"The Soul Side of Soul Food"
As the children of a self-giving God, we enjoy the endless abundance of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. We have an opportunity to know God in this world and bear witness to the life we have in relationship to Jesus Christ. That life can be eclipsed when we are under great stress. For this issue of Soul Food, I am asking us to reflect on the soul side of Soul Food.
Congregational leaders may not fully appreciate the strain the pandemic has placed on their clergy and other ministry leaders. We give thanks to God for the service of the pandemic’s front-line workers, but what about some of the back-stage workers? In my opinion, clergy have been both front-line and back-stage leaders. In the early days, perhaps you might be able to say they did not have night meetings or go to hospitals. They reported more time with family. That said, this is the second phase of an intense marathon that has had long bursts of sprinting. Yes, our laity are also serving all day at their places of work and then volunteer for the sake of the gospel. Yet they are getting away on vacation in good number. Clergy are now doing weddings and funerals that were postponed. They are doing worship that is both in-person and outdoors or streaming and setting up and taking down and organizing more detail for outdoor worship options. They are watching the good will of pandemic financial giving give way to understandable fatigue now that the emergency seems to be gone. Unfortunately, the battles about masks and safety have been soul-draining for clergy. Our cross-cultural and cross-racial appointments need the blessing of face-to-face relational development but in the pandemic challenges in communication have multiplied.
According to the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, declines in retention of young elders (under 35) reached 852 in the United Methodist Church in the year 2020. This is near the previous low of 850 in 2005 that gave rise to the Young Clergy Initiative approved at the 2012 General Conference and again in 2016. There has been a major decline of 97 young elders since 2018, leaving them at just 7% of our clergy pool. On top of the pandemic, deacons face the rigor of finding their own places for the bishop’s appointment and the isolation that often follows their specialized call. Local pastors are juggling the work of ministry and the duties of being credentialed as one serves—which was challenging before 2020 arrived.
This is a time for soul and soul-healing.
The trinity models the sharing of different persons in a unity that is whole and creative. No one is giving without receiving and no one person of the trinity is receiving without giving. Laity and clergy can share in ways that make us whole. This is time to ask your clergy person:
- How is it with your soul?
- What plans have you made to rest and recharge this summer?
- When is your Sabbath and how are you finding new life?
- How can we help?
Please, stay with the conversation and act.
This is an opportunity for a fundamental shift in the sharing of ministry. Perhaps this is the time to drop things that clergy used to do and that are no longer a priority. Perhaps it is time to assemble a team to help with charge conference. Maybe the Staff-Parish Relations Committee can negotiate more vacation for clergy or a volunteer for office coverage. If your pastor is the one doing tech for worship, help. If you need to ask for help and equip a team, this may be the opportunity for another generation of leadership. Perhaps the entire congregation can explore the practice of Sabbath. Clarity of priority and roles reduces anxiety.
I am hopeful yet concerned. Boundary erosion has a disastrous impact on clergy health and is the soil for clergy misconduct.
I offered leadership for a funeral recently. It was for the man who was the administrative council chair when I arrived at East Troy: St. James UMC. Edward Jacob Zweifel was one of church leaders who has encouraged and fully partnered in my ministry while I was pastor in East Troy. In recent years Edward has been active in Platteville Church and most recently Rev. Rafael Cubilette was his pastor. Rev. Rafael invited me to participate in the celebration of Edward’s life. I appreciate so much the love and care I have received from fellow believers. He was such a gift to my leadership. He taught me and blessed me and together we were able to bear witness to the life we have in Jesus Christ. I thank God for his witness.
Please pray and consider a new balance for you and your clergy. Know that I am praying for you.
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).