This month, NEXT Church is highlighting passionate leaders within the Presbyterian Church (USA) who are committed to equipping and supporting new pastors, alongside those up-and-coming leaders with whom they have connected or mentored.
By Rachel Achtemeier Rhodes
It is a rare moment to be five feet inside the door of my church without someone saying, “Hi Rachel!” Similarly, it’s a common occurrence to be picking out produce at the grocery store, or going to yoga, or sharing a beer with friends over dinner and hear, “Hi Rachel!” If you’re looking for anonymity, then ministry is not the vocation for you. There are times when it feels like I can’t go anywhere without running into someone from the church. And yet, in a job where the “Cheers” anthem springs easily to mind and it seems that everybody really does know my name, it amazes me what a lonely vocation ministry can be.
Sure, people know my name. They know my husband, my dog, my new baby, and a few stories from my childhood that I’ve shared during youth group or in sermons. But on the whole, the people I serve day in and day out know much less about me than I do about them. They are not the people in my life with whom I let my guard down or share my whole self. Now, I’m not here to start a debate on whether one can or can’t (or perhaps should or shouldn’t) be friends with parishioners. I’ve got both wonderful and painful stories on both sides of that argument. Either way, there are times ministry is still lonely. It has been abundantly important for my own health and the health of my ministry, to bring friends and colleagues along this journey with me. In this brief space I share a bit of how those relationships formed in my own life, and it is my hope that in the places God has called you to serve, you might find people with whom to share this lonely but joyous journey.
In 2012, I had the privilege of attending the Trent Symposium for Newly Ordained Ministers in Roanoke, VA. It was an invaluable experience and is still the best Continuing Education event I have ever attended. But perhaps what I gleaned most from my time at the Trent Symposium was this understanding that ministry is not a vocation you can (nor should you try to) get through alone. Several members of the leadership spoke fondly of clergy groups they had been a part of for decades; groups that met regularly for the purpose of learning from and supporting one another in ministry. But their groups also gathered for the purpose of knowing and caring for each another through the ebbs and flows of life and ministry: successes, failures, addictions, grief, hardship, joy, triumph, divorce, death, burnout, and more. It was a place to bring your whole self and a place where you could feel known, supported, cared for, and loved. I envied these peer groups they spoke about and found myself desiring to be a part of one.
I connected with two other participants at the Trent Symposium and we shared a desire to start our own unique group of support. Together, the three of us created a dream for what our group could be. Over the next several months, through much prayer and conversation, we decided that each of us would invite one other person to be a part of our group. This was not a time for us to pull in our best friend from seminary, but rather to expand our circle to include people from diverse experiences and backgrounds. Certainly we sought individuals in our stage of life, but we agreed to each invite someone who had attended a different seminary and was serving in ministry in a different location. Our hope was to create a group that could enjoy time with one another, learn from one another, and support one another in life and in ministry. By the grace of God and a leap of faith from six people who barely new each other, we have found just that.
For three years now, the six of us, from six different states and representing five different PC(USA) seminaries, have gathered once each year for a 5-day retreat. The congregations we serve range from small to large and exist in a variety of settings: rural, big city suburbs, small town, college campus, and a new worshipping community. Each year we have invited mentors to share their time and talent with us on a variety of topics as they relate to ministry in the church. And in addition to time spent with mentors, we have also taken time to rest, to worship, and to share the highs and lows of life and ministry. From the outset, we committed to spend a portion of our yearly continuing education budget to make this annual retreat happen. We were also fortunate to receive a grant from the College of Pastoral Leaders at Austin Seminary, which seeks to support and encourage groups just like ours. We will meet together again this January and it is a time I have come to look forward to every year.
I have been abundantly blessed by the energy, intelligence, imagination, and love of these five individuals who have and will continue to journey alongside me in life and ministry. They are people with whom I have cried in the face of tragedy and laughed until my sides hurt. They are people with whom I share a common calling and a common commitment to the Church and its witness. They have challenged, supported, and prayed for me as I have for them. Perhaps most importantly, they have made the journey of this vocation less lonely. It is my deepest prayer that God will continue to strengthen us and empower us for all that lays ahead.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Hope College and a master’s of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, Rachel accepted the position of associate pastor at First Presbyterian in July 2010. Having grown up in the Presbyterian Church, Rachel has always held fast to the conviction that “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Because of God’s unending love for us, we are called to respond in faith, glorifying God and serving His people with energy, compassion, patience, imagination, and love.