By: Christa Meland
“How am I going to survive this second marathon? I’m not a marathoner. I am a sprinter! I didn’t sign up for this! This is going to kill me.”
These were some of the thoughts racing around in Rev. Amy Strom’s mind when she headed to a Marathon Way Station event at Hubbard UMC in Park Rapids a couple weeks ago. Clergy have always faced a unique set of demands, and the constant pivoting during COVID-19 has only exacerbated them, leaving many pastors exhausted and burned out.
Throughout October and early November, 13 Way Station “pit stops” were offered all over the state of Minnesota. Rev. Cindy Gregorson, director of ministries and clergy assistant to the bishop, and the conference’s five district superintendents hosted clergy to offer good food and a place to gather with colleagues where they could swap stories and encourage each other for the next leg of the journey.
“Overall I appreciated being validated, affirmed, supported, and celebrated in casual low-key Minnesota ways,” Strom said after the event.
At each event, clergy shared pandemic stories—a scar they lived to tell about, when their heart was broken open and they were forever changed, and a time the Holy Spirit showed up big time. They named what has sustained them in this season and where they’ve seen the goodness of God. They heard an encouraging message from Bishop David Bard. Prizes and swag were distributed. And they dipped their toes into a process of unleashing creativity and imagination, inspired by the Innovation Accelerator that several conference staff participated in earlier this year.
“It has been such a long hard season of ministry (and let’s face it, life!), and just like running a marathon, you need some water breaks and folks cheering you on in order to keep on going, so we wanted to go out and thank clergy for the way they have been showing up and leading so well when so much has been asked of them,” said Gregorson. “It has been a joy just to see people’s faces even behind a mask instead of on a Zoom square and hear the laughter and watch the head nods as they listened deeply to one another as they swapped pandemic stories.”
Many clergy said they appreciated the time to connect and the hopeful feeling they took home with them.
“I resonated with the concepts of God’s goodness and innovation and creativity,” said Strom, who serves Vergas and Dent UMCs. “I’ve got a lot to learn in pivoting from surviving to thriving in my own life and in leading two churches. Being motivated by the fear of our doors closing is an energy suck; it doesn’t work. Surviving cannot be our goal. But the idea of God’s goodness being out there to find, the invitation to creativity and innovation and dreaming of what we could become...that was refreshing and just enough of a path for me to follow. It felt hopeful. It felt life-giving and that God was in it.”
Rev. Lori Von Holtum, who attended a Way Station event in Redwood Falls, similarly appreciated the focus on creativity.
“Cindy Gregorson reminded me of the importance of play in the fact that it helps spark creativity, especially when a person feels ‘stuck,’” said Von Holtum, who serves Balaton UMC. “I know that I have felt that stuck-ness more than a few times during the course of this pandemic. Somewhere in the midst of ‘duty’ and ‘to do,’ I have forgotten what I know—that play is important.”
Rev. Cindy Yanchury, a deacon who serves at Advent UMC in Eagan, is a runner and knows firsthand that the last few miles are the hardest in any long race. She’s been reminded of that during the pandemic.
“So many times I’ve just wanted to sit down and quit,” she said. “That’s the wall I hit in April 2021. I was just done—done preaching and praying through my iPhone and pretending it was the beloved folk of Advent Church.”
But with prayer and encouragement, she decided to hang on—and she’s glad she did.
“What I found particularly encouraging about the Way Station was its emphasis on just breathe, just be, just be with beloved colleagues. JUST BE!” she said. “In sharing our stories of the hard days and the painful moments, we soon found our way to laughter. In the drawings and the writings we did together and separately, we had a time and space to reflect on and release all of what the past 19 months have been…These are the very things I needed for such a time as this.”
Rev. John Mitchem didn’t want to go to a Way Station event. It was going to require an hour of driving each way, and he was feeling busy and tired. But he’s glad he made the time to attend the one in Mankato.
“What it did was give me the chance to reconnect with clergy again,” said Mitchem, who serves Albert Lea UMC. “We laughed, we told pastor stories, we did some thinking, and mostly we did what was needed to remind us we are not alone—that the annual conference is doing all it can to support the clergy, and we have each other. It was refreshing, and I could tell my thinking of life, both personally and professionally, was better. I came back feeling not alone and relaxed and wanting to continue the run of ministry.”
Strom said one question that Gregorson asked is still percolating: How can we become more of the church for one another?
“Yes, I want that! I need that!” she said. “I don’t have any answers to that question...except maybe to just show up. When opportunities like these are given, I just need to drag myself there and trust God will meet me and meet us. God was faithful.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church