Tau's mission is to promote––through guided writing and retreats––practices of contemplative Christianity, creation care, and clergy renewal. "But why clergy renewal?!" you might ask. Read our guest-post below for the answer.
But first, here's an example of what we will do and how you can be part of our mission. I am planning Tau's first pilot retreats for this winter and hope to do more throughout the year. As one specific example we have prepared, for every $1500 in donations we can fully scholarship a clergy member to go on a "Tau Journey" with us, which includes: pre- and post-trip experiences such as three (3) private health+nutrition coaching sessions, a wholistic lifestyle inventory and guidance, spiritual direction and habit-coaching, along with a guided 6-night/7-day journey at on off-grid eco-retreat in Panama where the tropical jungle meets the Caribbean sea and is teeming with wildlife, three meals a day, some excursions, daily exercise and prayer, interaction with indigenous locals, boat transportation, and immersion into our sustainable spiritual habits The Seven Steps Toward Shalom. We would love for you to help us get off to a good start and launch this into the world. And if all goes well to join us on a future retreat for non-clergy! You can support our launch via the giving options here.
But why pay special attention to clergy?
The following post was written by Tau board member Daniel McKinney, a pastor and missionary who has spent decades participating in and leading clergy retreats, a guide and caretaker of pastors in the American West, and a recent recipient of his doctorate with a thesis on clergy well-being.
Maybe you would consider pastoral work to be difficult, but would you consider it to be dangerous? In Flourishing in Ministry: How to Cultivate Clergy Wellbeing, Matt Bloom writes, “Even at moderate levels, burnout is a harbinger of darker things: mental breakdowns, physical collapse, even self harm. Pastoral work is not only tough; it also may be dangerous.” Most people, including myself before I went to seminary, would never put the words "pastoral work" and "dangerous" in the same sentence. Don’t pastors get paid to be professional Christians? To pray, study the Bible, preach, and meet with folks? How dangerous can it really be?!
In the last five years, I have seen the emotional, relational, spiritual, and physical stress of pastors get worse and worse. Just within my peer group I have witnessed an affair, suicide, alcoholism, divorce, resignations, and burnout. Pastors already felt the need to justify their time and existence (we only work one day a week, so the accusation goes), but the pandemic took this to another level. Pastors went from writing sermons, leading worship, counseling, teaching, helping the needy, raising funds, folding bulletins, and finding nursery volunteers, to also figuring out shifting Covid guidelines, navigating the political polarization of our country, responding to the culture wars, being forced to have a definitive opinion about every fast-changing subject, and dreading the possibility of getting fired, or even worse, cancelled. Regardless of what is said or done, it is almost guaranteed to be wrong for half the congregation.
There is a vulnerability required of a faithful pastor that is rarely understood. If we are doing it right, we cannot lead from a relational or emotional distance. Every sermon we give, every visit we make, every e-mail we write, and every decision we make requires that we open our deepest selves to scrutiny and critique. Preaching, for example, is not about giving a congregation the right information. It is a giving of self. The preacher is attempting to speak of God in a way that is not theoretical, but captures the experience, heartache, joy, doubt, hope, and anger of not just the preacher, but the congregation as well. Greg Thompson calls it the attempt to communicate the love of God through the preacher to the world.
And how exactly is this dangerous?
I came across a quote from the comedian Jerry Seinfeld that might be helpful: “[The comedian opens him/herself] to every human frailty there is. Every hairline crack in your personality gets pulled on. The crowd says, ‘Let’s see if we can make that hairline fracture into an abyss, and then push you into it.’ That’s what happens in stand-up.” It is also what happens in the pulpit Sunday after Sunday. The preacher exposes him/herself in such a way that brings out the best and worst in their congregation. The thankfulness and the anger is never quite as intense as it is when greeting the congregation as they are leaving the worship service. And regardless of the feedback there is an expectation for the pastor to stay “emotionally and spiritually grounded no matter the situation” (Emotional Intelligence for Religious Leaders). There is the expectation––both inward and outward––that the pastor should bear the critique, frustration, anger, suspicion, and burdens of others without letting anyone down. And trust me, we really wish we could. It is a constant struggle for us to feel as though we need to be the spiritual expert and to have all the insights and the answers, but we don’t.
Michigan State professor Dr. Richard DeShon is an expert in job analysis. He was curious about the "job" of local church pastors. At the end of his research he concluded that he has "never encountered" a job that is as complex, varied, and impactful as the work of local church pastors. In a follow-up study, Dr. DeShon determined that performing all of the tasks required of most local church pastors would require sixty-four (64) personal competencies. This led him to also conclude that "it is almost inconceivable to imagine that a single person could be uniformly high on the sixty-four distinct knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal characteristics" (Bloom, 9). Imagine living out a career where you can never meet the expectations that are set for you.
Of course the question one can ask is, “Why don’t pastors just tell their leaders or congregation how much they are struggling?” It is a fair question, but what would you think about your pastor if they were honest about how difficult the last few years have been? One pastor I know was fired when he revealed how much he and his wife were struggling in their marriage. Another was fired because she pushed back on how the church was dealing with COVID. Another was fired because he was honest about how hard it was to hear the constant critique of his congregation. How can they ask for help or time away and it not sound self-serving? How can they be honest and not wonder if you will lose confidence in them?
So what does Tau have to offer to the local pastor?
Henri Nouwen wrote, “I am convinced that priests and ministers…need a truly safe place for themselves. They need a place where they can share their deep pain and struggles with people who do not need them, but who can guide them ever deeper into the mystery of God’s love.” This is exactly what Tau wants to be. We want pastors to experience a place where they do not have to pastor others; where they can experience the love of God for themselves and be vulnerable in ways that would be difficult with men and women in their congregation. We want them to be able to talk of the joys and hardships of pastoral ministry without the threat of being judged or sanctioned. We want them to be refreshed; to be heard; to cry and laugh with those who "get it"; to be served and taken care of; to be free from the day-to-day responsibilities of pastoral work while experiencing beauty, adventure, rest, and solitude.
Eugene Peterson was once asked, “What practice refreshes your soul?” His answer was being in community with other pastors and not feeling like he had to “be on” all the time. He says the other pastors simply “talked and prayed. And that group was life-giving for all of us.” Would you consider helping Tau to be a place that is renewing for clergy?