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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

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — Three pastors serving churches in Mission Presbytery featured in this Presbyterians Today story took to the airwaves Thursday 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.

The Rev. Maria Vargas-Torres

“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 Ft. 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 the Covid virus 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.”

“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.

The Rev. Monica Thompson Smith

“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 story, 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.”

Asked about their experience with sharing part of their personal lives with the congregation, Thompson Smith talked about giving birth to a “fairly premature baby” 16 years ago. She went into labor on a Sunday morning. “We each called our congregations. Both said, ‘We will take care of it.’” The baby was born the next day, and the personnel committee chair at the church Thompson Smith was serving said, “Take as much time as you need.”

“It was a reflection of the culture of that church,” she said.

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.’”

The Rev. Jasiel Hernandez Garcia

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.

Presbyterians in ordered ministry promise to be a friend among their colleagues in ministry. “I take that pretty seriously,” Thompson Smith said. “Me reaching out to a colleague has a high likelihood of being mutually beneficial.” “No one ever” says no thank you to an invitation to lunch or coffee, she said.

Vargas-Torres had an idea for enhancing the PC(USA)’s Church Leadership Connection function. “It would be wonderful if we could match pastors with the same interests and hobbies,” she said, naming hiking, baking and other activities people serving a church often enjoy.

Hernandez Garcia takes advantage of Kerrville’s mostly sunny skies to use a hiking trail frequently to exercise his canine companions. Sometimes he’ll meet someone he doesn’t know. “The isolation becomes less so when you make a connection with a stranger and feel like you’re part of the community,” he said.

“My sense is pastors take their own experiences and use them to help minister better to others,” Williams Berkes said. “How can we better serve people.”

Fred Tangeman

Tangeman noted the PBS NewsHour reported recently how communities and some countries are helping residents combat isolation and loneliness. The United Kingdom, for example, now has a Minister of Loneliness, as do Japan and Sweden. “I think it’s an area to use our voices as Presbyterians to bring about change inside the sanctuary and also outside it,” Tangeman said.

“We may think people will be fine on their own,” Hernandez Garcia said. “[Loneliness] is an actual thing and we need to take it seriously” by, among other things, “making people feel like they belong to a community.”

“I think pastors can claim our location and the authority it gives us to be nosy — to ask, ‘How are you doing?’ and want to hear the answer,” Thompson Smith said. She’ll tell parishioners, “You popped in my mind and so I decided to call you. I know it’s the Spirit who puts them there,” she said. “Having the pastoral role gives us a little more leeway to do that, and I think we should claim that.”

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