Book Review: Anam Cara: Collegial Clergy Communities (Mahan Siler)

Anam Cara

ISBN 978-0976745020

Reviewed by the Rev. Ed Messersmith, retired priest.

The book that I am reviewing is Anam Cara: Collegial Clergy Communities by Mahan Siler.  This is one of   two books recommended to those who are participating in the Wellness Pilot Program offered by the diocese.  It was initially brought to my attention by the Reverend Dr. John Emmert.

The concern addressed in this book is simple:

“How do you lead with passion and vision within a congregation that may desire more  management than leadership, more comfort than challenge, more efficiency than effectiveness?”

The answer is equally straightforward:

There is no way to do that by yourself.  The shared conviction is this; it is only possible within the transforming power of small, collegial, caring, faith communities formed around spiritual practices (worship, prayer, bible study, theological reflection).  These faith communities provide the individual with the needed support of his or her brothers and sisters in the clergy as well as with a sense of accountability.

The stress, complexity, and responsibility that accompanies congregational (parish) ministry can be and often is overwhelming when one “goes it alone!”

Using a favorite Celtic image, Siler offers that we can either “fly solo” and perish or we fly together (we are One Body In Christ) in a formation that supports all members of the flock.

Siler cites the fact that the Lilly Endowment has invested over 80 million dollars devoted to “sustaining pastoral excellence” through clergy-networks and groups.  Yet sadly he adds, “many of the small group efforts supported by the Lilly Foundation are offered as “add-ons” to clergy’s already busy schedule. 

Thus, rather than bringing a sense of wellness and health to the individual clergy person, the process itself only invites more stress.  The key, Siler suggests, is not to simply keep adding “group meetings” to one’s busy schedule but to decide what small, clergy-centered, collegial groups are truly a priority, thereby removing from one’s schedule those things that are not helpful and creating new opportunities that are helpful.

Wellness mandates that we not only learn to set boundaries and take care of ourselves, it also demands of us that we learn to value the gifts of our clergy peers, learn from one another (in collaboration), pray for each other (honor spiritual formation), and share the journey together within an intentional, loving, and collegial support group.

Just as Siler endeavors to define what “Anam Cara” is, he also defines what it is not.  It is not another event to fill time, a time for lectures related to continuing education, a therapy group, nor even a study group on the common lectionary.

Anam Cara, for Siler, is a form of “Jam Session”,….. that is, “we lose our heightened anxiety when we reach that place where we are one with the music” (obviously metaphoric language!).  

It is precisely when we are one with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit that we are a relatively non-anxious presence (Siler borrows from Edwin Friedman).  And it is in that moment where we engage wellness, effectiveness, and faithfulness as clergy leaders rather than become reactive, blaming, and negatively critical.

I highly recommend Siler’s book, Anam Cara: Collegial Clergy Communities. It challenges us to think of the possibilities, opportunities, and potential that our own convocation clergy groups hold for us.   It also invites us into a much deeper consideration of wellness and health as we continue our ministries, respond to our sense of vocation, and remain faithful to the God of all creation.

Challenging us to think beyond what is, Siler opens the door to such things as having clergy gatherings and regional ecumenical groups address the  real issues that we face on a daily basis from within the context of our spirituality, our theological perspectives, our prayerfulness, and our faithfulness as the the Body of Christ.