New team focuses on clergy total well-being

August 26, 2021

By: Christa Meland

One thing that has become clear within and beyond the Minnesota Conference over the past year: Clergy are exhausted and burned out. This group has always faced a unique set of demands, and the constant pivoting during COVID-19 has only exacerbated them.
Recognizing that, Diane Owen, who is leading the Lilly Grant initiative for the Dakotas-Minnesota Area, and Jody Thone, conference director of leadership development, recently assembled a small team to begin to identify ways to address some of these challenges in tangible ways.
The Clergy Total Well-Being Team is following a human-centered design process (similar to one that another group of conference staff just finished) to explore creative new ways to support clergy and help them flourish. Human-centered design is a process that begins with the people you’re designing for—in this case, Minnesota clergy—and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to meet their needs.
“Our hope in this process is that our clergy know we really care and are interested in what they have been experiencing, certainly over the last 18 months but also prior to and beyond that,” said Owen. “They matter and their well-being truly, truly matters.”
In addition to Owen and Thone, the team includes Revs. Amanda Lunemann and Max Richter.
The Minnesota Conference has several programs for clergy to hone their skills and reflect on their ministry. But the team is helping the conference to look at leadership development in a more holistic way.
Their process began with “empathy interviews” conducted with more than two-dozen clergy to ask questions along the lines of: How would you describe your physical, mental, and emotional health? What, specifically, has made you feel exhausted or burned out? What would help you lead from a place of health and wholeness?
When Lunemann thinks about how clergy are feeling at this moment, the words that come to mind are weary and lonely. Ministry is never easy, but navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice have taken a significant toll on her personally as well as her colleagues. “We’re feeling the pressure cooker and wondering: Where do we go from here?” she said.
Lunemann pointed out that everyone has experienced intense trauma over the past year and a half. But as clergy have faced their own fears and struggles and navigated a steep learning curve with the shift to online ministry, they’ve also had to make space for their congregations to grieve and lament—and offer a spiritual lens through which to do so. “How do you lead and still allow yourself to be human in the midst of it?” she asked. “Has this 18 months given us permission now as the Church to allow clergy to be vulnerably human?”
Apart from the new team’s empathy interviews, all Minnesota clergy have also had the opportunity to provide input about their well-being to the Lilly Grant Steering Team through a clergy total well-being survey and other listening sessions.

From all of this input that clergy have shared, several common concerns or themes have emerged:
• Exhaustion: Part of this stems from difficulty in taking time off—vacation as well as sabbaticals or renewal leaves. One possible solution the team came up with is creating a policy for Staff-Parish Relations Committees so they understand expectations around vacation and longer-term leaves and can help ensure they are able to happen. Another is creating a conference pulpit supply system so that clergy can easily find qualified leaders to fill in with both worship preparation and message delivery to allow them to take time away.
• Accessing resources: Newer clergy in particular aren’t always clear on how to access resources—particularly those related to their health and well-being. The team is suggesting having a designated person who is a “safe harbor” and/or resource connector when a pastor has a personal need that arises, as well as creating a simple and direct financial aid process for such emergencies and crises.
• Mental health care: Many clergy have said the system for accessing mental health care through their benefits seems too complicated and/or their available funds run out too quickly. Possible solutions the team came up with include better communication about how to access mental health benefits and building a streamlined way for all clergy to be able to enjoy some type of direct relational support—whether therapy, spiritual direction, or reflective supervision.
In recent years, the Dakotas-Minnesota Area has received two grants from Lilly Endowment, Inc. to help pastors develop stronger financial literacy skills, reduce or eliminate educational debt, and become equipped to foster a theology of generosity within their congregations. There is now an opportunity to apply for a third, $500,000 grant to address in a more holistic way the hardship and challenges clergy have experienced over the past 18 months—including the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and social injustice. Half of the grant would need to be raised in matching funds.
The Dakotas-Minnesota Lilly Steering Team recently decided to pursue the grant and will submit an application next month; if funds are awarded, they could assist with some of these clergy total well-being efforts.
Lunemann said the team, although small, is committed to taking what they’ve learned and creating real and positive change to help clergy thrive.
“What you pay attention to can change, and we’re paying attention,” said Owen.

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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