Some Recent Watering Holes


Brenda L. Croft, ‘shut/mouth/scream’ (detail), 2016. Source


I haven’t posted one of these for a while. Here are a number of pages I’ve appreciated visiting this past week or so:

And this:

Depression and the Gift of Christian Community

depressionA minister reflects on her living with the black dog, and on the gift that the Christian community can, at its best, be:

Depression causes a variety of bizarre symptoms … But the most horrible symptom of depression that I experience is my feeling that I am useless and worthless and that the people who love me would be better off without me. When I’m well I know how ludicrous that is, but when I’m sick it feels absolutely plausible … Worst of all for me is that when I’m depressed I cannot believe that God loves me, I can’t sense God’s presence, and I can’t pray. That for me is the biggest difference between depression and grief … In the midst of depression it feels as though I am alone.

This is when I need the Christian community most. When I can’t pray, I desperately need to know that other people are praying for me. When there’s a God-shaped hole in my life, I need the faith of the church to fill it. When I’m well I love casual, friendly, informal worship services in which we all get to chat to each other and to God, but when I’m sick I can’t worship like that. In the first month of sick leave I went to a Uniting Church that used a very formal liturgy because at that worship it didn’t matter how I felt. What mattered was what the whole church believed. All I needed to do was listen and recite words that Christians have been using for centuries. When I repeated the Apostles’ Creed with the rest of the congregation it didn’t matter that those weren’t my words. I was held by the belief of Christians throughout all of space and time who have said those words. When all I could sense was the absence of God, I had to rely on the church telling me that God was still present even when I felt alone.

Today is World Mental Health Day.

An introduction to the poetry of Don Walls

The best gifts are those which are entirely unexpected. A few weeks ago now, at a folk club night, a warm-hearted cider-drinking lady named Dorothy introduced me to the work of the Yorkshire poet Don Walls. In fact, the evening opened with a reading of Walls’ delightful poem ‘Fibs’. Struck, I asked Dorothy if I might borrow her copy of Walls’ book, and she was kind enough to oblige. So in between the twang of banjos, friendly conversation with the amazingly-talented Lynn Vare, and downing my pint of Dunedin’s finest pilsner, I spent the night flicking through a small collection of poems gathered loosely around the theme of the garden shed. [You can watch/listen to Walls reading a number of offerings from this collection here.] A number of poems immediately resonated with me – ‘The Lament of the Door Knob’, ‘Doodling’, ‘Chocolate Cake, Fishing and the Germans’ and ‘When I Retire’ among them. But there was one poem in particular that seemed to so fill my mouth with black-dogged words I’ve ached to speak that I felt like Walls had stolen it from me. The poem is entitled ‘Manic Depression’. I thought I’d share it here:

I keep my manic depression in the garden shed.
You never know what mood he’s in.
Sometimes in darkness he lingers for days,
so you grab him by the scruff of the neck and drag him out,
bawl at him, give him little tasks like cutting the grass,
but he slouches round the garden lawn
and so you try another tack:
hold a rose under his nose
or your head on one side at the recital in the hawthorn tree
– blackbird, thrush, but to no avail.
And then, one morning you open the door and he rushes out,
praises daisies, rolls in the grass
and from his head a thousand thoughts all fledging at once,
writes poems all night, paints,
and marvels how yesterday’s tetchy birds sing today like nightingales.
And then the mists, and his mood dies back like greenness in Autumn
and dark winds whirl round the garden shed.

So thank you Dorothy. And thank you Mr Walls.

‘The Sickness Unto Death’, by Anne Sexton

God went out of me
as if the sea dried up like sandpaper,
as if the sun became a latrine.
God went out of my fingers.
They became stone.
My body became a side of mutton
and despair roamed the slaughterhouse.

Someone brought me oranges in my despair
but I could not eat a one
for God was in that orange.
I could not touch what did not belong to me.
The priest came,
he said God was even in Hitler.
I did not believe him
for if God were in Hitler
then God would be in me.
I did not hear the bird sounds.
They had left.
I did not see the speechless clouds,
I saw only the little white dish of my faith
breaking in the crater.
I kept saying:
I’ve got to have something to hold on to.
People gave me Bibles, crucifixes,
a yellow daisy,
but I could not touch them,
I who was a house full of bowel movement,
I who was a defaced altar,
I who wanted to crawl toward God
could not move nor eat bread.

So I ate myself,
bite by bite,
and the tears washed me,
wave after cowardly wave,
swallowing canker after canker
and Jesus stood over me looking down
and He laughed to find me gone,
and put His mouth to mine
and gave me His air.

My kindred, my brother, I said
and gave the yellow daisy
to the crazy woman in the next bed.

– Anne Sexton, ‘The Sickness Unto Death’, in The Complete Poems (New York: Mariner Books, 1981), 441–42.

On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part I

‘The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.

As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy’. – G. Jeffrey MacDonald, ‘Congregations Gone Wild’.

As one charged with both a responsibility for the training and supervision of pastors, and who has himself crashed – and watched many colleagues crash – against the rocks of burnout and depression, this is a topic of particular interest to me. To be sure, I am no expert on these issues, but I thought that I might use this forum to do some tentative thinking out loud about this topic over coming months. [Recent weeks have seen some attention in the media and around blogdom given to the matter of clergy burnout: see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. This is, of course, no new news to clergy, though others seems to be interested.]

As sobering as much of the reading and statistics are, on their own they are more paralysing than aiding. Still, they do point to part of the story, and so are worth recalling. So, for example, consider the conclusions found in the USA and published recently by Pastoral Care Inc., namely that:

  • 90% of the pastors report working between 55 to 75 hours per week.
  • 80% believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families. Many pastor’s children do not attend church now because of what the church has done to their parents.
  • 95% of pastors do not regularly pray with their spouses.
  • 33% state that being in the ministry is an outright hazard to their family.
  • 75% report significant stress-related crisis at least once in their ministry.
  • 90% feel they are inadequately trained to cope with the ministry demands.
  • 80% of pastors and 84% of their spouses feel unqualified and discouraged as role of pastors.
  • 90% of pastors said the ministry was completely different than what they thought it would be like before they entered the ministry.
  • 50% feel unable to meet the demands of the job.
  • 70% of pastors constantly fight depression.
  • 70% say they have a lower self-image now than when they first started.
  • 70% do not have someone they consider a close friend.
  • 40% report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.
  • 33% confess having involved in inappropriate sexual behavior with someone in the church.
  • 50% of pastors feel so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
  • 70% of pastors feel grossly underpaid.
  • 50% of the ministers starting out will not last 5 years.
  • 10% of ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.
  • 94% of clergy families feel the pressures of the pastor’s ministry.
  • 80% of spouses feel the pastor is overworked.
  • 80% spouses feel left out and underappreciated by church members.
  • 80% of pastors’ spouses wish their spouse would choose a different profession.
  • 66% of church members expect a minister and family to live at a higher moral standard than themselves.
  • The profession of ‘Pastor’ is near the bottom of a survey of the most-respected professions, just above ‘car salesman’.
  • 4,000 new churches begin each year and 7,000 churches close.
  • Over 1,700 pastors left the ministry every month last year.
  • Over 1,300 pastors were terminated by the local church each month, many without cause.
  • Over 3,500 people a day left the church last year.
  • Many denominations report an “empty pulpit crisis”. They cannot find ministers willing to fill positions.

And the #1 reason listed in that survey for why pastors leave the ministry was that ‘Church people are not willing to go the same direction and goal of the pastor. Pastor’s believe God wants them to go in one direction but the people are not willing to follow or change’. Perhaps this reflects MacDonald’s statement above.

[NB: Pastoral Care Inc. attribute these figures to research carried out by themselves, by The Fuller Institute and by George Barna. Mick Crowl has rightly, to my mind, flagged some concern about the accuracy of these statistics. Still, their general tone is confirmed in other findings.]

And Anne Jackson, in her recently published Mad Church Disease: Overcoming the Burnout Epidemic (pp. 48–9), lists the following (sobering) figures on (US) clergy health:

  • 71 percent of all ministers admitted to being overweight by an average of 32.1 pounds [14.59 kg]. One-third of all ministers were overweight by at least 25 pounds [11.36 kg], including 15 percent who were overweight by 50 pounds [22.73 kg] or more.
  • Two-thirds of all pastors skip a meal at least one day a week, and 39 percent skip meals three or more days a week.
  • 83 percent eat food once a week that they know they know they shouldn’t because it is unhealthy, including 41 percent who do this three or more days a week.
  • 88 percent eat fast food at least one day a week, and 33 percent eat fast food three or more days a week.
  • 50 percent get the recommended minimum amount of exercise (30 minutes per day, three times a week); 28 percent don’t exercise at all.
  • Four out of ten ministers (approximately 39 percent) reported digestive problems once a week, with 14 percent having chronic digestive problems (three days per week).
  • 87 percent don’t get enough sleep at least once a week, with almost half (47 percent) getting less sleep than they need at least three nights a week. Only 16 percent regularly get the recommendation of eight hours or more per night.
  • 52 percent experience physical symptoms of stress at least once a week, and nearly one out of four experiences physical symptoms three or more times a week.

I am not interested here to engage with the details of these statistics. To be sure, they indicate important and painful realties for many pastors, their partners and their children. I am interested here, however, in thinking more generally about this prevalent reality, and to exploring some theological and other resources that witness to more life-giving ways for pastors … and for the rest of us.


Other posts in this series:

Pastoral Ministry: Enter at Risk

hazardousA quick glance over to the bookshelf beyond my desk, four titles catch my eye:

These titles remind me – as if I needed reminding – that the journey into pastoral ministry ought to be impossible without regularly passing a sign that reads: ‘BEWARE: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING A DANGROUS AREA’, or ‘ ENTER AT RISK’, or ‘HAZARDOUS FOR HEALTH’, or ‘SPEEDING KILLS: SLOW DOWN’, or ‘SLIPPERY WHEN WET’.

One such sign appears in the latest edition of the Presbyterian Record (a monthly from the Presbyterian Church of Canada) and its cover story by Sandra Moll and Kristine O’Brien entitled ‘Breaking the Silence: The mental health of our clergy’. Also, a 2003 study undertaken by The Centre for Clergy Care and Congregational Health was recently brought to my attention. The study, ‘Clergy Well-Being: Seeking Wholeness with Integrity’, examined responses from 338 clergy from the six major protestant denominations in Ontario: United, Anglican, Presbyterian, Evangelical Lutheran, the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec, and the Pentecostal Assemblies.

stress1And the results are in:

* Ministers worked an average of 50 hours per week, but over 25 per cent worked in excess of 55 hours each week.

* In a 30-day period, almost 40 per cent of ministers took three or fewer days off.

* 80 per cent felt guilty if people saw them taking time off during the week.

* 78 per cent felt their position as a minister demanded perfection.

* 51 per cent indicated that they had suffered physically from stress-induced problems.

* 67 per cent said they sometimes projected job frustrations onto their families.

* 38 per cent sought the aid of a clinical councillor;

* 21 per cent a psychologist;

* 15 per cent a psychiatrist;

* 45 per cent the advice of a family doctor regarding stress and anxiety issues.

* 20 per cent had been diagnosed with an emotional condition;

* When asked to specify the condition, 16 per cent named depression.

* 62 per cent said they sometimes appeared outwardly happy while they were in emotional distress.

* 75 per cent were afraid to let their parishioners know how they really felt.

* Close to 49 per cent of ministers identified two or fewer close friends in their church or community.

* 60 per cent said evenings with friends usually involved ‘church talk.’

* 55 per cent indicated that they sometimes feel very lonely.

* stress-1181 per cent experienced a situation in which they required personal pastoral care in the past five years.

* Only 71 per cent sought and received such care.

* 40 per cent of ministers indicated that they had someone who was their personal pastor, but only 16 per cent indicated that they had a spiritual director.

* 80 per cent were sometimes jealous of the success of other ministers.

* 83 per cent believed ministry was a calling from God and the church. [How this informs/deforms one’s doctrine of God is significant in itself]

* 91 per cent agreed that being a minister felt more like a job than a calling.

* 77 per cent felt more like CEOs than pastors.

* 83 per cent felt their churches wanted a CEO, not a pastor.

* 94 per cent said they read Scripture for sermon preparation, but it rarely spoke to them personally.

* 86 per cent prayed regularly with others but had little time for personal prayer.

* 71 per cent did not feel spiritually affected while leading worship.

* 89 per cent sometimes felt like they were simply going through a ritual when they led worship.

* 70 per cent felt unfulfilled in ministry.

* 33 per cent had considered leaving their denomination.

* 60 per cent indicated that they had at some time considered leaving ministry.

stress-31All this caused me to pause and pray for those families in pastoral ministry (particularly my students), and then to recall words penned long ago by one who though he lived in an age when the shape of pastoral ministry was significantly different from our own, also knew the burden, demands and cost of ministry:

‘There are churches that seem to live in an atmosphere of affable bustle, where all is heart and nothing is soul, where men decay and worship dies. There is an activity which is an index of more vigour than faith, more haste than speed, more work than power. It is sometimes more inspired by the business passion of efficiency than the Christian passion of fidelity or adoration. Its aim is to make the concern go rather than to compass the Righteousness of God. We want to advance faster than faith can, faster than is compatible with the moral genius of the Cross, and the law of its permanent progress. We occupy more than we can hold. If we take in new ground we have to resort to such devices to accomplish it that the tone of religion suffers and the love or care for Christian truth. And the preacher, as he is often the chief of sinners in this respect, is also the chief of sufferers. And so we may lose more in spiritual quality than we gain in Church extension. In God’s name we may thwart God’s will. Faith, ceasing to be communion, becomes mere occupation, and the Church a scene of beneficent bustle, from which the Spirit flees. Religious progress outruns moral, and thus it ceases to be spiritual in the Christian sense, in any but a vague pious sense. Before long the going power flags, the petrol gives out on a desert’. – PT Forsyth, The Preaching of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ (Blackwood: New Creation Publications, 1987 (1915)), 119.

Tomorrow, I’ll post Forsyth’s wee essay, ‘How To Help Your Minister’. Until then, check out this short piece and long blibliography.

Kierkegaard on the Church’s freedom , and the faithfulness of depression

‘If the Church is “free” from the state, it’s all good. I can immediately fit in this situation. But if the Church is to be emancipated, then I must ask: By what means, in what way? A religious movement must be served religiously – otherwise it is a sham! Consequently, the emancipation must come about through martyrdom – bloody or bloodless. The price of purchase is the spiritual attitude. But those who wish to emancipate the Church by secular and worldly means (i.e. no martyrdom), they’ve introduced a conception of tolerance entirely consonant with that of the entire world, where tolerance equals indifference, and that is the most terrible offence against Christianity … [T]he doctrine of the established Church, its organization, are both very good indeed. Oh, but then our lives: believe me, they are indeed wretched’. – Søren Kierkegaard, Journals (January 1851)

‘In addition to my other numerous acquaintances, I have one more intimate confidant. My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known – no wonder, then, that I return the love’. – Søren Kierkegaard