Where do clergy find belonging?

If clergy help to create a space of belonging for others, where do we find belonging ourselves, wonders Karie Charlton?

An empty church in Hiers-Brouage, France. (Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A question hangs in the air before the prayer, before the sermon, before the deep breath to begin, before I pour out scholarship and soul. I’m holding my sermon, the written result of God’s Spirit and my vulnerability. I wonder if the congregation gathered in this cavernous sanctuary will hear my words or just the reverberating echoes of what they were hoping to hear. I have given the best of my energy, intelligence, imagination, and love; so much of me is bound up in this strange form of publicly consumed Scripture and prayer, and when it’s over I’m not sure if anyone will care. And that’s when the holy unmentionable question rises in my throat, do I belong here?

In my head, I know that I am credentialed, called and installed, but being qualified for a job is different from belonging to a community. It is difficult to balance being authentic and being employable in a role that is both a vocation and a job. As with all jobs that include caring for others, senior pastors are experiencing burnout, dissatisfaction and lack of confidence and support. If we look closer at the intersection of gender, race and position on staff, it’s not hard to image that women and minorities are probably experiencing much worse, especially in associate or validated ministry roles. To withstand the burnout, clergy need rest, therapists, spiritual directors and time in the places they feel most like themselves so they can receive support and love.

Where do we belong?

I have found that clergy are expected to create places of belonging for others which makes it difficult to also create places of belonging for themselves. I am so grateful to have a group of colleagues that were willing to co-create a virtual space where we can provide that sense of community and love for each other. We can talk shop and share sermon ideas or listen and ask if solidarity or coaching is needed or read poetry that hits close to home or share joys so that our celebrations can be shared. I am forever thankful for my clergy lady Zoom. I belong in this virtual space.

The interfaith network in Pittsburgh is vibrant, which speaks to the dedication of faith leaders in the area. Among them, I have found friends working together to love and care for our neighbors. When I’m having a rough day, I know I can meet a local rabbi for coffee. He reminds me that we are rock stars. We give our congregations a little of our stardust, but ultimately, we belong to God. Our work is bigger than we know; we are called to shine brightly in the darkness. I belong among the constellations of clergy lighting the way for steadfast love to reign in the cosmos.

The Pittsburgh Days for Girls team has become more than volunteers making menstrual pads. Our workroom is a place where people who would otherwise not know each other gather —college students, women transitioning out of prison and others with court-ordered service hours, girl scouts, church ladies from a variety of faiths, and a retired couple who call themselves ancient atheists. Together, we have created a space of belonging by being curious about each other without judgment. Because we are making menstrual pads, we are already talking about something that isn’t talked about in other public spaces and this creates a climate where nothing is unmentionable. Conversations are vulnerable and brave in ways I’ve never expected. Even though I’m in the role of facilitator most of the time, I find that I can let my guard down too. I belong to this patchwork quilt sewn together with love.

I am new to volunteering as a pro-choice clinic escort, but in less than a year I have found a community on the sidewalk wearing brightly colored vests. Our role is to escort patients into the clinic and help them evade the anti-abortion protestors. There are a few particularly aggressive protestors who will harass the escorts and clinic staff. Our response is always to turn away from them and not engage. When we notice someone getting the brunt of it, we offer to change places to let that escort walk away for a moment. After a really hard day, our group chat is full of self-care ideas and pet pictures. I belong among those who stand in rain or shine to care for patients and each other.

At the end of the day, I come home to my husband’s loving embrace. And that’s when I realize that belonging isn’t a place. Belonging is being my most authentic self, loving others, and be loved in return. I belong to love.