With almost every job, occupational hazards abound. When I worked as a carpenter, the dangers were obvious: falling from a lift or building, being hit by debris, machinery mishaps, and the list continues. When it comes to the priesthood, while not as apparent as construction, there are still several occupational hazards. One such threat we have all been warned about is isolation. Ministry can become incredibly isolating and lonely.
We are all aware that Scripture warns us about the dangers of isolation. Solomon famously wrote, “Two are better than one… For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4.9-10). Yet, for some reason, clergy are some of the worst offenders when it comes to guarding themselves against loneliness. Unfortunately, all of us are aware of the devastating consequences that have resulted from such neglect.
This past winter, Phil Ashey+ invited me to be part of a covenant group that would meet weekly for an hour and a half on Zoom. For clergy, that amount of time commitment sounds like a lot. Honestly, what priest or deacon can afford that kind of time merely to give away? However, what I have come to discover is that no clergy can afford not invest his or her time and energy into a covenant group.
Our covenant group has been a life support for one another. Ministry is difficult enough when the waters are calm, but when the ministry seas are rough, such as they have been these last few months, they can feel impossible. I could not imagine facing this past season without my group’s prayers, listening ears, and support. These five men have become brothers for whom I care deeply, and I know they feel the same.
Although we have altered our customs over the last few months, we have tried to stick to a spiritual discipline when we meet. Our tradition has been to check in with one another (relying on the four directions test from Geoff Chapman’s+ curriculum, Growing into Jesus’ Life), pray the daily office, and study a lesson. It is simple yet effective. I have discovered the following four benefits since joining a covenant group:
Priests are usually pretty good about hiding the true state of their heart and soul. We may be able to fool our parishioners into thinking all is well, but try fooling a group of fellow clergy who are just as adept as you are at reading people. Simply put, for our benefit, covenant groups will call us out.
Whether it is for spiritual disciplines, family matters, or temptations, covenant groups become accountability partners. Covenant groups are a place for us to be vulnerable, honest, and to trust someone with our brokenness.
One rule we have in the group is we do not try to fix one another. However, we certainly support and encourage each other through difficulties and challenges. It is honestly refreshing not to have to attempt to fix something and instead be a listening ear and voice of support. It is also comforting to learn that many of the challenges we face are common to us all. As I have shared some of my ministry and family difficulties, I have learned that much of what I experience is par for the course. Instead of letting these problems weigh us down, covenant groups allow us to unload and lift our spirits.
Many people will ask us to pray for them, but few know what or how to pray for us. Since covenant groups are a place we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and honest, each member knows exactly how to pray for you. There is nothing like having five brothers text you on a difficult day to remind you they are praying for you. It is reassuring to know that you are in the prayers of people who know you best.
Genuine friendship is rare amongst clergy. We might surround ourselves with people but few truly get to become sincere friends. With all of the details listed above, it is easy to see how covenant members quickly become friends. Although I have only met in person some of my fellow covenant friends and others only through Zoom, this has not stopped us from creating a lasting bond which is a rare jewel.
It would be my hope that all priests and deacons join a covenant group. I have little doubt that if one remains committed, he or she will find a life-giving, Spirit-filled community that is vitally important to one’s self and to his or her ministry. I will confess, it is not always easy to sacrifice the time or to allow myself to become vulnerable, but it is a sacrifice I have found to be worth the cost.
The Rev. Chase Campbell is the Associate Rector at Christ Church, Atlanta. To find out how to get involved with a Clergy Covenant Care Group, visit https://americananglican.org/programs/clti or email Canon Phil at firstname.lastname@example.org.