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Island Fever: Ministerial isolationism a common reality for clergy

For six incredible years, I served as a rector and head of school in paradise. Literally, I served in paradise on the Garden Island of Kaua’i, Hawai’i. The job’s perks were amazing: Walks along the sun-drenched beaches, fresh tropical fruits growing in my backyard, eating the finest ono (tuna) right off the boat, and the beautiful people and culture of Hawai’i. All Saints’ was (and is) a faithful community overflowing with ‘Aloha’ and so much potential. Over the course of six years, we transformed All Saints’ into a lively “cathedral” for the people of Kaua’i—a center for worship, education, outreach, and the arts.

It was an extraordinary ministry opportunity. Also, it was the loneliest professional ministry experience of my life. You cannot go more westward in the Episcopal Church (except for Guam) than Kaua’i. Despite the Diocesan team’s best efforts based in Honolulu on Oahu, ministering on a small remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean was emotionally, physically, and spiritually draining because I was on an island—not only a physical island—but a professional island.

Unfortunately, too many clergy feel like a modern-day, professional version of Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway). After an airplane crash (hopefully not too synonymous with the clergy search process), Chuck is left to survive on a desolate island with very minimal resources and no colleagues. His only counterpart is a freaky, blood-stained volleyball named Wilson that gives life to Chuck’s voice in his head. The island is relentless and unforgiving, leaving Chuck tired, malnourished, bloody, and on the verge of a mental breakdown. Sound familiar? Even the most connected and grounded clergy have days or even seasons where they can feel disconnected from the Church, their colleagues, and their calls.

During and especially after my tenure in paradise, I began discussing the idea of “ministerial isolationism” with Episcopal clergy from all over the country. I soon learned I was not alone. Clergy from the boondocks to the burbs shared with me similar feelings and experiences. More surprisingly, many of my clergy colleagues in the dense and bustling cities of Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston, and so on feel as-if they are ministering on an island. Ministry can be a lonely, frustrating, and unfulfilling endeavor, especially on a professional island. In Hawai’i, when the isolation becomes too much, and you need to escape, they say you have “Island Fever.” More than ever, amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, clergy are suffering from the effects of professional Island Fever.

If ministry is a community endeavor, why do so many clergy feel so isolated from their congregation/organization and colleagues?

Despite having a regular spiritual director, the occasional therapeutic relationship, and cherished clergy colleagues, I realized I was missing an essential instrument in my ministry toolbox that exacerbated my “Island Fever.” I lacked a trusted, objective, experienced colleague and coach who could help me navigate the professional ministerial challenges I faced every day as a rector and head of school. I needed someone who could push me professionally, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally to be a better leader, pastor, and balanced person. I needed a clergy coach who had experienced the ups and downs of professional ministry every day and now had dedicated their ministry career to helping other clergy.

Over my twenty-five years of ministry, I have learned that professional coaching is an indispensable clergy resource. They are both a strategic partner and provocateur.

For anyone who has played a team sport with an exceptional coach or had a fantastic personal trainer, the great coaches/trainers push us well-beyond our perceived ability of excellence yet can embrace and empower us by their words, experiences, insights, and support. A clergyperson’s success and professional satisfaction directly correlate to feeling valued, supported, and connected. A clergy coach provides confidential and objective support, insights, prompting, and accountability that other colleagues and professionals cannot offer.

As clergy, we are called to many roles and responsibilities, but we are not called to exercise our ministry on a professional island. None of us should be expected to endure “Island Fever.” As we are called to serve others, it is our duty, and our ministry partners’ obligation, to ensure we have the tools and resources to thrive professionally and personally.

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The Reverend Ryan D. Newman is an Episcopal priest and the founding principal of Rite One Consulting with over 25 years experience in professional ministry. Rite One’s core mission-driven goal is to address the overwhelming challenge of clergy burnout, professional dissatisfaction, and employment turnover.


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