For most clergy, the role of church pastor is a solo gig. Of the 235 UCC churches in CT, just over 40 have associate pastors. Of course, any church may have plenty of willing members, lay leaders, and volunteers ready to take on all aspects of church life. Yet there is one part of church life most of them will never fully understand: what it's like to be the pastor.
The Rev. Jeffrey Gallagher, senior pastor of United Congregational Church of Tolland, recognized the need to make connections with other pastors early in his ministry. While serving a church in Maine, Gallagher found other pastors and started to meet with them regularly.
"I've always had the belief that we as clergy can't be lone rangers," says Gallagher.
When Gallagher moved to Connecticut, he was excited to hear that there was a clergy support group — known as a Community of Practice — with which he could connect right away.
The Rev. Denise Esslinger, senior pastor of Gilead Congregational Church, is a facilitator for one Community of Practice. Esslinger and the group's five clergy participants meet once a month for three hours. As the facilitator, Esslinger helps the group develop and honor a covenant in order to create a safe place to share and discuss topics. She also brought materials to serve as conversation starters, but as trust developed in the group, the participants "found their rhythm."
"We've come to point now where the relationships are so important in this group that we just meet and talk and the 3 hours just go so fast," says Esslinger, whose group formed two years ago.
The topics of conversation vary. Esslinger's group will talk about church life, how their churches work, their church histories and how negotiate those histories, worship and preaching, personal and professional boundaries, and how to renew yourself in a never-ending job. It's an opportunity for everyone to share both the positive moments in their work and the times when they struggle. Esslinger, who has been in ministry longer than the women in her group, says she shares in their process and has benefitted as much as anyone.
"I've learned a lot from these young women," says Esslinger. "And they give me great hope for the future of the church."
The Rev. Dr. Susan Foster, pastor of East Woodstock Congregational Church, leads another Community of Practice. She admits that she envies new clergy because they have more support than she had when she was ordained.
"A lot of my [seminary] class mates didn't make it in ministry because they didn't have support networks," says Foster.
Foster agreed to facilitate a group precisely because she knew what it was like to be in ministry without a support system. As a big advocate for hospitality, Foster felt a need to offer that support to others.
"It is a form of self care and a form of learning," says Foster. "It can have a positive impact both on your ministry and your self."
Research supports Foster's statement. Studies show that pastors who engage in peer support groups report higher motivation and energy in their ministry, as well as greater creativity, increased intimacy with God, and positive impacts on family and close friends.
Further, newer studies have linked pastoral participation in support groups to improved congregational health as well.
Jeff Gallagher agrees. He says the church tends to use soft verbs like "we urge and we recommend" but when it comes to Communities of Practice, "it's so important, it ought to be a requirement."