PT Special Feature: Isolation in the Lone Star State

Loneliness is an increasing problem nationwide. How are pastors in Mission Presbytery staying connected during their calls?

What Texas is to states, Mission is to presbyteries: one of the largest and most diverse in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), with dozens of congregations near San Antonio and Austin, and large swaths of countryside where farm supply stores and oil wells outnumber houses of worship.

Mission includes 120 churches in South Central Texas, an area stretching from the Rio Grande Valley north to the Hill Country. The presbytery lists 300 Teaching Elders and more than 19,000 lay members.

Rev. Dr. Sallie Watson, General Presbyter of Mission Presbytery

Of all the challenges facing its pastors, isolation is near the top, said the Rev. Dr. Sallie Watson, General Presbyter of Mission. Isolation and its shadow companion loneliness grew as a problem during the pandemic, but have long been issues in Mission owing to its size and turnover. Nearly 600,000 people moved to Texas in 2020—and that’s just from other states. Pastors factor into a constant internal and international migration.

Nationwide, isolation is a danger for every walk of life, personality type, family arrangement, and location. The surgeon general recently issued a warning “on the devastating impact of the epidemic of loneliness and isolation in the United States.”

Care providers, including spiritual caregivers, answer their communities’ increasing needs to connect, to be heard. But who answers their needs? Who hears them? Who reaches out? In Mission Presbytery, how are pastors transcending separation during their Lone Star days and nights?

The Rev. Dr. Timothy Cargal, who works in Ministry Preparation and Support in the Office of the General Assembly, shared charts he and the Rev. Dr. Bruce Grady, New Hope Presbytery Executive, used in a presentation to the Synod of the Mid Atlantic Assembly on “Shifting Trends in Church and Society.”

The charts from 2021 and 2022 show a large increase in pastors considering quitting full-time ministry. Other than “the immense stress of the job,” the top reason cited by U.S. Protestant pastors was “I feel lonely and isolated.”

It’s the same in the PC(USA). According to a Research Services “Minister Survey: Wellbeing Report” from July 2021, “ministers expressed the greatest concern for isolation and burnout,” with 32 percent of respondents saying they were concerned or very concerned about isolation. A related “Mental Health Report” from January 2021 pinpointed rural settings as especially isolating.

Although pandemic conditions exacerbated loneliness, we now know life won’t be bouncing back to any golden normal anytime soon. In many cases, the exhaustion pastors endured during the pandemic has increased under the weight of societal pressures to return to the way things were before 2020.

The Rev. Monica Smith

The Rev. Monica Thompson Smith, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Luling, TX, uses “the Target test” to determine remoteness in her home state. After serving as pulpit supply in Luling when her children were small, she accepted a call to become the church’s 40-percent-time stated supply pastor. Her husband is a Methodist pastor with a call in La Grange, a town about one hour from Luling.

“By Texas standards, Luling is not super isolated,” Thompson Smith said. “It’s only 30 minutes on the Target test. But in a small town like this there are still people who are really isolated.”

She mentioned high rates of poverty and disability, and many older residents who can’t drive outside the community. There’s no public transportation.

“On the other hand, even before the pandemic we noticed people coming to the congregation from across the county,” Thompson Smith said. “That’s consistent with a lot of churches in this presbytery. People who are committed to being Presbyterian will drive 30 minutes to get to church.”

Because the small congregation was an early Zoom adopter, it welcomed newcomers during the 2020 months when it held no in-person services. One week a Luling congregant invited a woman from Austin to an online service, who then invited a cousin in Connecticut to another. “After several months of joining us, both women asked to be members,” Thompson Smith said. “The Book of Order is fairly clear to me that no one should be denied membership unless they don’t believe in Jesus.”

“If I thought either of these distance members would go to an in-person congregation where they lived, I would encourage that,” Thompson Smith added. “There is still something incarnational that happens in person. But this is the next best thing.”

Presbyter Watson praised the way Luling responded to the pandemic, including its online services, which continue as worship options to this day. When Thompson Smith and I spoke on the phone, her husband was ill with Covid.

“We’re being cautious about church,” she said. “Our Luling membership is mostly elderly, and we don’t want to give them Covid. So we’ll be entirely on Zoom this weekend.”

The Rev. Jasiel Hernandez Garcia

The Rev. Jasiel Hernandez Garcia serves at First Presbyterian Church in Kerrville, a 500-member congregation northwest of San Antonio. Having started his call a few months ago, he is dealing with the uncanny isolation of someone returned to a previous home.

“I knew some of the church members from my undergraduate years at Schreiner University,” he said, “and I’ve stayed in touch with some members who went to my seminary graduation and wedding. The town wasn’t an unknown entity, but being a young student at university is different than being an adult at a church.”

After graduating from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Hernandez Garcia served a residency at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis through a Lilly Grant. “The program brought in two seminarians per year,” he said, “so I was plugged into the life of the church with someone else. For me it would have been intimidating otherwise.” He then served as associate pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. “I arrived there in July 2020, one of the worst parts of the pandemic, and didn’t get to know many others at the church until a year later. Luckily, my wife had family in Atlanta.”

First Presbyterian Church in Kerrville “has been very welcoming to us, even though most of the congregation is in their seventies,” said Hernandez Garcia, who is in his thirties. “My wife is a knitter and loves other crafts, and she’s connected with women in the area who share her interests. She’s also a teacher and has connected with retired teachers. For me, at church we have retired pastors and scholars. I am also a runner and bicycle rider. When you have hobbies in common with others, relationships can flourish, inside and outside the congregation.”

During the cooler months of the year, he plans to build more ecumenical relationships in Kerrville. But for a young pastor from Austin, that presents its own acclimatization issues. “Politics can get in the way,” Hernandez Garcia said.

Congregational fit is another common cause of isolation, especially for newly installed pastors. Churches increasingly want teaching elders who focus on worship, while many new seminary graduates are drawn to community wellness and justice work.

“From my standpoint as presbyter, a pastoral nominating committee sometimes has a vision, calls a pastor that fits the mission statement they developed, and then the church says, ‘This isn’t the kind of pastor we had in mind,’” Watson said. While not an issue with pastors in this article, unreconciled differences are common enough Mission Presbytery has a Preferred Path conflict resolution program in place. “We can send a team in to work through the conflict.”

Watson has connected pastors dealing with fit issues or exhaustion with the Board of Pensions, which through its CREDO and ministerial assistance programming can help them take a sabbatical or attend vocational retreats. Watson herself has turned to BOP, attending a 5-day retreat that reminded her “you’re not alone in ministry.” Mission Presbytery also contracts with a life coach who can help pastors working through difficult patches.

As for getting out in front of the problem of isolation, Watson recommended pastors stay connected with colleagues through pastoral cohort groups. “I’ve been in mid-council ministry since ‘08,” she said. “My cohort group is still meeting.”

Thompson Smith and Hernandez Garcia also recommended pastoral cohorts, as well as seeking out church leaders from other faiths.

“I alleviate my own loneliness with nearby colleagues,” Thompson Smith said. “I’m in the Luling Ministerial Alliance. I’m the only woman, but we’re supportive of each other.”

For presbyteries that don’t offer cohort groups, Hernandez Garcia recommended The Ministry Collaborative in Atlanta, an ecumenical non-profit. “They launch new cohorts around different topics, such as one I’m in about new heads of staff, or another I was invited to join recently about discipleship. We meet online every month.

“Through the ministry cohort I was able to connect with people from seminary I haven’t talked to in six years, which is helping me bridge the isolation.”

He also recommended serving on a presbytery committee or board of a local organization. “Those have helped me and I’ll be looking to find more friendships through such church groups in the future.”

Thompson Smith has chaired Mission’s Commission on Ministry, giving her plenty of experience with pastors confronting isolation. Her last bit of advice was for everyone, teaching elders and students alike: stop expecting pastors to take on the burden of increased connection by themselves.

“My sermon would be: everyone else needs to reach out, not just pastors,” Thompson Smith said. “Everyone can feel isolated in this profession. Most of us would welcome the opportunity to make new friends.”

Watson lifted up one Mission congregation’s intentionality. At Northminster Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, October 22 was “Pastor Appreciation Sunday.” Congregation members wrote personal cards and letters to the Rev. Dana Pope, “expressing their appreciation for her service.”

“Not everyone does this,” Watson said, “but if they did—what a difference it would make.”

The Rev. Maria Vargas-Torres

The Rev. Maria Vargas-Torres worked 13 years as a Certified Spanish Medical Interpreter at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital in Ft. Worth, including times near literal isolation wards. As Covid eased, the Puerto Rico native updated her profile in the PC(USA)’s Church Leadership Connection system to show that she was looking for a pastoral call.

“I updated my profile to reflect my hospital experiences including working with people dealing with death. I was matched with something like 155 churches. That was a little overwhelming. I wanted a church that really needed me.”

She found it at First Presbyterian Church in Del Rio, a 25-member congregation in the far west of the presbytery that was closed for six years and reopened six months prior to Vargas-Torres’s arrival.

“As I read their CLC profile, the language used was ‘we’re looking for a midwife.’” That spoke to Vargas-Torres and her years caring for bodies and souls in a hospital, but also to her parenting heart. “Now that I’m here, it’s like being a mom again.”

Del Rio’s closest PC(USA) congregation is in Uvalde, site of the May 2022 school shooting. “They’re looking for a pastor now,” Vargas-Torres said. “Once they call someone, I’d like to establish more of a relationship.”

In Del Rio, many cross the border for dinner, or shopping, or medical care. Vargas-Torres mostly stays close to the congregation or her home, which church members recently helped her move into, including setting up her bed. A self-described “senior and empty-nester,” she keeps in touch with family and friends in the Ft. Worth area and Puerto Rico over the phone and computer.

“It’s important for all of us to know our needs,” she said. “Anyone can feel lonely, no matter who’s nearby. What you really need is to experience a sense of connection.”

She told the story of a Cameroonian family that belongs to the diverse Del Rio congregation, and her delight at discovering similarities in their native cuisines.

“I ordered our Christmas meal from a Puerto Rican food truck in Del Rio,” she said. “We were all so happy to enjoy it!”

She lifted up the connectionalism of people in small towns, who grow up understanding the pitfalls of isolation.

“When I moved here my family and friends were concerned about me being isolated. But I reassured them that when you’re a part of a church you’re a part of a family. Small town people are used to helping each other out. That’s familiar to me from my time in Puerto Rico, where every place feels like a small town.”

Keeping her eyes and ears open to connectional opportunities helps Vargas-Torres fight loneliness, not just for herself but for members of her church.

“From the pulpit I share about social opportunities, which abound in the community,” she said. “The best thing you can do is reach out, make connections, keep connected to friends and family. Approximately every six weeks I travel back to see my family.

“I would suggest to pastors that they be intentional about making time for the people and things they enjoy, and not wait until they really need time away.”

Like Vargas-Torres, Hernandez Garcia and Thompson Smith talked about driving to meet PC(USA) colleagues in other towns, cities, roadside diners. With apologies to Texan Willie Nelson, getting on the road again is one more way pastors in Mission Presbytery alleviate isolation. If someone can’t get behind the wheel of a car, or bike through triple-digit heat, a phone call or Zoom invite is the next best thing. Reaching out is always a good idea, checking in with someone who might need to hear another’s voice, feel less alone whatever their surroundings. We all need that: congregants, presbyters, red-headed strangers, Target shoppers.

“I saw a meme yesterday on the back of a truck,” Vargas-Torres said as we ended our phone call between Philadelphia and Del Rio. “‘REMEMBER IF YOU’RE NOT SPEAKING IT YOU’RE STORING IT, AND IT GETS HEAVY.’”

Fred Tangeman is a reporter for the Presbyterian News Service and manager for publications in the Office of the General Assembly. He lives in Philadelphia with wife Kelly and daughter Meredith.