by Rev Bryan Smith
When I was trained as a clergy coach a decade ago, the instructor cited studies that showed pastors consistently ranked as the loneliest, most burned out, and depressed of all the professions. Reference was made to how clergy work in settings were they have little real authority, are expected to be always available, are convenient screens upon which parishioners can project unresolved anger and pain they bear toward God, parents, or other authority figures, spend much of their time doing things unrelated to why they went into ministry, face job expectations that are utterly unrealistic, see little evidence of spiritual growth in their congregation, and feel unsupported by their denominational structures and in competition with other pastors.
In facing such herculean challenges, many pastors live in a perpetual state of anxiety and exhaustion and end up feeling estranged from their own souls. Many pastors share that they rarely feel authentic in their interactions with parishioners and must conform to the demands and expectations of others to keep their jobs.
Over time, this pressure for conformity invariably leads to a domestication of the psyche. The call into ministry that was fueled by the allurement of spending one’s life in a grand adventure of wrestling with matters of eternal significance gets replaced by an internal stagnation that leads to a deep sense of frustration and grief. Many pastors end up realizing they have become religious professionals getting paid to maintain a form of Christianity that protects the status quo rather than being change agents fostering the desperately needed transformation of the world.
I share all this as someone who has spent 33 years as a pastor and know painfully well the profound challenges inherent in the call to ministry. Time and time again, I would get distress signals from deep within my own psyche that something wasn’t right, that I was living in a way that was disengaged from my own identity, that I had become “pastorized” in a way that caused me to be a stranger to my own soul.
A huge component of this loss of soulfulness was the growing realization that I was serving in an institution that had itself lost its soul as it helped birth, maintain, and protect patriarchy, white supremacy, and the demands of empire and was deeply complicit in the deepening global environmental catastrophe.
Such a painful but necessary awakening is happening in the hearts of a great many pastors and other spiritual leaders who desire to be part of something redemptive, who long to live in a way where they are deeply connected with their own souls and the Earth, and who yearn to be joined with others to help imagine and bring into existence a world where the ways of death and destruction are replaced by a vast movement that fosters wholeness, life, and justice for all of creation.
This longing, shared by the other founders of Seminary of the Wild has led us to design a yearlong, transformative process called ReWilding the Pastor’s Soul, which offers a nature-based, community supported, deeply experiential journey through modules entitled Wild Self, Wild Earth, Wild Christ, and Wild Call. It’s a journey where pastors can remember, reimagine, and reclaim their own full humanity as they deepen their relationship with the Natural World, dance with Sacred Mystery, and commit in a whole-hearted way to honoring the cries of their soul and the cries of the world to facilitate the transformation of the world.