Eric Massanari reflects on his time at the 2023 conference ministers retreat in Banff, Alberta, Canada, learning about what nurtures healthy ministry leaders.
Eric Massanari serves as the executive conference minister for the Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA. He is also a trained spiritual director and is currently serving on the board for Spiritual Directors International (SDI). Eric lives in Bellingham, Washington, with his wife, Yolanda Kauffman, and he actively participates in the Seattle (Washington) Mennonite Church and Community of Hope, Bellingham, Washington, congregations.
No matter our callings or pathways through this life, human beings share a common need to have our lives witnessed and nurtured by compassionate companions. As Henri Nouwen once wrote:
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
It is enriching to receive such presence and to spend time with friends who are sensitive to the joys, struggles and questions with which we are faced — those who simply “get it” and who can be present with us without an inordinate amount of explanation.
Healthy ministry, practiced by pastors, chaplains, spiritual directors and others, is a unique expression of such loving companionship. At the same moment, those of us serving in ministry roles require this same nurture for our own wellbeing.
Recently, I received the gift of a supportive, nurturing community, as the leaders of the Mennonite Church Canada regional churches and Mennonite Church USA conferences gathered for an annual retreat. All of the MC Canada regional churches and 11 of the 15 MC USA conferences were represented at our gathering in beautiful Banff, Alberta, Nov. 9-12. It was a gathering of mutual support, learning and resourcing one another for our work as church leaders.
During our first full day, Dr. Carl Adrian, a psychiatrist at a private practice and member of Foothills Mennonite Church in Calgary, Alberta, facilitated meaningful reflections on the topics of loneliness and empathic connection. As ministry leaders, we serve in roles that bring us into intimate engagement with others; and yet, at the very same time, we are expected to maintain a degree of relational and emotional distance, in order to honor healthy boundaries. Moreover, shifting cultural perceptions of ministry can leave us feeling misunderstood and misrepresented for who we really are in our roles. These and other factors can give rise to profound loneliness for people in ministry. Dr. Adrian reminded us that we need strong, loving and empathic relationships, in order to be strong, loving and empathic pastors.
On our second day, we spent time in our respective national denominational groups, discussing key issues that shape our common life. Mennonite Church USA conference leaders gave special focus to the newly emerging guidelines for abuse prevention and response in the church. Nancy Kauffman, interim denominational minister of church safety, helped orient us to some of the important changes being made to denominational abuse/misconduct policies and training programs for congregations and pastoral leaders. The discussion felt like a natural extension of the previous day’s dialog on what nurtures healthy ministry leaders.
Our third and final day brought an open morning for rest and rejuvenating walks in the newly fallen snow. Banff, a wondrous locale in any season, put on a spectacular wintry show for our visit!
During our final afternoon, we were led by Amy Zimbelman, conference minister for Mountain States Mennonite Conference, and Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Duke University, in a discussion about their ongoing research on women in ministry in the Mennonite church. Our dialog was at once celebratory, for the recognition of the expanding and invaluable presence of women ministry leaders in the wider church, and sobering, as the research findings indicate ongoing prejudices and misogyny faced by these gifted leaders. Zimbelman’s and Johnson’s research is an important step in our ongoing learning and transformation as the body of Christ.
There was rich fullness during these days spent together as conference leaders — a fullness of curiosity, learning and mutual care. We were reminded of the blessings and needs found in our deep humanity, and we were gifted with many reminders of our common call to serve the emergence of a church that bears witness to the love of Christ with humility, courage, wisdom and compassion.
I want to conclude with a word of encouragement to all who might read these words: Please take a moment to express your gratitude and support to pastors, chaplains, spiritual directors and other ministry leaders with whom you are connected. There can be a great loneliness experienced in the midst of ministry, and your kind words may be just what is needed today to help inspire and sustain someone in their vital efforts.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
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