A path to belonging: review

October 25th, 2022

Mary Kay DuChene and Mark Sundby’s A Path to Belonging: Overcoming Clergy Loneliness touches on a subject that clergy may hesitate to acknowledge, and congregations find difficult to comprehend. Their writing demonstrates a keen understanding of the unique dynamic of clergy and congregational relationships and the expectations associated with those relationships.

I deeply appreciated that it was not a "how to" book, as the title may suggest, but a discussion of what loneliness is, how it is rooted in our biochemical makeup, how it is manifested, and how it might be addressed. 

By not adopting a “how to” format, the authors do not insist that loneliness is a problem begging for resolution through a series of corrective steps. Their approach invites the reader to view the topic as a common experience. With the examples provided throughout, the reader is invited into a shared space which transcends the delineation of the specific roles of clergy and laity, resonating with any audience and anyplace loneliness is prone to exist.

Introducing the biochemical and physiological influences, explores the way our family, cultures and traditions have influenced our ability and or need to belong; and informs the reader that loneliness is more than an isolated incident. 

Available from Cokesbury

By acknowledging our innate need for community and relationship (see Chapter 1 “What Is Loneliness”), we can work from a definition of loneliness as a formed response to environmental factors that challenge our ability to seek community. The authors steer away from portraying loneliness as a spiritual problem which can be prayed away, choosing instead the deeper exploration of how doctrine, tradition and biblical practices—if misapplied—may hinder our understanding rather than help our journey to belonging. Rather than insist spiritual practices as the singular intervention, placing the onus of resolution on the one wrestling with loneliness, DuChene and Sundby speak to the communal responsibility for identification, intervention, and resolution. 

While they are clear that spiritual practices are not a singular intervention, the authors go to great lengths to explain their importance as both preventive and restorative maintenance. Chapter 6 does not just provide a list of things to be done, but speaks to the consequences of the not doing, as well as the way the practices should be embraced. Raising the question of “how often do clergy worship,” for instance, is a reflection of the challenging questions they offer for clergy in assessing their own practices and their effects.

Their exploration of the authentic tension that exists in helping congregation understand the difference between being friendly and being friends was on target and very useful as we reimagine community in this time. It was an encouraging sign to see a clergyperson immediately addressing a member’s experience of disrespect in the discussion of Brené Brown’s outline of behaviors that encourage belonging. This example enforced the power clergy have, but all-too-often relinquish or ignore. Brown reminds the reader that the continued abdication of this power creates a false narrative of powerlessness that contributes to isolation, and loneliness. Going a step further, Brown clearly distinguishes between creating this healthy boundary and “pulpit bullying,” which can contribute even more to the experiences of loneliness among congregants.

Chapter 9 speaks to the relationship of not just each member to the pastor, but the congregation withthe pastor. This chapter reminds the reader that the congregation has a corporate identity and personality, in addition to and greater than the sum of the individual identities and personalities of the members. The congregation cannot foster a community of belonging if they have never been taught or encouraged to do so, and if they do not feel they belong themselves.

It was in the reading of this chapter I initially considered inviting only our Staff-Parish Relations Committee to read this as part of their continuing education in service to the church. However, I am now expanding that plan and including this conversation as part of the learning to be shared with our entire unified board, as we continue to live into our identity as a reconciling congregation. Reconciliation is about creating a space where all are invited to belong; and while this work speaks about the clergy-laity relationship, it is a conversation that should be more broadly shared among our leadership. 

Toward that end, my associate pastor and I have created a plan using this book and another resource to engage our congregation in discussion and reflection about loneliness and welcoming.

Our current plan is to engage leadership and congregation in the corporate journey of reading Catch Fire in 50 Days by Blake Busick and Christie Latona. After reading through that resource together, everyone will be invited to participate in focus group discussions based on A Path to Belonging in conversation with what they’ve experienced with Catch Fire in 50 Days. Our discussions will be divided into quarterly sessions as follows with reading assignments, after the discussion.   


  1. My Experience of Belonging
    To what organizations/groups (formal and informal) do you belong to and why? How are other members welcomed into those organizations/groups?
    Are there gatherings in which you have not felt comfortable? What made you feel that way?
    Who gets invited to your family gatherings? (No names – just family roles) Why? If there are members who do not get invited, why is that? 
    What do you think makes a person feel welcomed?
  2. Our Church Experience of Belonging
    How long have you been a member? Why did you join St. Paul
    What has made you stay?
    How many of the people sitting in the pews around you and across the aisle do you know?
    How many new people have you met at church in the past six months? Twelve months? Who initiated that conversation?

  3. Your Experience with Clergy 
    What do you know about your pastor(s)?
    What do you think your pastor(s) know about you?
    If you cannot answer A or B, what can be done so that you can have those conversations?
  4. Your Church History with your Pastors
    What would you say about your church’s relationship with its pastor(s)?
    Name one way the church specifically and consistently interacts with your pastor outside of worship.
    Name one specific way the church supports your pastor(s).
    How does the denomination support the pastor(s)?
    What would you want a new pastor to know about your congregation to welcome them.

Chapter 10 calls denominations and judicatories to the carpet. The burden of self-care has long been the sole responsibility of the pastor to educate the congregation and advocate on their own behalf. It must be spoken from the heads of denominations and judicatories in a way where resources are not just made available but made an integral part of credentialing systems and ongoing work in ministry.

Incorporating a variety of voices (Brené Brown, science, scripture, and other spiritual traditions) and minimizing the clinical terminology contributes its appeal to a broader audience. Unlike other books this book would be an easy read for congregations, and clergy families, who are vital partners to the journey toward belonging.

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