Shane Russo, pastor of Niles First UMC (Mahoning Valley District). Russo is one of East Ohio’s younger clergy members and shares another perspective that is oftentimes overlooked, that of a pastor with young children.
At the end of the day, you would find it difficult to find a pastor who left without feeling encouraged, and at least a little more refreshed than when the day began for them. From learning new techniques and perspectives on self-care, to therapeutic times of sharing and personal prayer, and even to fellowshipping and worshipping together with abandon, this was one crowd grateful to be away from their keyboards and thankful for the opportunity to gather together.
Perhaps Thomas summed it up best. “Every colleague I talked to was expressing how overwhelming this season was. I felt like we just needed a time to be with people who had the same experience. I’m grateful the bishop let us run with it and I think it was a great day.”
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.