PROFESSIONAL ANXIETY

I realized recently that there is a serious source of anxiety in my job. I am a pastor working with churches in an area where I have lived for around 40 years. Many of the people who form the congregations I serve are more than just parishioners—they are friends. The relationships go back many years and involve many shared experiences that have tied us together over the years. And because of the fact that I have been here so long, I know many in the communities who don’t attend our church—or any church—equally as well.

I had some inkling of the anxiety but tended to ignore it until this week. I had a call about a death—not an unusual call for a pastor in an area with one of the highest rates of over 65s in Canada. The call involved someone I knew, not a church member but with strong family connections in the church, someone I knew because of the family connections. Shortly after that call, I got another about another death. Again, this was a person I knew well, who had at one point been heavily involved in churches I pastored but who had moved and while still in the immediate area, wasn’t as much a part of any churches I pastor.

The anxiety developed as I realized that both these people were about my age, I knew them fairly well and in the end, while they were not parishioners, they were friends. My thinking process, always a bit overactive, very quickly began making lists of people in the same category: people I know who are like me getting on in years. Unlike me, some of them have developed some fairly significant health problems and we are all at the stage in life where the unexpected can pop up at any time.

For me, the anxiety develops because I realize that professionally and personally, when bad things happen, I am the person who is going to get called. Professionally, I am the pastor to a significant number of people, some of whom attend worship and some of whom don’t. Personally, I am the only pastor many people know—they don’t actually know me as their pastor but they know I am a pastor and that means they will call when life gets tough.

So, I do a lot of funerals for friends and family of friends. Doing funerals is a basic part of my job—it is so basic a part of the job that early in my ministry, I spent a lot of time looking at the death and funeral process so that I could do the best job possible. I like to think that when it comes to the grief and funeral process, I know what I am doing.

But there is a major difference doing what I do for someone I have known and liked and spent time with in a variety of ways over the years. I am grieving myself—maybe not as much as the family but I have still lost someone whose death is creating a dark hole in my life. My work and my life come together creating a difficult task—I need to use all my training and professional ability to help people process a death that I am also processing at the same time.

My anxiety isn’t about that, or at least, it isn’t primarily about that. I can do that—there is a certain amount of this cross over in every funeral. I have learned how to help people as a pastor and process my own grief at the same time in a way that enables both to happen. It hasn’t been and isn’t always easy but I can do it.

The anxiety comes from the fact that I realize I am facing a lot more of this cross over. People I have known for 40 years or more are not well. Some will get better. Some will remain chronic. And some will die. And I will get called in on many of these life realities. I don’t want to have to deal with this stuff. I especially don’t want to deal with it when it involves people I have known for so long and whose lives have been intertwined with mine in so many ways.

But that is my job and my calling and so I will deal with it—but I will depend on the presence and power of God in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

IT’S GONE

I had a conversation with a couple recently that ended with a discussion about the health of one of the family pets. It may have a serious illness and the conversation briefly touched on their worry and anxiety over what might happen and how they would deal with it. There are some who might find that conversation a bit pointless, suggesting that it is an animal, it happens, get over it.

While I am not personally an animal person, I am aware that this is a difficult and painful situation for many people. We human beings develop significant attachments with other people, animals and inanimate objects—and when those connections are threatened, damaged or broken, we are going to react. Whenever we are in danger of losing something to which we are attached, we are going to have a grief reaction.

Our reaction to losing someone or something from our lives isn’t something that we have a lot of control over. We might thing we can control it—but often the control takes the form of denial or repression. We pretend that we are not bothered by the loss. Some of us can pull off the pretence fairly well for a time but eventually, denial and repression are going to catch up with us and we will have to deal with the loss that we didn’t deal with when it happened.

I am thinking about loss a bit these days, partly because helping people deal with loss is a basic and essential part of a pastor’s job. I tell students that helping people deal with the grief connected with loss is probably the single biggest part of our jobs as pastors, especially when we remember that any loss produces some level of grief reaction.

So, when the couple mentioned their sick pet, I was professionally prepared. But I was also personally connected as well. For most of the past week and a half, I have been dealing with a loss myself. My laptop has a hard drive that is crashing. Now, before you think I am crazy or overly nerdy, remember that we get attached to things as well as people and losing the source of the attachment is going to produce a grief reaction.

I have had the laptop for six years and it has traveled across Canada with me, it has lived in Kenya with me, it connected me to the rest of the world and it allowed me to write stuff that I can actually read and understand the next day, something that my handwriting hasn’t allowed for many years.

I liked my laptop and was used to it and it was comfortable. It had its problems and scars and limitations—but it was mine and I did a lot of stuff with it. I will soon have a new laptop—the old, back up laptop from the bottom shelf of the TV cabinet is okay but it is ancient and heavy and may not last all that long. I am not looking forward to the process of setting up a new laptop with various programs and files and all the bits and pieces of my electronic life but I am sure that once I get that done, I will attach to the new laptop.

Our grief reactions are a very personal and private and subjective thing. They grow directly out of our attachment and connection with what we have lost or are losing—and we are the only ones that get to determine the level and severity of our reaction, or rather, we are the ones who have to deal with the level and severity of our reaction. The fact that I am not an animal person doesn’t mean that I can minimize the grief of someone losing a pet, any more than a conformed technology hater gets to minimize my grief over the dead laptop.

In the end, we all need to accept and recognize our losses by letting ourselves grieve as we need to. We also need to recognize the essential subjectivity of grief—a loss that we can completely ignore can and will affect others deeply. Even if we don’t agree with the level of their grief, we can provide support and compassion.

May the peace of God be with you.