A delicate balance: Pastors set apart for ministry are also key to building community

If the priest is not clearly set apart, then he will not provide the service which the Church requires; and if he is not a true servant, he will end in a self-absorbed and sterile remoteness which is alien to an authentic shepherd.”

-Pope John Paul II

It may get lonely at the top, but it may not be helpful to building religious communities if pastors are too isolated from their flocks.

A sensitivity to people in the pews and a desire to help them connect with one another is related to the ability of pastoral leaders to create a strong sense of belonging among congregation members, a new study indicates.

Clergy in their first call, second-career pastors and spiritual leaders who have other jobs are among the clergy associated with congregations where attenders reported a growing attachment to their house of worship and greater participation in congregational activities, researcher Cynthia Woolever found.

And it is not only religious communities that appear to benefit.

Pastors leading congregations with a strong sense of belonging also report greater satisfaction with their ministry and a stronger sense of accomplishment, Woolever reported at the recent joint meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Religious Research Association in Boston.

Woolever, the former director of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, analyzed data from the 2001 and 2008-2009 waves of the US CLS for her study of “The Pastor’s Role in Creating a Sense of Belonging Among Members.”

Building a strong sense of community where people feel they belong is critical to meeting the basic human needs of congregants for love, acceptance and self-esteem, a sense of being valued by the congregation, Woolever says.

“So much of congregational life revolves around the closeness people feel as they worship together, experience life’s joys and sorrows, and share their deepest values and beliefs,” she writes with co-author Deborah Bruce in their book, “Beyond the Ordinary: 10 Strengths of U.S. Congregations.” “Strong congregations find ways to encourage emotional attachment.”

Yet for church leaders, the idea of focusing on building community can go against the grain of a culture that often places more emphasis on serving individuals, “kind of a consumer mentality,” Woolever noted. And some pastors may be concerned that creating social bonds among members may lead to congregants being more likely to cross boundaries that could infringe on a pastor’s personal life.

So what type of pastors are associated with congregations where attenders report a strong sense of belonging? The short answer is married pastors, first-call pastors, second-career pastors and pastors who hold other jobs. Conservative and black Protestant pastors are also more likely to serve such congregations, Woolever found.

One common theme that seems to emerge is that the more pastors are or have been connected to everyday life as experienced by the laity, or do not place too great an emphasis on the idea of being men and women “set apart,” the more likely they are to be leading congregations where attenders are active participants and have a number of close friends at their place of worship.

“When a pastor’s life experiences minimize the distance between leader and worshiper, I think the leader places greater emphasis on creating community,” Woolever said.

What is good for the congregation also is good for the pastor.

Woolever reported that pastors in general find serving in “relationship-rich” congregations more satisfying and rewarding. But she did not find evidence that such strong social bonds added to pastoral stress or placed greater demands on their personal lives.

Some ways pastors and other leaders can build stronger congregations include forming or using existing small groups “that help people feel loved and known” and offering service or leadership roles that give congregants a sense of purpose,  Woolever said.

But it takes a conscious effort, starting at the front door of the sanctuary.

Even during services, worshipers can feel alone if they sit by themselves and leave without ever having meaningful personal interaction with other congregants. And a pastor who is not sensitive to the social bonds among attenders eventually may find fewer people to talk to on Sundays.

One can be the loneliest number, both in the pulpit and the pew.