Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

1/18 2019

In Support of Pastors

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supporting pastors

When I was coming through seminary, I heard a few distinct messages loud and clear:

  • “There won’t be a church job for you when you graduate, so don’t expect to find one.”
  • “Don’t worry too much about understanding budgets, your church will have a financial secretary to help you with that.”
  • “Taking on some education debt is very common.”

At the time, my youth, general ignorance about that world, and low economic expectations (it was, after all, 2008 when I started seminary) protected me from the naturally frightened and conflicted response one might have to that combination of statements. As Ezra Pound wrote in Cantos, “I am not a demigod, I cannot make it cohere.” I didn’t particularly try to.


Supporting Pastors

But what happens when church leaders who were taught this way come of age in the 60 hour work weeks of ministry? What happens when general ignorance becomes particular knowledge—of human suffering, economic inequity, savior complexes, untenable expectations, impossible working structures, loneliness and lack of support? Well, that brings us to the fourth message I remember loud and clear from my seminary days, “Remember, 50 percent of pastors burn out in the first five years.” Ouch.

Now, I can’t say if the conversation at my alma mater has changed, but I can say that since that time the General Assembly of the PCUSA, their Board of Pensions, and certainly at Pittsburgh Seminary, that conversation has been taken up with urgency, and quite a bit has changed at those levels to support pastors, particularly new pastors, better. Not only that, but as our mean pastoral age in the PCUSA (and across the mainline church) is rising and pastors are retiring, we are moving from a surplus of pastors to a potential shortage, which while not particularly good news, does shift things a bit.


Pastor Burnout

Here’s the rub—in my anecdotal experience—though national structures and educational institutions have been pivoting to reconcile some of the issues that lead to clergy burnout, local congregations, amidst slowing attendance, rural/urban divides, political battles, and financial struggles, have generally been acting in a way that exacerbates clergy health and sustainability issues. In short, their anxiety sometimes seems to be delivered upon their pastors, who are working 60 hours a week for 20 hours a week pay, as though there is an endless supply of such pastors to absorb their disappointment. However, because changing policy is so much easier than changing culture, we as a church and a denomination have been avoiding a conversation about what causes clergy burnout locally in favor of system and policy changes nationally.

Perhaps this is because, very simply, there is a lot we cannot change if our church has 20 hours a week worth of salary to offer. That is what we have to offer. If we have an aging building that needs increased care in a community where selling the asset is unlikely, that is a pretty unavoidable reality. If we are in a rural county with struggling schools and abandoned industry, we can’t offer you a “transitioning” neighborhood with big city amenities. But this negative self-assessment pattern of churches often leads us away from our natural gifts and assets. We stop thinking about all we have to offer and how we might care for and lead with our pastors in new and creative ways and instead get stuck in a spiral thinking that our pastor is going to leave us anyway.


Caring for Pastors

Last year I visited a congregation looking for a pastor in a small town five hours from the closest international airport. They took me out to dinner at the town’s new restaurant, told me about the downtown renaissance, introduced me to the mothers of the church, offered me a manse to live in—furnished or unfurnished, as I preferred—and I hadn’t even applied for the position! They talked about their love and hope for the community, the community’s DNA as hard working and family oriented. They spoke about the virtues of their business district and mentioned that in a small town it is easier to get things done. If a potential pastor or her spouse was interested in starting a business locally, working remotely, or being active in civic organizations, the church had the connections to make it happen and they would deploy them. They were clear about the community’s struggles, but even clearer about their care for and investment in any pastor they might welcome. More than that, they were clear that there was more on the table than a salary.

They wanted a pastor who would plan not on making a job there, but a life there. The church was ready to consider full or part time, negotiate with family/parental leave and vacation, and make sure that the quality of life was such that their pastor would not miss the amenities one needs to cope with other challenges and contexts—like overworking in a city that never sleeps. There was no sense that this community would back bite their pastor’s choice to actually use her continuing education time or take the vacation in her contract. There was no hint that they would be offended by a pastor mothering children while leading the church or coaching little league as a part of their ministry. There was no expectation that ministry only happened in certain outfits or to certain people. Generally speaking, these people wanted to invite a human pastor to minister with them, because they didn’t just want to be served by their pastor, they wanted to love and share life with their pastor.

I was shocked by how moved I was. Why isn’t this always how it works? What have we let our anxiety make of us, that we chew our pastors up out of our own self-doubt? That we speak of ourselves as forsaken? Do we not believe that God is working and present in our midst, loving us and making us lovable?


The Beloved and Chosen of God


Those who minister among us are not simply a source of cheap grace to serve our religious needs. They are the deep human grace of God, not only to lead us, but to teach us how to be human in ways that are helpful, beautiful, annoying, refining, humbling, and difficult.

Churches large and small, full-time and part-time, rural and urban, are beloved of God. Each has gifts and love to share. Their leadership needs will look different, and their life together will offer different joys and struggles. If a community is called to have pastoral leadership, then the community is called to lead with, care for, and share life with their pastor. We recently celebrated the wonder of the birth of Jesus. I invite you to consider what it meant for the small city of Bethlehem, for the humble shed Jesus was born in, for the small nation and poor people he came to that they were chosen in this way, as the viable space for the vocation of our God. Could our churches be viable in the same way?

Friends, we were chosen as those to whom God might come. Let us treat each other as the beloved and chosen of God and let us remember that those who minister among us are not simply a source of cheap grace to serve our religious needs. They are the deep human grace of God, not only to lead us, but to teach us how to be human in ways that are helpful, beautiful, annoying, refining, humbling, and difficult. Our pastors remind us what God is calling us to and also that God is not calling us or them to be everything to everyone. And that is okay. This Christmas may not have been perfect at your church or in your life or with your pastor. That is okay. My guess is Mary might have said the same thing about the first one. But God’s grace for us and God’s belovedness of us persists, so we are called to love each other.


The Rev. Karen Rohrer is director of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Before joining the CPI team, Karen was co-pastor and co-founder of Beacon, a Presbyterian Church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The saints of Beacon taught her contextual ministry, the joy of being church, and the unique grace of being a lady pastor and boss in a neighborhood of matriarchs. The building of Beacon taught her amateur handy-woman and moisture remediation skills, and that a particular space really can be a reminder that you are loved. As director of the Church Planting Initiative, she is excited to vision new ways the church can bear good news to the world and to support and resource the leaders God is calling forth to make it so.


11/30 2018

Planting a Church is Whole Body Work

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integrative learning space at Pittsburgh SeminaryThe world seems to be increasingly comfortable with most of our embodied lives being reduced to the digital, and for some things that is perhaps neutral—but life together is something that is hard to do outside one’s body.

When I lived in Philadelphia, there was a neighborhood bar where I would somewhat regularly get dinner, sometimes with my husband, Andy, sometimes with others while he was still at a church meeting. I noticed over time that I bonded pretty deeply with the servers and the bartenders. They became a bit like family to us. As I tried to articulate why that was, I found myself saying, “The other person in my life who regularly made sure I was fed is my mother.” There was muscle memory, it turned out, between being fed and feeling loved. Sure, we liked the staff at the bar—we got on well and laughed together, but the bond that was formed was one of provision. They looked after us, and we began to see the bar as a safe space and a sort of second home. That kind of bond is part of what it means to do life together, and it is hard to get that bond when you don’t bring bodies into account.


Church Planting as Whole Body Work

When I think of church planting as a whole body work, I think of provision more generally. People often say, “Church isn’t the building, it’s the people,” and while that isn’t untrue, what we miss is that people gathered inhabit space and time. If we are to care for each other, to nourish each other, or offer rest to each other, real physical space is needed. Real physical elements are needed.

And part of pastoring, part of church planting, is making a space that is prepared. This can’t be done by solely putting our theological education into words and reading it out loud. We can’t do this as dis-embodied, talking heads, beamed into a blank holding space of chairs all facing one direction. Church life together—the sacraments—is embodied and inconvenient. They require the whole body—the moving of chairs, the setting of tables, the baking of bread. They require the sitting with and the listening to, the working alongside and the wading through with.

For me, at my little church in Philadelphia, it required the shoveling of snow in winter and the schlepping of electric fans in summer. It required paying attention and bearing witness, cleaning up scraped knees, and painting building signs.


Church Planting at Pittsburgh Seminary

At PTS, we are looking to do life together. We are training leaders up to make and convene space for folks to live life together. We have made a significant step toward this with our Barbour Library renovation. Not only does the Library make space for all manner of neighbors, groups, and friends to gather (You can bring snacks! You don’t even have to be quiet!), there is a dedicated space in the Library, called the Integrative Learning Space (pictured above).

This space invites students, small groups, and community members to think about how we make space and set the table for folks to do life together. The space is indestructible and stocked with supplies to make communal art and liturgical aids, banners for the seasons, Bible time lines, signs for orienting guests, materials for stained glass mosaics, paints for re-visioning pastor thrones, and all manner of other things that might make space for people to enter in and find a way to share life together. We hope you’ll use this space to make your own welcoming spaces, spaces where God can enter in and make us known to each other in the breaking of bread and the hearing of the Word.


The Rev. Karen Rohrer is director of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Before joining the CPI team, Karen was co-pastor and co-founder of Beacon, a Presbyterian Church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The saints of Beacon taught her contextual ministry, the joy of being church, and the unique grace of being a lady pastor and boss in a neighborhood of matriarchs. The building of Beacon taught her amateur handy-woman and moisture remediation skills, and that a particular space really can be a reminder that you are loved. As director of the Church Planting Initiative, she is excited to vision new ways the church can bear good news to the world and to support and resource the leaders God is calling forth to make it so.


8/30 2018

Praying with People Grieving Loss from Suicide

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praying death by suicide4I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;

I am like those who have no help,

5like those forsaken among the dead,

like the slain that lie in the grave,

like those whom you remember no more,

for they are cut off from your hand (Ps 88:4-5).

These poignant verses express some of the pathos both of persons contemplating suicide and people who have lost a loved one to suicide. It is important to recognize that praying with people contemplating suicide is a distinct topic from praying with people grieving loss from suicide. In the former situation, it is essential that the individual involved find help from a qualified and experienced counseling professional, as well as receive spiritual guidance and support. Since most of us are unqualified to assess whether someone is suicidal, it is crucial to learn what questions to ask and what to do if you are at all concerned about someone’s safety and need to guide him or her to appropriate assistance. (For help in doing so, see the organizations listed below.)

Praying with Individuals Grieving Loss from Suicide

Individuals grieving the loss of a loved one from suicide often need help from a qualified and experienced counseling professional, too. And they also need spiritual guidance and support. But the call to pray with someone who has suffered such a loss can be terrifying. What does it mean that a beloved friend or family member has seemingly made a choice against life, has taken action in a way that violates the basic human instinct in favor of self-preservation? A parent has died, rather than persevere to care for a child; a child has ended a life that his or her parents and grandparents cherish far more than their own; a sibling has communicated to brothers and sisters that their shared life experience is not worth sustaining. Those who die by suicide do terrible violence to their bodies; they often die alone and in deep psychic pain. The horror of the event is indescribable. The anguish and guilt experienced by those left behind render them inconsolable. How in the world can you pray with someone who feels, every day, that she has been rejected and forsaken by a loved one and, quite possibly, by God as well, or that he has been flung into the endless depths of a dark well of despair?

It can help to learn something about suicide loss before trying to pray with someone who has experienced it firsthand. It can help to know that experts estimate that 90 percent of deaths by suicide are a consequence of undiagnosed and/or untreated mental illness. Excepting those making considered decisions in response to life-diminishing illnesses, people do not “choose” to die, nor do they choose to hurt or damage those they love. They have not “committed” a crime. People who die by suicide are trying to end intolerable pain.

It can help to know that their loved ones, in addition to being left with the word “Why?” echoing throughout the remainder of their lives, will usually be devastated and immobilized by guilt and shame. They often wonder either why they didn’t do more to help the person they have lost, or how it can be that they didn’t even know the depth of their loved one’s pain, and they are horrified to realize that their loved one, the beneficiary of love and support from others, has “thrown it all away.”

It can help to realize that survivors will bump into the stigma of suicide where they least expect it—a refusal to conduct a funeral, avoidance by acquaintances in the street, intimations that they are to blame. It can help to know they are often angered and hurt by the responses of others.

What NOT to Say About Loss from Suicide

Praying with someone about loss from suicide is not the time for casual platitudes about God’s plan or God’s supposed need for another angel in heaven. It is most especially not a time to try to tell a survivor—someone who has lived through a loved one’s death by suicide—those often misquoted words, “God never gives us more than we can handle” (erroneously based on 1 Corinthians 10:13, which specifically addresses temptation to sin, not endurance of grief). To say in these circumstances that God is implicated in some sort of test of one’s capacity for managing traumatic experiences may result in the suicide survivor’s further dismay and alienation from God. Neither is it the time to say, “I know how you feel,” since (unless you yourself are a survivor) you do not know, nor to say, “I can’t imagine.” The latter comment establishes a barrier between you and someone who already feels isolated from others, and it conveys a sense that what has happened is so awful that you cannot bear to enter into the experience even as a companion.

What to Say About Loss from Suicide

Prayer with a person experiencing loss from suicide is a time to listen, to sit still, and to be present. It is a time to make space for expressions of rage, of agony, of astonishment, and of rejection of faith. It is a time to make it possible for stories to be told about loved ones now gone. “Tell me what your mother is like.” “What is one of your favorite memories?” You might ask someone how he or she imagines the moments after the loved one’s death. You do not have to find those ideas compatible with your own or give a lecture about Christian doctrine—your call is to offer the survivor the gift of attentive listening. It can be difficult to remember that companionship and prayer in silence can be much more effective than words, no matter how eloquent, when the unthinkable has happened. A willingness to stay with someone through the wilderness is of far more significance than the most profound speech made in an attempt to lead someone prematurely into a space of healing.

I have asked a number of suicide survivors what they have found most helpful in prayer. Many of them mention the Psalms, as well as fiction and poetry in which sorrow is articulated and assurances of God’s boundless love are found. For survivors who are tormented by questions of life after death, books containing reassuring depictions of heaven can be helpful. Psalm 88, the only one of the psalms of lament in which there is no articulation of a turning point toward gratitude and hope, can be deeply meaningful to people who wonder whether any passages in the Bible bear witness to their feelings. (It might be noted that, despite conveying despair, Psalm 88 is addressed to God and reflects a dark confidence that God will hear the psalmist’s angry and even sarcastic entreaties.)

Suicide survivors are living the consequences of a loved one’s having reached a point beyond what was tolerable, but the loved one’s arrival at that destination was not the work of God. The scriptural path for survivors of suicide leads, I think, toward Romans 8:38-39 and Revelation 21:4—passages well worth sharing with someone who has known this loss, though even these passages may be too much for a survivor to bear at first. When the immediate experience of catastrophe passes, those left behind encounter the crushing realization that their loved one died with a wearying and excruciating sense of emptiness and separation from God, from love—from however their loved one might have characterized the Holy in his or her life. Our hope can be that, someday, the survivor(s) of suicide with whom you are praying will gain confidence in the assurance that, appearances to the contrary, there can be no separation from the love of God—that there will, indeed, be a New Creation in which God will wipe away every tear, and “mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” We cannot force fractured spirits into such a conviction, but we can be present to them in the knowledge that our simple availability will be a prayer in itself.

A possible prayer using words might be as follows:

O God, from whom nothing can ever separate us, my dearest (name of suicide survivor) is in your hands. Surround him/her with the light of your love and with assurances of love and safety. Help him/her to find a way to live again and to know that, even in the most desperate of situations and most disastrous of events, you are there—unseen and unheard, perhaps, but nevertheless present and active in our broken and hurting lives. These requests I make in the name of the One who came that we might live anew. Amen.

Further Resources

Poetry Resources for Prayer

  • Mary Oliver, “Love Sorrow” (in Red Bird [Boston: Beacon, 2009]), and “Heavy” (in Thirst [Boston: Beacon, 2007])
  • Billy Collins, “The Wires of the Night” (in Questions about Angels [Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999])
  • Emily Dickinson, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—” (in The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, ed. Ralph W. Franklin, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998, 1999)

Organizations with help for those who are suicidal and for those who have experienced suicide loss:

The Rev. Mary Robin Craig ’10 earned her master of divinity degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She now serves as a pastor, spiritual director, and suicide prevention/mental health advocate.

This article also appears in Pittsburgh Theological Seminary complimentary downloadable resource “Praying with Others through the Challenges of Life.” This multi-part resource is written by faculty, program directors, and alums of Pittsburgh Seminary. Topics range from dying without knowing God to injustice to pregnancy issues, anger and violence, and anxiety. Download the prayer resource now.


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