By Jason Edwards
A few Christmases ago while celebrating with family in my childhood home, I got the distinct feeling that I had entered sacred space. To some extent, I almost always feel like that on these visits. Usually it happens with the sound of dead East Texas leaves crackling underfoot as I stroll across soil that continues to be rich with meaning and memory. But this time something was different. This time the present, like the past, offered a balm for which I was only just beginning to recognize my need.
I was in a place where I could be me, because the people there only saw me as me.
Family and old friends do not see me as their pastor. They wouldn’t. We share too much history. Too much brokenness. Too much humanity. They respect my calling to be a pastor. They nurtured it. They blessed it. They affirm and celebrate it still. But they don’t see me, experience me or want me to be their pastor. To them, I’m just Jason.
Places where I am just Jason are increasingly rare, increasingly sacred and increasingly necessary.
Necessary not because pastors need places where we can freely let all of our unholy humanity hang out (although we do), but necessary for us to re-experience who we are and whose we are apart from the precious and precarious expectations our distinct role within the beloved community demands. Before we are pastors, we are always real, live, flawed, yet hopeful human beings who desperately need spaces where we can fully embody that without fear or pretense.
If you’re not a pastor this may be difficult to understand. It may even feel bothersome to you that I have written it. But if you are a pastor, or someone who loves a pastor, please pay attention, because these personal reflections are symbolic of an epidemic that is taking down pastors with growing effectiveness.
The New York Times reports: “The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could. Public health experts who have led the studies caution that there is no simple explanation of why so many members of a profession once associated with rosy-cheeked longevity have become so unhealthy and unhappy.”
As you might imagine, I take this seriously. My faith, my health, my family and my congregation demand it. How I respond to this reality will certainly shape the nature of our shared future.
Fortunately, the practices that nurture physical, emotional, and spiritual vitality in the life of a pastor are just as known as their counterparts. One being the need to cultivate the authentically free, open and relaxed kinds of spaces mentioned earlier in this article. This is why I am dedicated member of a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Peer Learning Group.
I’m sure from the outside (and maybe even the inside) one might assume pastors should participate in clergy peer groups for skill sharpening, collaborative thinking, and ongoing spiritual support. These do all happen in my group, but I’ve come to see these benefits as secondary, the window dressing of our real gathering purpose: to hold and nurture a space for sacred collegiality.
When we gather for monthly meetings we all enter as pastors, but not each other’s pastor. Two vital ingredients in recipe of our relationship. Our common vocation gifts us with common perspective, common experience, and common understanding. This common ground obviously shapes and facilitates our bond, but it also allows us to check our (metaphorical) collars at the door. Much like family, my peer group does not see me, experience me, or want me to be their pastor. No, in that room, I am just Jason. Increasingly rare, increasingly sacred; increasingly necessary.
And surprisingly this space for this kind of ground doesn’t always take years or even months to nurture. Just last month our group gathered for its annual retreat. This retreat is usually reserved only for those who attend our monthly meetings, but this year we decided, with trepidation, to open it up a bit.
Would another group of pastors enjoy retreating with us? Would we with them? Would their presence inhibit our transparency, disrupt our community; diminish our renewal? We weren’t sure, but decided to take the risk extending an invitation to two other peer learning groups. As it turned out, our common life was just enough to enjoy another increasingly rare, increasingly sacred, and increasingly necessary opportunity for each of us to be just ourselves. Just Jason. Just Stephanie. Just David. Just Keith. Just Carol. Just…
Afterward, we returned, bringing more of ourselves back to a family, church and world who really could stand to experience more of us in our vocation. So that we can stroll together across the soil of this life in a way that is increasingly rare, increasingly sacred, and increasingly necessary.
Jason Edwards is the Senior Pastor of Second Baptist Church in Liberty, Missouri.