Holy Friendships


The support (or lack thereof) we get from our friends and family plays a huge role in our overall health and well-being. Clergy Health’s research shows a correlation between feeling socially isolated and a greater incidence of depression. A 2011 worldwide study found that friends and family are one of the biggest influences on health; nearly half of respondents reported that their social circles had the most impact on their lifestyle choices.

There are so many types of relationships that can produce protective benefits for our mental and physical health, and I imagine that they look different for every person. But I was recently introduced to a type of friendship that I think might resonate with clergy in particular—holy friendships. In an article for Faith & Leadership, Duke Divinity School’s Greg Jones describes holy friends as those who “challenge the sins we have come to love, affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim and help us dream dreams we otherwise would not dream.”

I love that part about “challenging the sins we have come to love.” In my own life, I have plenty of friends who are on my team all the time. But the relationships that I value most are those where my women tea bookloved ones know me and my values enough to challenge me when I veer from the course. Yes, this might produce some unpleasant conversations, but ultimately, these people make me stronger. They hold me accountable, and yet they appreciate my strengths and are able to help me dream dreams I wouldn’t dare reach for otherwise.

And what about those times where we want to make a significant change in our lives—starting a new ministry, pursuing a lifelong passion, getting our health back on track? Jones encourages, “Change is hard, but when others illumine hidden potential in our lives, and offer ongoing support as we lean into that potential, we discover hope, and are empowered to embody it.”

Discovering hope through holy friendships by Greg Jones (Faith & Leadership June 2012)

Cultivating Institutions that nurture holy friendships by Greg Jones with Kelly Gilmer (Faith & Leadership August 2012)

-Katie Huffman

One Is A Whole Number


MP900341550 (1)Love is in the air. Or at least in the media. It’s that (somewhat unfortunate!) time of year when we are told to express our love for those in our lives via the act of conspicuous consumption.  Despite the dubious origins of the modern holiday, Valentine’s Day, it is well established in our cultural lexicon that February 14th is the day to celebrate LOVE. And chocolate.

Okay, so I’m being cynical about market culture. In all seriousness, I think it’s GREAT to celebrate love and take a day to think about making my spouse feel special. But I can’t help wondering where all this elevation of romantic love leaves my single brothers and sisters…

For too long singleness in the church has been viewed with something ranging from pity to suspicion.  Christian culture often elevates marriage to “God’s plan” for everyone, or at least the mark of a true adult.  Many of my single friends complain that they feel relegated in small groups to the “singles ministry” which can feel like a glorified speed-dating episode.  How can we as Christians think differently about singleness, and love all our neighbors, married and single alike?

Blogger Teryn O’Brien offers these thoughts:

“The church has a deep heritage of honoring singleness. For centuries, monasticism was one of the deepest ways a believer could express devotion to God. A person would devote their life to celibacy, serving the poor, praying, studying the scriptures, teaching, making “darkness into light.” If believers were serious about their commitment to God, they had an option to remain single for the rest of their lives in worship of God. It was an honorable way to live, and many in society chose it.”

What a refreshing reminder that singleness is not merely the absence of marriage, but often a calling that people choose!  Teryn goes on to remind us that in denigrating singleness we are also putting too much pressure on marriage:

“We must offer people an alternative to the idolatry of marriage. We must teach everyone that singles are whole in and of themselves because God made each individual in His image. A man does not complete a woman, and neither does a woman complete a man. Each person, not just each couple, is a vital part of the church. God has a plan for each person, single or married.

God completes us when we find our identity and our worth in Him.

Real life comes when we embrace the here and now and serve God with joy and passion.

We should be pursuing Christ, not marriage. We should allow people to be who God made them to be, not pressure them to conform to our definition of what a “mature adult” does. We should be pursuing His love that can change each one of us in profound ways—single or married.”

Preach it!  I love how she reminds us of the need to shift our focus from human relationships to our relationship with God.  When this happens, our human relationships can grow and flourish without the pressure to fulfill all our needs.

If you are single, what can the church do to make you feel more valued?  How does being single impact your work as a pastor? What is your church already doing to include all people in fellowship? United Methodist Communications published an insightful list of ideas for starting a singles ministry at your church, including the most important point to balance your church’s activities–offering special activities for single folks while also incorporating them in the fellowship of the whole church. The needs of single people may be different than those of married couple or families, but above all we have more in common than that which distinguishes us.


This Valentines day, let’s celebrate LOVE, not only of the romantic variety, but the Christian love of neighbor, the love between friends, the love we experience in our families of origin and our “chosen families.”  It is time for Christians to recognize the gifts and worthiness of all of God’s children, regardless of their relationship status.

–Caren Swanson

Eleven years


Today is my eleventh wedding anniversary.

cuddleI thought about sharing a photo from my wedding but decided against it.  You’ll all tease me about how young we look!  And we were young, but we had one thing going for us–we KNEW we were young, and that we had a lot of growing up to do still.  We knew that the only way our marriage would survive was if we grew together instead of apart, and if we sought out the wisdom of wiser, more “seasoned” couples who’d been down the bumpy road of marriage before us.  One of our commitments from the beginning has been to put hard work into our relationship, and not let it sail on autopilot.  We haven’t always succeeded, but the work we have put into it has paid off.

An article from the New York Times “Well” blog speaks to the work that is required to make a marriage last: “The passion ignited by a new love inevitably cools and must mature into the caring, compassion and companionship that can sustain a long-lasting relationship.” The article goes on to outline familiar but essential suggestions about keeping married love alive. One such step is “’the importance of appreciation’: count your blessings and resist taking a spouse for granted. Routinely remind yourself and your partner of what you appreciate about the person and the marriage.”  It sounds so simple, yet I know for me, it can be hard to remember to actually focus on what I appreciate about Dave.  These small appreciations add up, however:

Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky reports that happily married couples average five positive verbal and emotional expressions toward one another for every negative expression, but “very unhappy couples display ratios of less than one to one.”

To help get your relationship on a happier track, the psychologist suggests keeping a diary of positive and negative events that occur between you and your partner, and striving to increase the ratio of positive to negative.

She suggests asking yourself each morning, “What can I do for five minutes today to make my partner’s life better?” The simplest acts, like sharing an amusing event, smiling, or being playful, can enhance marital happiness.

Any marriage takes work, but there are special challenges when one or both partners in a marriage are clergy. The expectations of your congregation, the need to be available at inconsistent hours, needing to work on Sundays, the pressure to have a “perfect” family… These can add up and place a special burden on clergy families. And yet the building blocks of a healthy marriage are the same: mutual respect, articulated appreciation, shared values and experiences.  Whatever challenges you face in your marriage today, may you be blessed “eleven times eleven” in your connection with your spouse!

singingSinging together at our 10th anniversary party.

–Caren Swanson

Stoic Christianity


In our feature piece in Christian Century, our research director, Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, said that if she could magically accomplish one cultural change, she would “shift the way that congregants think about their pastor.” No matter the responsibilities a pastor is entrusted with, he or she is still a human being “with flaws and graces…a person who has a life that needs fulfillment.”

This is a change many pastors desperately desire. As one pastor said, “I don’t think our congregations know how unhealthy our vocation can be. They seem to think we are super-men and -women…I keep telling them our vocation is hazardous to our health. They just don’t understand that.”

While pastors feel this pressure uniquely, it’s by no means foreign to most people. Alan Jacobs, professor of literature at Baylor University, recently reflected on the stoic values popular in the American Midwest and South, and he recounted a time when the tacit code that one suffers in silence became unmistakably clear.

When my wife was seriously ill some time ago, people from our church contacted me to ask if we needed anything. When I replied that it was nice of people to offer meals but that Teri’s chief problem was simple loneliness — no one to talk to, as she lay in her sickbed, except a very busy husband — people were, not to put too fine a point on it, shocked. I had said something unexpectedly shameful. One person even commiserated with Teri: how difficult it must have been for her to have a husband who so openly admitted that she had personal needs in her illness.

1024px-Michael_Ancher_001Let me highlight that this was not the experience of a pastor, but of a lay person, who tried to be vulnerable with his congregation and was shut down. Expressing weakness in shameful not only among pastors, but among many segments of our culture in which class and status and power are incongruent with dependency and loneliness and desire. As Alanis Morisette sings, no matter what pain we’re experiencing, we prefer to stick one hand in our pockets while explaining, “what it all comes down to my friends, Is that everything’s just fine fine fine.” Nothing to see here, folks.

In a follow-up piece, Jacobs concludes that that the Christian scriptures encourage us “to accept suffering but not to pretend that we don’t hurt or that we are somehow above the pain. Rather, we are to seek out our brothers and sisters for sympathy and support.”

Parishioners may want a pastor who is superhuman, but perhaps what they need is a pastor who is utterly human, someone who bravely opens up space for it to be okay to be weak and have needs. Pastors may not be the only ones ready to scream under the suffocating silence of stoicism.

Tommy Grimm

(Painting by Michael Ancher, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In Due Season We Will Reap


When my friend David Dendy recently started a diet, he reflected on his blog about the parallels between sticking to a healthy eating regimen and the life of Christian discipleship.  Where can we find the inspiration to stay on the path, when the tangible, measurable results we seek are absent or slow to arrive?

I have had a few conversations as of late that have had one central theme… “David, I am tired of always doing the right thing. I don’t see what good it is doing. I always do the right thing. And look where it has gotten me. I want to venture out on my own and do my own thing that feels good and right to me.”

Not only can I sympathize, I can also empathize with my friends. I have been there many times myself and I will find myself in that same place somewhere further down the road. For all I know I might be saying the same thing tomorrow or next month or next year.

Continuing the “diet” theme let me say this… When I do my own thing, when I go out on my own, when I do that which feels good to me with no regard to others… guess what? I get all out of shape. I don’t look good and I don’t feel good and typically I don’t have the energy to be good for other people.

I have never forgotten this great quote from C.S. Lewis – “Discipline before emotion.” (Not that I have always followed that quote, it’s just that I have never forgotten it.)

There’s another favorite quote of mine from the Apostle Paul that has sustained me during those seasons of frustration…

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6. 9-10)

My dear friends… continue to do good!

I met David more than 30 years ago.  We were neighbors in the men’s freshman dorm at Davidson College.  In those days he was a long, lean whippet of a fellow, a smiling assassin at intramural basketball and Ultimate Frisbee.  If David is fighting the battle of the bulge, that makes me feel better about my own issues with diet and exercise!

I don’t think David is familiar with the Clergy Health Initiative, but he has lived the life.  His journey has taken him all around the country, through seminary, in and out of parish ministry, through successes and major church conflicts, to his current position as VP of Philanthropy at the University of Dubuque (IA), a Presbyterian-affiliated institution.  He’s certainly had his share of stumbles, falls, and losses, in the years between sowing and reaping.

David has set as a discipline to start a blog and write a post a day for this calendar year.  He has a hard-won wisdom and a gift for expressing how the mundane connects to the transcendent, and how today’s small seeds can lead to an abundant harvest.  He is on Google+ and Facebook as well, if you’re interested in checking him out.  In any case, take courage that you are not alone on this journey.

John James

Photo: Andrew Fogg via Creative Commons

Establishing Who Is Right


We all have “others” in our lives — those people who somehow are so different from us, or see the world so differently than we see it, that it becomes difficult for us to really be open to learning from them. Sometimes it even becomes difficult to simply have an honest and heartfelt conversation with them. This especially hurts when a person like this is a family member. And what about the Family of God? These kind of disagreements NEVER arise in the Body of Christ, right?!?

As United Methodist pastors across the state of NC prepare to travel for Annual Conference, it is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of the importance of finding common ground, even with the “others.” This week, The Work of the People, a Christian video company, put out a short clip of an interview with the wise author and preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, talking about just this subject. In the clip she asks,

What if instead of wanting them to be better people and be made more in the image of God as I understand God, what would it be like to change the subject and try to find something that person and I could meet on?

She goes on to say, “I like to find something with the other that brings us both to tears.” What would our conversations look like if they started from a place of commonality instead of difference? How might we be changed by these conversations?


Take a look at this 2 1/2 minute video, and watch how she explores these and other questions about “establishing who is right.” And know that we are praying for and with you all for God’s voice to be heard in conversations at Annual Conference.

–Caren Swanson


Sabbath space for Christian leaders


The following is a guest post by Dayna Olson-Getty of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School:

We all know that conflict can take a heavy toll on our physical and emotional well-being. When our calling to embody the gospel leads us to intentionally enter into deep and long-standing conflicts within a congregation, denomination or organization, or to seek to bridge divisions in our communities for the sake of working for justice and peace, the toll can be even higher. A safe space to rest, receive, and be renewed among like-minded peers can provide a powerful antidote to the stress and isolation that this work often brings.

summer-institute_450x300The Duke Divinity School Summer Institute is designed to be just such a space, and we encourage you to join us for it May 27 – June 1.

Our goal is to empower and sustain those whose ministry takes them into difficult spaces and relationships for the sake of leading the church towards more fully embodying God’s kingdom. We provide Sabbath space for deepening and renewing the Christian leaders whose work involves reconciliation, social justice, and peace-building.

We’ve designed the Summer Institute to be a space for clergy and other Christian leaders to develop new friendships with like-minded peers and mentors in the context of a diverse community (our participants come from a wide range of denominations, ministry contexts, and roles).

We begin and end each day with a worship service that is crafted to nurture, challenge, and sustain weary leaders. Throughout the week, theological teaching and reflection from world-class theologians is woven together with inspiring and challenging examples of vibrant Christian leadership in difficult contexts. The result is a framework for personal and communal transformation that leaders can use in a wide range of contexts.

For many pastors, Summer Institute has been tremendously rejuvenating.

Chip Edens, rector of the 5,000 member Christ Episcopal Church in Charlotte, attended the Institute in 2009.

The Institute offered me the most important continuing education experience I have had in my 15 years of ministry. The combination of outstanding lectures from experienced leaders, the conversations I had with a very diverse group of individuals, and the extraordinary worship all challenged me and renewed my determination and hope in the work of reconciliation and justice in my own community. I thank God for the experience.

Gene Graham, a lay-leader from St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas, attended in 2009 and 2010. She characterized her experience as a week of learning and inspiration.

The leadership was outstanding. The participants represented a world-wide network deeply committed to a myriad of reconciliation initiatives.  I left the Institute awakened to the hope and the pain of the reconciliation journey and armed with stories, contacts, and resources to enrich my church’s commitment to the Beloved Community.

Graham has since helped to found reVision, a program that provides a place for youth in crisis in Southwest Houston to disengage from their gang culture, develop a strong peer group of new friends and take control of their futures.

Summer Institute participants spend their afternoons in small interactive seminars that focus on a particular topic and provide opportunities to address their own strategic and pressing concerns and questions. This year’s Institute seminars include:

  • Living in the Tension: Human Sexuality in the Time between the Times with Andrew Marin and Tracy Merrick
  • Shaping Congregations for Faithfulness across Divides with Curtiss DeYoung and Cheryl Sanders
  • Building Beloved Communities of Justice and Advocacy with the Poor with Mary Nelson
  • Everyday Practices for Reconciliation Where You Are with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
  • Introduction to Reconciliation with Edgardo Colón-Emeric
  • Listening Together: Muslims and Christians Reading Scripture with Ellen Davis and Abdullah Antepli
  • Transforming Academic Institutions for Reconciliation with Peter Cha
  • Pursuing Reconciliation Institutionally with Chris Rice and Abi Riak

I encourage you to consider joining us this summer. The “Shaping Congregations” seminar — which focuses on diversity as an increasing, unavoidable and defining force within many congregations — could be particularly insightful for pastors serving churches at all stages of readiness for change.

More information about the program is available on our website: www.dukesummerinstitute.com. We’ll be accepting applications until April 30, and we do have scholarship funds for those who need them.

Isolation in ordination


In my work with clergy, pastors often lament over how difficult it is to build friendships and social support.  For many, the clerical call carries with it a sense of isolation.  M. Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Seminary, calls it a “crowded loneliness”–a challenge that he reflects over in a recent article with the Christian Century.

For over 30 years I’ve struggled with the question of befriending parishioners. I realize that I’m supposed to maintain healthy friendships outside of the church, and I’ve taught this for years in seminary classes. The professional literature supports this call to maintain a distinction between relationships of mutuality and those of service as a pastor. I get that. But there’s a math problem—there isn’t enough time left over after serving the church to have healthy friendships.

Vocational ministry leaves little time for relationships of mutuality, so it’s only human that pastors would desire reciprocation and friendship from congregants. But this is only half the problem. Even when pastors use discipline in their relationships within the church, making these relationships ones of service, they still face pressure from congregants to be one among them, as a neighbor, partner, and friend.  Barnes continues,

When I knelt to receive the laying on of hands before I was ordained, the elders of the congregation were being led by the Holy Spirit to push me away from them. They were essentially saying, “We are setting you apart to serve us. So you can’t be just one of the gang anymore. Now you have to love us enough to no longer expect mutuality.” It wasn’t long after I stood up from the ordination prayer that I discovered this. But the elders have a hard time understanding the holy distance they created by their decision to make me their pastor.

Barnes doesn’t shy away from naming this unavoidable burden for what it is.

Ordination costs pastors, and one of the greatest costs is maintaining the lonely status of being surrounded by everyone in the church while always being the odd person in the room.

He goes on to describe how he’s learned to maintain friendships outside the church, mostly with other clergy members. He speaks to them on the phone weekly and is intentional about gathering with them for retreats (many pastors use Duke’s Study Leave program for just this sort of gathering). It sustains him, but it doesn’t remove the awkwardness and longing he experiences in the “crowded loneliness” of ministry. Whether congregants know it or not, this sacrifice is for their sake and good, a service of devotion and love. Israel’s priests were set apart from the people to make intercession and mediate before God for them.

Does this reflect your experience?  What ways have you found to maintain honest, supportive relationships of mutuality amidst the work of ministry?

–Tommy Grimm

(Photo by Flickr user dMad-photo/via Creative Commons)

A friend who cares


Today, a quote from Henri J.M. Nouwen’s The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey:

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

Which person in your life means the most to you?  Take a few moments today to lift them up in prayer.

–Kate Rugani

The Pain Behind the Mask


The holidays are expected to be a season of joy, benevolence and (frequently) a LOT of shopping. However, studies reveal that the holidays can also signal the recurrence of past emotional pain and an increase in ‘the blues’ or ‘holiday depression.’ As such, many pastors also deal with an uptick in requested pastoral counseling sessions. This means that pastors may hear countless stories about the memories of lost loved ones, the absence of family due to travel or family conflict, and strained marriages.

Pastors are expected to be caring, available, and safe receivers of this information. And society conditions all of us to present a brave front in the midst of sorrow. So how can pastors manage the weight of sadness heard from congregants while it may inevitably remind them of their own losses?

One way is by recognizing depression, which often gets masked or overlooked.

Drs. John Lynch and Christopher Kilmartin have written a compelling book entitled The Pain Behind the Mask. Although the book’s subtitle says that it addresses masculine depression (an often undiagnosed condition), the authors provide incredible points throughout the book that can be useful for everyone. The authors specifically mention female professionals who decide to adopt a less feminine persona as a survival skill in male-dominated professions.

Lynch and Kilmartin explain that women are diagnosed with depression twice as often as men. However, they note that those statistics may be inaccurate since men experience depression differently than women and are expected to display “traditional masculinity” (hyperindependence, toughness, unfeeling, detached from feelings).  While the definitions are not absolute, Lynch and Kilmartin describe the differences in masculine and feminine depression using the figure below:

The book delves deeper into these and other topics, featuring chapter titles such as  ‘He Sure Doesn’t Look Depressed’ and ‘Empathy for Self and Responsibility for Change.’

It seems to be human nature for all of us to wear some type of mask in our everyday lives. Whether it is at the workplace, a social event or even church, our masks serve to disguise or protect us. For pastors, it can be especially difficult to find a safe place to remove that mask. Further, it may be difficult to recognize that you’re actually wearing a mask when you believe it has been removed.

The Pain Behind the Mask goes on to provide a list of helpful questions to consider if you or a loved one notice that there is a strong disconnect between one’s public appearance and private appearance. Most importantly, The Pain Behind the Mask includes very helpful information and tips to assist you in improving relations with your peers, family and yourself.

Do YOU have an outlet, reliable support person or system that gives you a safe place to take off your mask?

– Angela M. MacDonald

Image credits: Puppy photo courtesy of Bill Weaver, via Flickr/Creative Commons. Book cover and image on male/female depression courtesy of ‘The Pain Behind the Mask.’