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Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.
– Maya Angelou

Hey you, out there in the cold
Getting lonely, getting old
Can you feel me?
– Pink Floyd

I gotta group. Everybody needs a group. Do you have a group?

As is our custom, my group spent a few days together around Memorial Day. It is a no BS, absolutely honest, tell-the-truth-even-though-you-don’t-look-good time. Always is.

My group is four guys. We all went through Western Theological Seminary together over 30 years ago. We all got married about the same time and are still married to the same women. It now looks likely, though none of us could have predicted it back then, that we will all make it to the finish line and retire as ministers.

Our group started in seminary. We spent Wednesday nights together, drinking the kind of beer you could buy in a 12-pack for $2.40, and eating chips with a digestively delightful dip made of green chilies and Velveeta.

We graduated, went our separate ways, but kept in touch. A few years ago the other three came back to WTS for a 25-year reunion lunch (although I spent the majority of my time in seminary with them, I didn’t graduate in the same year). They invited me to join them immediately after lunch. I went in with my usual lighthearted bonhomie, expecting some Velveeta dip and good times.

What I found were three guys in shock. The reunion lunch had been a traumatic experience. The reunion class was given a discussion starter: to talk about their highs and lows of ministry.

The first classmate to share told a harrowing tale of recently being forced out of his church. That opened the gates and many stories followed of heartache and heartbreak, burnout, abuse, mental and physical health issues, disappointment, suffering, and overwhelming feelings of vocational failure.

Someone asked, “If we’d known then what we know now, would we still have gone into ministry?” The question was met with a profound silence.

My three friends, who had pretty much had successful rides up until that point, didn’t know how to respond. Now they were processing their shock with me. They were supposed to go back to the seminary for another event, but I pleaded with them to stay and talk more. (In one of God’s great ironies, within a year I would be in charge of the reunions at the seminary. None since have been as dramatic.)

Our group was born (again) that day. The more we talked, the more we realized we needed each other. Good thing, too, because the following years have not been a cakewalk. We have walked and talked with each other through job loss, bitterness, illness, traumatic injury, temptation, changes in belief, and the deep polarization that surrounds us. There is disillusionment that the denominations we’ve invested in appear to be unraveling. We feel unsure what to say about that to the generations behind us. We are well-versed in the macro-movements taking place within the global church, but that doesn’t make living through those shifts in a local setting any easier. The only constant is change.

Since we all are about the same age, we’ve asked ourselves what it means to finish well and be generative in one’s final work years. We talk about how not to become clichés. We talk about the relative health of our prostates and retirement funds. We talk about our struggles to pray and how our sense of who God might be shifts with time. The one of us who was the most certain three decades ago is probably least certain today. We talk about the crap that has happened to various classmates. Those of us without grandkids try our best to listen to the baby worship of those who do. We’ve gathered in different parts of the country and so far avoided the temptation to bring back the Velveeta dip and Goebels (or was it Falstaff?). We’ve been to Broadway, to the Cubs, hiked in the Rockies, and stuck our toes in the Gulf of Mexico. We gather once a year for a few days, but there also is a running text conversation going on between us daily. There is wisdom in our group, but perhaps our greatest wisdom is this: we know we need each other.

We have all wrestled in a sense, like Jacob at the Jabbok, with God and the church and its various expressions. Like Jacob, we all have limped off into the dawn, broken and yet somehow blessed.

If we knew then what we know now, would we do it again? I think we would, but we wouldn’t do it alone. Life remains strange and difficult, but we have each other.

What about you?

With whom are you honest?

Gotta group?

Everybody needs a group.

What would it take to get one?

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the Executive Vice President of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

8 Comments

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    In the past several years, it has become more apparent to me that we take infinite care in training and preparing our pastors and then send them out into churches that have had absolutely no specific training in nurturing and growing new pastors as well as doing the same for established pastors. It is shocking that we, as congregations, have heard the good news for a lifetime and yet grace does not extend to the shepherd of the flock if his/her sermons are not top notch each week, the screen full of fun and exciting notes and pictures, the pastor at each event throughout the week, etc., etc., etc. When pastors report, as they did at that reunion of the myriad of maladies, these are not because of the boiler not functioning or the pews uncomfortable. Most of the angst is generated by people of the congregation being less than grace-filled toward each other and the pastor. The first step might be to require office holders in the church to attend leadership events that teach the ethics of good leadership in the church: confidentiality in all council matters, calm demeanor, support of the pastor, the quiet addressing of unacceptable behavior within the body. If we don’t start somewhere, we may have an even larger number of empty pulpits.

  • Diana J Walker says:

    At one time, a close friend led some workshops entitled “When Church Hurts”. She repeatedly met with standing room only crowds. Why is that? Why does church have the capacity to hurt? What are the dynamics that leave pastors bruised or broken and congregations in turmoil? I have no answers but posts like the one today serve as a call for honesty and admittance that we have an illness that needs healing. Thank you, Jeff, for the permission to speak our truths with hope and love.

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    I’m 75, retired PCUSA, and grateful for my years – glad to have made it, because many of my colleagues (WTS, 1969) haven’t. The good, the bad and the ugly are the story … I tried to be faithful to the gospel, as best I could. I’m sure there were plenty times when “survival” demanded compromises, but sometimes even in the compromises, God has God’s ways of creating humility and then grace.

    All churches test the mettle of a minister, but some are “demonic” … and I say that seriously … they seem skilled in their ability to refuse ministry to their world, and then blame everything on the minister. It’s a corporate thing, in spite of good and decent folk trying their best.

    When asked by others if I wanted my children to enter the ministry, my response was a quick and hearty, “No!” I was willing, and mostly glad, to bear the burdens, but I hoped that my children were pursue other careers, and they have.

    Over the years, I found groups to be both helpful and accursed … the helpful groups, usually smaller, could be honest; the accursed groups lived in denial, eager to share their success, and reluctant to say anything deeper than spit on a hot sidewalk.

    Thanks for these reflections …

  • Dick M. Stravers says:

    At the present time I ain’t gotta no group, no preacher group, that is. But I used to have. In the one group, after retirement,there were three of us who usually met with our wives. That was mostly a no BS, honest, with very little success-posturing time of conversational sharing. But one of the three up and died, leaving only four of us, our wives included. After that, one of the original three preachers and I met weekly, without beer. Given our frugality, we met where the coffee was free for seniors. We shared our hurts and joys in ministry, in marriage and in life generally. Sometimes my partner in pain would actually cry out loud in our public meeting place, and he did so without embarrassment. No BS there. It was a happening that I looked forward to each Monday morning. And, then, he died. So at the present time I ain’t gotta no group, and I miss it like crazy.

  • Helen P says:

    Well I am sorry to say I am in no group…and would be pretty hard-pressed to enter one because the big requirement (as I see it) is a willingness to share pain and darkness & there are those of us who, for one reason or another, find that to be extremely difficult. The other necessity is absolute trust in the other members. That can be impossible.
    All this to say I am glad for all who find themselves in a group such as the one you have Jeff. I’m sure they are better for it, but not everyone is cut out for them.

    • RLG says:

      Helen, I hear your concerns. I remember a time, years ago, when the denomination (CRC) encouraged a support group for the minister and spouse. They usually consisted of six to eight members or three or four couples. In such a group the minister and spouse could freely share joys and concerns. The group was bound to confidentiality. Only problem, when someone left the group or a couple left so did confidentiality. And soon secrets made their way out into the open. What a mistake.

      This article, along with the comments, point out a serious flaw in the church (and Christianity). I thought the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, was to rise above (not below) the organizations of the world. With what one pays into the church, a person or couple might fair much better in a private country club. A lot less turmoil and great fellowship. Thanks, Jeff, for the opportunity to share.

      • Diana Walker says:

        Interestingly, after leaving service in the church, I found extraordinary mercy, kindness, forgiveness and grace while working on Fifth Avenue in New York City, and yes, at a yacht and country club. Both places showed me what should be and what goodness is all about.

  • Karl Westerhof says:

    This blog was great, and then the comments covered it with cherries! thanks to all of you.

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