When ministers feel burned out or are struggling with doubt or personal challenges, where can they turn for pastoral support? When a congregation is going through a time of crisis or is vacant, who can guide them through?
The Christian Reformed Church in North America has several ordained ministers who meet these specific needs. They all gathered in Grand Rapids, Mich., in November for a time of learning, fellowship, and support.
These Specialized Transitional Ministers (STMs) and Regional Pastors (RPs) from across North America met at the Calvin University Prince Center in Grand Rapids for separate conferences in which they also had time to attend sessions with Dr. Chris Adams.
Because they share many of the same challenges, participants said they appreciated information that Adams, the executive director for vocational ministry and an associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at Azusa Pacific Seminary, offered on issues and concerns that can block them from flourishing in ministry.
“Adams shared great tips and stories and helped to normalize some of the negative experiences and feelings we must navigate,” said Kasey Vander Veen, STM at Emo (Ont.) CRC. “I left feeling a little more equipped and a little more aware of my own fragility and my need for others and the power of the Holy Spirit in my heart and work.”
Regional pastors are active or retired pastors who provide support to active clergy in a classis. Specialized transitional ministers are experienced pastors trained to help congregations deal with challenging times of transition. RPs and STMs do their work as an extension of the CRC’s Pastor Church Resources ministry, which sponsored the conferences.
STMs meet annually at a conference designed to help them share information about the work they are doing — and they often do this through telling stories.
“Each STM has time [at the conference] to do that, highlighting whatever they would like to highlight,” said Dave Den Haan, who supervises the STM program along with Cecil van Niejenhuis for Pastor Church Resources.
This time of storytelling, Den Haan added, offers the “opportunity and even responsibility to speak into one another’s stories by way of encouragement, insight, and reflection. At the end of each story, someone volunteers to pray for that particular STM on behalf of the group.”
STMs are grouped into four cohorts that meet regularly (in person or by video or phone or email) throughout the year, but the conference is the only time each year that they are all together in one place.
“It is a cherished event, important for the well-being of our STMs and their ministries,” said Den Haan. “The room is full of people who do the same work and who uniquely understand the challenges and struggles that come with the work.”
Including spouses in the conference was important for Vander Veen. “The annual conference allows spouses to be able to hear from other spouses and from other STMs,” he said.
The work of STMs can be tough, and the conference both acknowledges that and offers hope, added Vander Veen.
“We see people and churches most often when they feel down and are looking for a treatment strategy to help restore their health and vitality. Because this work can be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually quite taxing, it is vital to also hold each other accountable in terms of our own health and wellness.”
Al Postma, who oversees classis renewal and leadership development for Pastor Church Resources and helps to supervise the RP program, said the regional pastors conference happens every other year. Meeting at the same time as STMs this year, said Postma, included opportunities to learn from and support one another in ministries that are important for the ongoing work of the CRC in classes and individual congregations.
As for RPs, said Postma, they provide “a key way that all pastors in the CRC can be supported in their life and ministry.”
During the conference, he said, Pastor Church Resources led discussions about the role of RPs and “offered strategies for living into that role faithfully and effectively, understanding and exploring pastoral calling.”
A conference like this is an important way to build trust between RPs and to help them feel that, given the demands of the job, they are not alone, said Postma.
“Our hope is that regional pastors have been able to grow personally through our time together and that they can find useful ways to integrate what they have learned into their own ministry within their classes,” he said.
John Terpstra was appointed by Classis Rocky Mountain to be a regional pastor in October, just a month prior to attending the conference. He previously served as a regional pastor in Classis Muskegon in 1996 for a year before taking a call to a church in Fort Collins, Colo.
“Much has changed in the CRC and in the roles of classis and regional pastors since that time,” he said. “I was eager to hear from the Pastor Church Resources staff about their work and role in ‘sustaining congregational and pastoral excellence,’ a commitment that has guided their work.”
Like others, Terpstra appreciated the presentations from Chris Adams. “Through handouts and a book on this topic, Chris assisted me in understanding the scientific reasons ‘why’ we flourish and flounder in ministry,” he said.
Adams shared results from recent research from neuroscientists who have looked into the practices, habits, character, and context of persons who experience both the joys and sorrows of ministry.
Most pastors know the experience of “post-Sunday fatigue” or the “Monday-morning blahs,” said Terpstra. At the conference, he learned about what is actually taking place in his body and brain to account for that fatigue.
“I learned about the importance of rest, reflection, and several practices that are necessary to restore my body, or, more specifically, my brain so that I am ready again to serve and plan and create and be present among those whom I am called by God to serve.”
Harold Winter, a regional pastor from Classis Chatham, said there are times when the pastor of a congregation can turn to a regional pastor for help — and he knows this from personal experience.
“I recall when a young deacon died in a congregation I served,” said Winter, who attended the recent conference. “He left behind a wife and four young children.”
The deacon’s parents, several siblings, and their families were founding members of the congregation and still participated in the life of the congregation.
“The deacon’s unexpected death caused shock and grief throughout the whole congregation. All the leaders were grieving,” said Winter. “In order to deal with my own emotions and to have the capacity to provide appropriate care within the congregation, I needed pastoral care from outside the congregation. That’s the role a regional pastor can fill.”