I remember well the first conversations and plans. The idea was to gather pastors from rural churches to develop their faith-based community organizing skills.
It was a lofty goal, and indeed many of the pastors who took part in the Omega Group have used the methodology crafted by the Rev. David Ostendorf, co-founder of the Center for New Community in Chicago, to improve their communities with social justice projects.
But within 24 hours of the first gathering, we discovered that there was even more at stake. The people who arrived -- these people called and gifted by God to lead God’s people in some pretty remote places -- were spiritually tired, pastorally isolated, hungry for a good word and much in need of time to decompress, to be heard and to heal.
The 15 pastors who formed the original group -- an outgrowth of the Rural Pastors Institute, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. through the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence initiative -- are an odd and eclectic group who seemingly had little in common. Participants included a Catholic priest tending two parishes in Northern Indiana, a licensed lay minister in the United Church of Christ serving a church surrounded by cornfields in Wisconsin, and a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in a small town in Ohio.
Yet many shared a common story: the demanding and isolating life of a small-town pastor, called upon to provide weekly and all “high holy” services (depending on setting and tradition), often serving multiple congregations, expected to attend community social functions, be involved in their denominational judicatories and, preferably, have a perfectly “normal” family, with 2.3 children, a spouse who also plays the piano for Sunday school, and no objection to having everyone in the town know what they are doing.
As the stories began to spill out, as the layers began to unfold, as isolation was met with caring, and as what was not allowed to be expressed at home for fear of repudiation or laughter was met with commonality and shared experiences, God’s truth in us began to emerge, and something quite remarkable began to take shape.
Ten years later, the Omega Group still meets -- we recently held our 23rd gathering and made plans for two more. Continuing to share in semiannual two-day retreats, 12 members of the original 15 maintain a tight network of communication, sharing ministry happenings in each of our settings, updating each other regarding challenges in ministry and personal life, and extending care and support as appropriate. I have served as the facilitator though after 10years together, such delineations are blurry. We are a group and our history is shared.
What has made this group endure?
As the Rev. Jerry Schweitzer, Omega Group member now serving three parishes in Northern Indiana, said, “The Spirit has bonded our separate experiences with one heart and has made us sisters and brothers on the journey. We have found trust, support and sabbath in and with each other.”
That which sustained personal, collegial and pastoral excellence in our settings was not the skills we were taught but the personal, collegial and pastoral network of support and care that developed. Sustained pastoral excellence is found first in taking sabbath, and second in sharing such sabbath with others who know your need.
The Rev. Craig Forwalter, now a hospice chaplain in Northern Indiana, credits the Omega Group for his still being in ministry: “When I … was placed in this group, I was serving in a difficult setting and wasn’t sure which way to turn. You helped me to see the history of the congregation wasn’t about my ministry but about a particular [congregational dynamic]. By the time I left in my eighth year, the Omega Group had helped me to see the larger picture of my call and to respond in a way which preserved my sanity, my marriage and my vocation.”
The Rev. Mary Gafner, pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation in Wisconsin, has put her faith-based community organizing skills to work establishing and funding a regional food pantry, involving a variety of her ecumenical partners in a program for the homeless in their area, and creating bonds with the youth in their region to build and sustain community beyond the church doors.
Still, she agrees: “The greatest gift we have been given is each other. We hold each other accountable to sabbath practices, assist each other in networking in our communities the same way we network in the Omega Group, and support one another in putting into practice the skills we have been given.”
As a group, we attended courses together about rural America, worshipped together, listened to music together and, perhaps most importantly, engaged in honest Bible study together, not worrying that something we said or observed might get back to our congregations. The freedom of it all flowed like baptismal waters over a long-weakened dam of frustrations. The new community of the biblical narrative began to take root all over again -- and hasn’t quit growing since.
“In that sense of community of the worn and torn, there is a lack of tension. We come with our guard down, our interest and passion piqued, and with a sense of trust and family. We do the Acts thing of allowing the Holy Spirit to fill us to overflowing,” said group member Gary Mosimann, a United Methodist elder and interim pastor.
Therein may be the mustard seed of truth regarding the Omega Group’s decade-long existence. It has never been about us; it has always been about God. God hears the cries of God’s people and comes to deliver them. God delivers each of us as colleagues in ministry, and God delivers the congregations and settings in ministry to which each of us is called, by simply giving us each other in Christ, that we may not wither away alone in the wilderness.
Our communities have gained as well. Four community food pantries, multiple programs for rent and utility assistance, investment in Habitat for Humanity projects, an intentional expansion of personal and pastoral investments in the work of local and denominational judicatories, and expanded local and regional ecumenical relationships and networking are the tangible results of the work undertaken by the members of the Omega Group.
Congregations also have flourished under revitalized leadership, and pastoral families have received the gift of their mother, father, brother, sister, grandfather, grandmother and child as we have recovered ourselves.
The Omega Group of the Rural Pastors Institute is not a template for everyone; it is an ongoing expression of God’s mission in the world, meeting particular needs where they are, empowering the community to act in new ways and reminding us always of the nearness of the kingdom to be found in each other.
Yet there is a lesson for everyone in the success of this group: God does not expect us to go it alone.
That is the community of Creator, Christ and Spirit -- the new community we are discovering all over again in the Omega Group, 10 years after our birthing.