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Three PC(USA) pastors in Mission Presbytery share candidly in a webinar on isolation and loneliness

A Presbyterians Today piece, ‘Isolation in the Lone Star State,’ is the impetus for an insightful broadcast

May 4, 2024

The Rev. Maria Vargas-Torres

Three pastors serving churches in Mission Presbytery featured in this Presbyterians Today story recently took to the airwaves for an honest and illuminating conversation about clergy loneliness and isolation. Watch the 48-minute conversation that pastors Monica Thompson Smith, Jasiel Hernandez Garcia and Maria Vargas-Torres have with the author of the piece, Fred Tangeman of the communications staff in the Office of the General Assembly, and the managing editor of Presbyterians Today, the Rev. Layton Williams Berkes, who hosted the event, by going here or here.

Thompson Smith serves First Presbyterian Church in Luling, Texas. Hernandez Garcia is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Kerrville. Vargas-Torres ministers to the 25-member First Presbyterian Church of Del Rio.

“Mission Presbytery is an incredibly diverse presbytery, and it’s vast,” Tangeman said, crediting the presbytery’s general presbyter, the Rev. Dr. Sallie Watson, with connecting him with the three pastors who spoke to him about dealing with isolation and loneliness. “Without those connections — as with all aspects of Presbyterian life — this wouldn’t have happened,” Tangeman said.

“I understand loneliness and isolation as the opposite of connection,” said Vargas-Torres, who worked 13 years as a Certified Spanish Medical Interpreter at a hospital in Fort Worth before coming to serve the church in Del Rio, which is about 2½ hours west of San Antonio. Throughout the pandemic, she worked in a health-care setting without contracting Covid before coming down with a fairly debilitating case in December. “I was feeling weak and had no appetite. All of a sudden, food was being dropped off at my door,” Vargas-Torres said. “That’s what people do in a small town. I started to gain strength again after all that nourishing food they provided me.”

Hernandez Garcia is pastor of the church he attended while attending Schreiner University, an hour northwest of San Antonio, as an undergraduate. “The dynamic is different in a pastoral position,” he said. “There is an understanding now about what is my role in the community and in the church, and how I interact with people beyond these walls.” He spoke of isolation “that comes in a familiar place but in a different role.”

The Rev. Jasiel Hernandez Garcia

“We thankfully found a way to build new relationships, and we have really enjoyed getting to know the congregation in a new way,” Hernandez Garcia said.

“I am never not a pastor,” Thompson Smith said. In a small community like Luling, which is about an hour northeast of San Antonio, “everyone knows I’m the pastor,” whether the setting is the grocery store, the gas station or the library. “Even in a different town, there’s a tattoo on my forehead,” said Thompson Smith, who’s married to a Methodist minister. “It’s who I am, and that’s how I respond to people. It makes us weird, in a way. Others don’t inhabit their roles the way we do. Anytime you feel weird or odd, it makes you feel lonelier.”

“I texted [a pastoral colleague] last week and said, ‘I need a shoulder to cry on,’ and they said, ‘Of course,’” she said.

Vargas-Torres learned the importance of self-awareness while taking part in her clinical pastoral education experience. “Expectations others put on pastors can lead to isolation,” Vargas-Torres said. “It’s not just expectations others put on me, but the expectations I put on myself. I need to practice self-care.”

Thompson Smith lives an hour from Luling but belongs to the ministerial alliance there. “If I need someone immediately [to provide pastoral care], I feel I can call on them to step in if I can’t be there,” she said. “It’s helpful to nurture relationships with the neighbors.”

A clergy coach has been encouraging Hernandez Garcia to “be more transparent about my boundaries and my capacity,” he said. He’s learning to tell church members, “This is a busy week, and this is all I can do this week. I have trained myself to use the word ‘capacity.’”

During the most recent session meeting, Hernandez Garcia told the ruling elders, “This is what I am going to be focusing on, and this is all I can do.”

“The session realized they had never had anybody name that out loud,” he said.

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: Presbyterians Today piece, ‘Isolation in the Lone Star State Webinar

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Leann Gritton, Manager, Finance & Administration, Theology, Formation & Evangelism, Presbyterian Mission Agency  
Suzi Gwinn, Manager, Investor Services, Presbyterian Investment & Loan Program  

Let us pray

Loving God, as you have loved us, may we reach out with love to others. As you have cared for us, may we be caring toward others. As you promise to be with us, strengthen us to be there for others. Keep our eyes and hearts open to new places where we might serve you and the world in Christ’s name. Amen.

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