SABBATH

One of the interesting but often unspoken realities of any form of ministry is that it can be very hazardous to one’s spiritual health.  On the surface, that seems like it shouldn’t be true–and maybe even less true for me than for others.  To start with, while I am pastor of two separate church settings, I am 40% at each, which even with my shaky math works out to 80%, leaving me lots of free time to do a variety of other things, including spiritual development.

In practise, though, ministry of any kind and any temporal duration has a tendency to expand.  Last week, my 40% position at one church expanded to well above 50%.  Fortunately, the other position was pretty much “normal” last week but there have been times when both have had expansionary weeks and “free” time consisted of trying to stay awake while I watched the evening news.

And there is a deeper, more significant side of this ministry expansion.  I work hard at having an approach to spiritual growth that takes into account my particular needs and personality, which involves a lot of reading since my primary approach to spiritual development involves study and contemplation.  But reading takes energy–or rather, reading in a way that allows me to understand and process what I am reading so that I can use it as the basis of a contemplative spiritual development process takes energy.

But as the ministry week expands and grows and fills in spaces set aside for other things, it also fills in the space I set aside for reading–and at the same time, taps into the energy I need to effectively use the time I have.  And that means that after a short time of battling ministry expansion and resulting fatigue, I find myself approaching my reading time with the realization that no matter what I read, I am not going to take much in because I am tired physically, emotionally and spiritually.

I could, I suppose, summon up vast amounts of spiritual discipline (or guilt) and read anyway.  Having tried that approach, I can assure you that it doesn’t work for.  If I am reading while on the exercise bike, I realize my mind is drifting and I am taking in nothing.  If I am sitting in the living room, I eventually realize that I have been asleep for the past 15 minutes and so haven’t taken in anything.  At least for me, forcing myself really doesn’t help.

Ministry expands and the expansion threatens to fill every part of life.  And whether a person is a pastor like I am or a lay person, ministry is always expanding.  No matter what the ministry is, there is always potential for expansion and when we commit to ministry and crank up our gifts and openness to the Spirit, we have a tendency to follow the expansion wherever it goes.

That might sound faithful and might look faithful but in the end, it is spiritually unwise and will lead to burnout, depression, anxiety, anger, and a decreased ability to relate lovingly to ourselves, others and God.  Our faith and our concern for the ministry God has given us come together and produce an unhealthy minister.

That is why the Biblical idea of Sabbath is so important.  Technically, the Sabbath was the one day out of seven when the people were supposed to rest and reconnect.  Most of the Christian church has moved from Sabbath observation (Saturday) to keeping the Lord’s Day (Sunday) but many of the Sabbath ideas were transferred to Sunday.

Taking one day out of seven to rest and reconnect with ourselves, others and God is good theology and good psychology.  And the idea of Sabbath can be expanded.  We can have Sabbath moments during our day–on Sundays, I have about an hour between worship services, which provides me with a mini-Sabbath.  During that hour, I have some lunch, read some news and take a power nap.  I do read over my notes for the next service but the other components of the mini-Sabbath are much more important.

We need Sabbaths during the year as well.  The longer I go without a break from ministry, the more I need a break.  Fortunately, a short vacation is coming up soon.

Ministry, whether paid or not expands with inexorable force.  We need to work hard at countering the negative effects of that expansion with the powerful antidote of the Sabbath.

May the peace of God be with you.

WOUNDED HEALERS

I am a pastor and have been a teacher of pastors.  I have worked with pastors in at least four countries, taught pastors from half a dozen countries and done pastoral work myself for over 40 years.  At the beginning of my pastoral career, I came to an important realization that has been strengthened and deepened by all my experience in pastoral work.  That realization is that we pastors are not perfect.

Now, that may seem like a glaringly obvious reality to many non-pastors but it can be hard for we who are pastors to really understand and believe this reality.  Our calling puts us in a privileged and important position.  We get involved in people’s lives when things are painful, hectic, exciting or confusing.  We deal with issues and thoughts and ideas that many people shy away from.  We get asked for advice and answers on many things from the trivial (Why do Baptists use grape juice for Communion?) to the profound (How can God love someone like me?).  We are seen as being the representative of God–when we are present, people can feel like God is present.

The always present temptation is the temptation to believe that we really are what some people think we are and to forget who we really are.  When I am the person to deliver the understanding of the presence of God and his grace, it is all too tempting to believe that something divine has rubbed off on me and that I have somehow been elevated to another level–certainly, in all modesty, I keep the halo hidden but, well, we all know that it is there.

Except that it really isn’t there.  I might be God’s representative, I might presume to speak for God twice each Sunday, I might mediate between the hurting world and the graceful God–but none of the holiness of God has rubbed off on me.  Or better, no more of it has rubbed off on me that has rubbed off on others–and there may be some who have managed to attract even more.

Very early in my ministry, I ran across Henri Nouwen’s book  The Wounded Healer.  Without even reading the book, I was and continue to be struck by the insight and profound truth expressed by the title.  Reading the book just amplifies and solidifies the bedrock reality that no matter what I think I am; no matter that I wrestle with the things of God as a matter of course; no matter that I can and do bring the awareness of God to the darkness of life, I am still human and approach my calling as an imperfect person who must deal with my own imperfections while I help others deal with theirs.  All of us need the grace of God, not just the people I work with.

God calls us in our wounded state and works to heal us.  But we will remain wounded and imperfect for the whole of our existence here.  We never reach perfection because as soon as we finally deal with one wound, God shows us another one.  When we take the bandage off one healed spot, we probably manage to cut ourselves with the scissors God gave us to cut the bandage and so need healing for that new wound.

As a pastor, I long ago realized I can’t really hide my wounds from anyone but myself.  And if I can’t hide them, I needed to learn how to do my calling with them.  Sometimes, I try to do it in spite of my wounds.  But mostly, I have realized that my best work at carrying out my calling comes when I let God work through both my strengths and my weaknesses.  Sometimes, the fact that I can get beyond my bouts of depression help people and sometimes the fact that I can still minister even during a bout of depression helps even more people.  Sometimes, my wounds need healing from the people I pastor, which is also part of God’s plan for me and them.

I am a pastor, which means that in the end, I am a wounded healer.  I need help even as I offer help.  Fortunately, the presence and grace of God means that he is willing to both heal me and work through me, just as he heals and works through those I am called to shepherd.

May the grace of God be with you.

WHO IS MY PASTOR?

A couple of times in my career as pastor, I have had people ask me an interesting question.  Essentially, they want to know who is my pastor.  One person who asked the question didn’t actually have much to do with the church but knew me and knew that I was involved in some pretty difficult situations with people he knew.  Another was a church member whom I had helped through some difficulties as part of my pastoral activity.

The question is one that I have actually given a lot of thought to over the years.  Very early, I was exposed to the myth of pastoral invulnerability–the idea that since I am a pastor, I have such a strong connection with God that I don’t need a pastor.  My strong, deeply rooted faith and my powerful connection with God keep protect me and shelter me and take away the need for the kind of pastoral support I provide for others.  Mostly, pastors who believe in this myth don’t talk about it–or much of anything personal for that matter.  They just continue along, doing God’s work until they crash and burn, something that is always painful for them and the church.

I actually believed the myth–for something like 3.5 minutes.  My own growing awareness of my weaknesses and witnessing the depressingly regular crash of “strong” pastors very quickly showed me the folly of that particular myth.  And so even though I tend to be a fairly self-contained individual who has learned to handle a lot of things on my own, I am aware of my own need to outside help and welcome it.

All through my ministry, I have has people who were willing to be my pastor–of course, since I have pretty much always been a pastor myself, none of them were officially my pastor and in true church fashion, most of them never got paid for being my pastor.  But they were and are there.

Early in my ministry preparation and career, I didn’t actually recognize these pastoral presences for what they really were.  I knew there were people there who were willing to talk with me, listen to me and support me whose presence I deeply appreciated and would occasionally seek out but it never really clicked with me that they were being my pastor.  At other times, there were people whose pastoral role I recognized–our denomination actually had staff people who were to be pastors to the pastors for a time.

I also had the tremendous blessing of marrying a pastor and we have provided mutual pastoral support for each other as part of our life together.  Our relationship is about much more than being a pastor to each other but that is a factor in our relationship.

These days, our denomination no longer has a pastor to pastors because of financial realities.  And many times, my advanced age puts me in the position of being a pastor to younger pastors in the same way other more senior pastors cared for me.  But my advanced age and extended career in ministry haven’t brought me to the place where I am the living embodiment of the strong and unshakable pastor who needs nothing but the Bible and a “season of prayer” to deal with anything and everything.

I still need a pastor, just like the people I am called to shepherd.  And so I find pastors.  Often, my first choice is my wife.  But I find others as well.  I let the congregations provide pastoral care–I have told congregations for years that I struggle with depression and many within the congregation will check on me and offer care and prayer when I need it.  Contrary to many pastoral theorists, being open to the pastoral care from the congregation makes my ministry with them stronger and more effective.

I also have people I meet with at irregular intervals and over coffee or lunch, we pastor each other.  Sometimes, we both know this is a mutual pastoral care event, sometimes one or the other recognizes it for what it is and occasionally, neither of us knows that pastoral care is happening as we drink our coffee.

God has provided pastors because we all need something sometime–and we pastors are no different from anyone else.  We may not have a pastor in the same way the people we shepherd have a pastor but God does provide us with pastors and those of us who are wise enough to see our needs take advantage of God’s provision.

May the peace of God be with you.

AM I DEPRESSED?

A few days ago, I was sitting in my work chair in the living room.  I was supposed to be writing one of the two sermons I have to produce each week.  I had done the research, I had a theme, the sermon was part of a series so I had some sense of where it was supposed to go–all I had to do was start writing and soon, I would have a sermon ready.  Except, that wasn’t happening.  I was struggling–not because of the topic, not because of interruptions, not because the computer was giving me trouble.  I just couldn’t get started and when I finally got started, the words didn’t want to come.

I finished the sermon finally and went on to other stuff until it was time to go see some people in the church.  Being an introvert, that is something I always struggle with a bit but that day, it was really hard to get motivated to go out and see people.  I went, I saw people and I actually enjoyed the contacts.

But on the way home, as I was thinking about it and had a scary thought.  I put my struggle with the sermon together with the increased difficulty going to see people and began to think, “I’m depressed”.  Depression is something I struggle with and the thought that it might be making another appearance bothered me a lot.

But as I began the process of dealing with the depression, I ran into further problems.  Normally, once I realize I am slipping into depression, I look for the trigger(s), whatever it is that started the process.  But try as I might, I couldn’t find any trigger.  Nor did I find all the normal stuff associated with my depression–for example, I was still listening to the car radio when I was driving.  When I am depressed, I just can’t do that–I have to drive in silence.

So, I wondered some more–was I slipping into some new, unknown expression of depression that was growing out of some deeply repressed stuff that would send me into a long and difficult bout of depression and struggle and all the rest?  I don’t like the depression process that I have dealt with too often in my life and so tend to be somewhat anxious about everything connected with depression.  Not being able to get a quick hold on it was depressing me.

As I worked through the stuff, I realized that what I was experiencing might not be depression.  It also wasn’t likely some other form of emotional upheaval either.  There was nothing major percolating up from the depths and the surface stuff wasn’t all that much of a problem, except for the fact that there was a whole lot of it and my personal time was getting lost.

I was missing exercise time; I was having less personal time, I was spending much more time in intense contact with people, I was putting in too many hours at both my jobs.  I looked at the whole picture and realized that in the end, I was tired, not depressed.   I do realize that physical fatigue can and does lead to serious stuff and in my case, prolonged physical fatigue can indeed lead to depression but what I was (and am) dealing with here was tiredness, not depression.

I can deal with that–probably not right now  but eventually.  I am tired because a variety of things have come together requiring a lot more work than normal.  There is a slow down coming–that isn’t the workaholic’s “someday” dream but rather is a basic reality.  A lot of the stuff keeping me so busy will soon be done and churches simply don’t do all that much in the summer.  In the meantime, I can do a few things, like allow myself to take longer to write sermons (and blog posts), exercise when I can, take a nap now and then, watch a TV show, plan and take some vacation time or just enjoy sitting and doing not much of anything.

I am tired and not depressed.  I do need to take the fatigue seriously but fatigue is much less painful for me than depression.   While I might not be overly thankful for being tired, I am deeply thankful that it isn’t depression and even more thankful that I can tell the difference.

May the peace of God be with you.

FOR BETTER–OR WORSE

As a pastor, I am called upon to do a lot of weddings.  While marriage may not be as popular as it once was, there are still enough people who want to get married and who want to have the ceremony in a church with a real minister that I am quite familiar with the wedding process.  In all of the available ceremony booklets that I know of, part of the commitment the couple makes to each other is a commitment to be there for each other in both the good and bad time–often expressed with the phrases such as , “in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse”.

These marriage commitments also provide a good basis for Christian community.  Real community forms around a willingness to accept people as they are–for better or worse.  From the perspective of a person entering the community, this means they need to be willing to offer the community their best and their worst, their strength and their weakness.

In the last post we looked at the difficulties of offering our best to the community.  And as hard as that can be, it is made easy when we compare it to the difficulty of offering the community our weakness.  We generally don’t want to deal with our weakness ourselves, let alone offer it to a group of people.

I am a pastor and so I enter a Christian community with certain expectations–some that I have and some that the community has.  Often, the expectations involve the pastor having it all together–or at least being able to appear to have it all together.  I expect to offer the community my gifts, my wisdom, my insight–my strengths.  I used to expect that I was supposed to act as if I didn’t have weaknesses or needs–my job was to be the pastor, the one to help the rest of the congregation deal with their needs.

Good Christians don’t have needs.  Their faith is strong and effective; their prayers are all they need for any less than perfect area of life; they are to make a net positive contribution to the community.  Good Christians have no fear of offering their best to the community and the community gratefully accepts it.

But none of us, not even we who are pastors, has only good and positive.  And to be the real, honest, effective Christian community that God has in mind for the church, we need to be willing to include our weaknesses in the offering of ourselves to the community.  And for many of us that is really hard.

I can remember as a beginning pastor believing that I could and should do anything that the church needed to have done:  preaching, teaching, visiting, counselling, painting the building, solving all problems, singing in the choir, doing evangelism–I was the pastor.  I worked with church people who were equally positive and hard working.  None of us struggled with depression; none of us were dealing with family issues; none of us were grieving some loss; none of us had problems.  In fact, the rare times when one of us admitted a problem, all of us were shocked and deeply concerned, feeling that perhaps that person was losing their faith.

But as I continued in ministry, I began to admit the truth.  I wasn’t perfect and neither were the deacons, the choir, the trustees, the laity in the pews.  We all had something contribute–but we also all needed something.  And as I began to recognize and accept and speak my limits and needs, I began to discover that far from being an outcast, I was helping a real community develop.  I might not be able to sing–but there were people who could.  I might not be able to avoid bouts of depression–but there were people who would pray for me when I was depressed and even more, who would still listen  to my sermons and my teaching.  In fact, they listened even more because my willingness to share my needs allowed them to offer their help–and between us, we developed a stronger community.

The Christian community needs my strengths–but I need the strengths of the Christian community.  Offering the community both my strengths and weaknesses allows all of us to grow and develop and become the believers and the community that God has in mind.

May the peace of God be with you.

CONFESS IT–OUT LOUD

While I am not a professional therapist, I am a pastoral counsellor and have some experience with emotional and psychological issues that all of us deal with.  My experience has come both from the people I work with and from my own personal issues. And based on that experience, I would suggest that one of the most effective ways of dealing with most issues, after we have recognized and accepted the reality of it, is to confess it, out loud.

One of the most common ways I at least have tried to deal with stuff is by keeping it inside my head, trying to figure out some way to take care of whatever it going on.  Unfortunately, this internal process really makes things worse because in the end, all I am really doing is spinning my mental tires on the stuff that it getting me stuck.  Whatever the issue, I keep seeing it in the same way and in the same light, following the same ineffective mental paths time after time–and no matter how many times I roll things around in my head, I can’t see anything different.  Things get worse instead of better.

I have to get out of my head–and the way to do that is to confess openly what I am going through.  If I am down, I admit to being down.  If I am tense, I admit to being tense.  If I am suicidal, I admit to being suicidal.  To avoid confusion, let me state that I am not stating in any way that what I am confessing is sin or wrong.  I am using the word confession to describe the process of honestly and openly describing what is going on inside my head that is causing me trouble.

For me, there are several good places to confess what it going on.    First, because I believe in God through Jesus, I confess to God.  This confession is different from praying for help and healing.  I do that–but before I do that, I let God know that I am feeling whatever and it is affecting me in certain ways.  I know that God already knows that–he knew it before I was even willing to recognize it.  But I still need to confess it to him.  This confession creates an honesty that is based on having everything out in the open.  Both God and I now know what is there and we can both look at it openly and honestly.

I also confess to other people.  It is probably not a good idea to confess everything to everyone but in truth, open and honest confession is generally the best policy.  The first person to hear my confession is my wife.  I have and will continue to confess various struggles to people within the congregation, such as Bible study groups and even occasionally in sermons.  If things get bad enough, I am willing to confess to a professional therapist, someone with the necessary training and expertise to help me.

The idea behind the confession is to get out of my head.  Rolling things around in my head doesn’t get anywhere after a certain point and even begins to make things worse.  Confession as presented here externalizes things so that I can see them from a different perspective.  Whether it is to God, my wife, the Bible study group or a therapist, the new viewpoint enables me to process in different ways.  Often, I don’t even need advice from the other person–just saying things out loud to a caring listener allows me to see and understand and deal with things differently.

Do I worry about what people will think of me?  Well, honestly, I have never been too concerned about that.  If my Bible study group or my congregation are upset with the fact that I sometimes get depressed, that is something they will need to deal with.  Mostly, though, the responses I have received to my confessions is concern, support and lots of prayer.  I have also found that my confession encourages others to make their own confession.

So, in the end, if January is dark, dreary and cold and I end up depressed, I am going to accept that reality and confess it.  Likely, the feeling will go away when I manage to get out skiing but if it doesn’t, I know how to handle it.

May the peace of God be with you.

DARK, DREARY AND COLD

            Let me begin with a confession:  I like winter.  I love snow and I like cold weather.  A winter blizzard is a real treat for me.  And I don’t just enjoy winter through the window while sitting in a comfortable chair in a warm living room while enjoying coffee or hot chocolate (or a cup of both combined).  I do enjoy that but I also enjoy being outside in the storm.  While I don’t really want to drive in the blizzard, I am not opposed to cross-country skiing or show shoeing in it.  I even like shovelling snow, in moderation anyway.  I am aware that many people I associate with on a regular basis, including the majority of people who form the congregations I have been called to pastor think I am a lot strange because of that but that is really their problem, not mine–I am very comfortable in my minority position.

But as much as I like winter, I am aware that behind the banter and joking that I do with the congregations, there is a deeper and more painful reality.  Winter in Nova Scotia puts some serious and significant limitations on lives.  There are the obvious ones:  difficulty travelling, disruptions and closures because of storms, dangers coming from walking on ice and snow, the issue of cold and darkness caused by power failures and so on.

But there are also some significant psychological emotional issues that many people face.  The restrictions often mean that people don’t get out all that much and that isolation creates havoc with our needs to be social.  The lack of sunlight because of shorter days and increased cloud cover is depressing, causing things like Seasonal Affective Disorder and so on.  Some people also develop a fear associated with winter and its difficulties, expressed in comments and questions like, “What if I get sick in a blizzard–how will I get help?”

A lot of the feelings and difficulties associated with winter get worse in January.  We enter January tired from the Christmas rush and stress.  January means the party is over and we have to get back to normal, although the normal is often negatively affected by the weather, or our perceptions of the weather.  The post-Christmas let down coupled with the winter darkness and travel restrictions provide the perfect breeding ground for depression, anxiety, and interpersonal tensions.

Now, because I like winter, I am not as prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder–if I am going to get depressed, it won’t be because of snow.  Lack of snow in January might do it but normally, my depression is tied to my perceptions of what is going on in my life.  But because I know depression from personal experience, I have a lot of empathy for those who get down in winter.

While many believe an early spring is the best cure for the mid-winter blahs and a trip to somewhere warm and sunny is a good temporary fix, there are other ways to deal with the issues that many people struggle with at this time of the year–or six months from now south of the equator.

The first step, as with any issue, it to accept the fact that it is happening and it is happening to us.  Often, we like to pretend that we are find.  We aren’t fine, we don’t feel fine, everyone else can see we aren’t fine–but we still pretend.  Denial might seem like an effective coping mechanism but in the end, it really only postpones the inevitable need to actually deal with whatever is going on.

So, we begin by accepting that we are depressed or tense or worried or angry or whatever we are feeling because of the mid-winter winteriness that surrounds us.  We admit that we are fed up with snow (that statement sounds seriously messed up to me personally), with not being able to do what we want to do, with feeling on edge worrying about the weather–whatever is there, we get it out in the open first for ourselves and then for others.

This honesty is different from whining about the weather, something that is almost guaranteed to increase social isolation.  This honesty is based on being willing to admit that we are  not right and that there are things we can’t control that contribute to the not rightness.  For some, this admission might itself be enough to start turning things around.  Self-honesty is as much a tonic to the soul as cross-country skiing in a blizzard can be to me.

May the peace of God be with you.