Last evening I attended an ecumenical meeting of about thirty pastors from Cleveland and Bradley County. There were Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Charismatics, Pentecostals and others. The gathering was sponsored by the Bradley Initiative for Church and Community (BICC). I have been highly involved in BICC from its beginning ten years ago. The Executive Director, Brenda Hughes, is a member of our church. BICC functions out of a community listening process. We listen to people as they identify strengths and challenges of our community. We collate the responses, identify the major areas of concern, research the underlying causes, and develop and implement programs to address the concerns. In ten years we have (1) created a credit union to help overcome predatory lending, (2) sponsored multiple inter-cultural festivals attended by thousands, (3) created an individual development account program to match savings for people saving for education, first time home ownership, etc. (4) created an adult high school within the county school system, (5) initiated a preschool program, (6) implemented a mentoring program for elementary school age children, (7) implemented a leadership development program for at risk youth, (8) created a home-based early childhood development program, (9) created Council on Inter-racial relationships, (10) created a community foundation for sustained “entrepreneurial philanthropy” for community development, and (11) sponsored multiple community forums for open discussion of the issues. I probably left out a few programs, but you get the idea.
I moderated the listening process for pastors last night. The pastors responded pretty much the way the community at large responds: appreciation for the values of the community, commitment for education, role of the churches in community life, ethnic diversity. These were countered by concerns for limited educational funding, the disintegration of families, the rise in gangs and drug use, challenges associated with population growth, etc.
I concluded the discussion with a set of questions on what is unique about ministry in Bradley County, culminating in a discussion of personal needs as ministers. The central response might surprise many people, including pastors. These pastors said their greatest need was for a friend, someone to talk with. But a few years ago the Pew Foundation did a multi-denominational survey of pastors and found pastors within all faiths have a strong desire for friendship. They feel isolated from mutual human contact, relationships of shared concern and open and honest dialog. The Church of God Theological Seminary duplicated the extensive Pew pastor’s survey with the same results. Our pastors feel they need a friend, someone with whom they can be real and just talk.
My own suspicion is that American pastors are carrying the burden of the declining influence of Christianity on American society. Congregations are stressed to their limits to maintain buildings and programs and project an image of relevance and success. An unhealthy professionalism has infected ministers. Pastors have voluntarily been molded into the role of CEO’s and are finding it lonely at the top. The gulf between the clergy and the congregant is widening, and competition between churches further isolates the pastor. How can we nurture healthy congregations if pastors feel isolated from church members and from each other? Jesus prayed “that they may be one.” Let us pray that our pastors and congregations find their way back into authentic Christian fellowship.