Clergy Wellness at One Year
It is Lent now, with Easter just a few weeks away. The liturgical rhythms of the church year help us to mark time in meaningful ways, drawing us into the whole arc of the narrative of God’s redemptive work in the world. This year, though, the arrival of Lent reminds me of more than Jesus’ 40-day solitary journey in the wilderness. It also reminds me that we are a full year into our own solitary journeys of social distancing, cancelled plans, and closed buildings.
A year ago, on a Friday afternoon, the dog and I waited for my kids at the bus stop. My phone dinged and I glanced down. The bus arrived. With one eye on the kids and one on the screen, I read a text from the school’s alert system: Schools would be closed for the next two weeks. Teachers would be in touch. Watch your email for updates. (It seemed inconceivable, then. Who could have guessed that a year later, they are still home?)
A year ago, the Conference Staff was putting the final touches on Commit 2020, our annual confirmation programming for youth. We prepared for hundreds of students to pour into the Conference Center on weekends in March and April, eager (and sometimes not-so-eager) to meet the Bishop. We would teach about the “deep dive” of discipleship. We ordered Swedish fish – SO MANY SWEDISH FISH – to give in the swag bags. We never gave out the bags. (But we have stress-eaten so many of those sticky red fish!)
A year ago, churches journeyed through Lent toward an Easter celebration that we would mark in parking lots and living rooms rather than our usual packed pews. Pastors ordered palms for Palm Sunday processionals that, it turned out, children would march around dining room tables. Choirs rehearsed Easter cantatas they would not be able to sing except through headphones and computer screens.
In her book Invitation to Retreat, Ruth Haley Barton describes two types of tired that Christian leaders (and all people) experience. There’s a good tired we feel after intense activity. Good tired calls for a full night’s sleep, looks forward to Sabbath rest, and needs an occasional vacation to renew. Good tired reminds us of our limits and calls us to live faithfully within them. Good tired tells us we are human.
Sometimes, though, the demands of life or our own striving take us beyond good tired. Sometimes, we reach the point of dangerous tired. Dangerous tired accumulates over time, when healthy rhythms are consistently disrupted or ignored. Dangerous tired accelerates when we must operate outside of our giftedness or skillset for long periods of time. Dangerous tired grows when we feel out of control of our own lives.
Undoubtedly, as we pass the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are dangerously tired.
We don’t need statistics to tell us what we know deep down is true, but statistics do bear it out. In May 2020, Barna Research reported that 51% of surveyed clergy acknowledged being “tired” and 41% described themselves as “exhausted.” That’s 92% of clergy naming their weariness. Further, almost 70% said they felt consistently overwhelmed (https://www.barna.com/research/covid-19-pastor-emotions/). In the 10 months since that survey was taken, it is hard to imagine those numbers going anywhere but up.
What we generally imagined last winter to be a short-term crisis has turned into a complex, lengthy season of upheaval and disruption, with the light at the end of the tunnel still barely visible in the distance. This is not the sort of acute weariness that will feel better after a trip to the beach (much as we may long for that). Our exhaustion won’t go away with a nap or a day off – important as those things may be. Self-care won’t fix it.
What Are We to Do?
What, then, do we do when we find that deep in our souls we feel chronically, dangerously tired? Here are a few suggestions that have helped me in my tiredness. Maybe they will be a help to you too.
Embrace what is. Ground in our bodies, our senses, the earth.
My son lives with anxiety, and therefore, our whole family does. It is exhausting. Much of the accumulated exhaustion of this year, I think, comes from a constant sense of anxiety that has enveloped us all. I have learned over the years that one of the most important things we can do amidst anxiety is to care for our bodies. It is easy for our minds to run away with “what if?” and “what about…” concerns. Consciously, intentionally focusing on our physical senses helps us to accept and respond to reality without getting caught up in the things that are out of our control. What do I see, right now? What do I feel, in this moment? What do I taste, or hear, or smell? Those things ground us. The senses draw us back to God’s provision for us right here in this moment.
Like Elijah in 1 Kings 19, sometimes we need to escape the demands of everyday life and just collapse under a bush (or maybe in a hammock!). In 1 Kings, the Lord’s messenger sees Elijah and responds simply: by giving him something to eat, and putting him back to sleep. As the saying goes, God knew what Elijah needed: a snack and a nap! Sometimes we need the same. Caring for our body in healthy ways – with healthy food and plenty of water; with movement that helps us work out the adrenaline that builds up in us over time; and with rest, both through time spent in nature and through deep sleep. Sometimes – like Elijah - we are only able to hear what God is saying to us after we care for our body.
While rest and a snack are an important starting point, they are not enough to address our dangerous levels of exhaustion. It is not enough to rest and then return to the same rhythms and routines that we were keeping before. Pete Scazzero, author of the book Emotionally Health Spirituality,
wrote in a recent blog post, “Limits create space. You need time to grieve, you need time to listen to God, you need time to feel, you need time to have fun.” Limits, Scazzero says, remind us that “you’re a human being. You are not God.” (https://www.barna.com/research/pete-scazzero-rhythms-crisis/
A year after our world shut down, it is beginning to open back up again. The temptation for all of us will be to return to the same pace of ministry and life that we kept before. If we do that, however, we will not allow ourselves time to recover from all that this year has required of us. It will be important, as we begin to re-engage with in-person ministry, to set limits for ourselves and others. We may need to move more slowly for a season, to allow ourselves more margin in our schedule and more white space on our calendars. This time is necessary to allow ourselves to reflect on what has changed; to grieve what has been lost; to feel all that we have experienced; and to listen carefully for what God is saying to us in a new season of life. All of this requires that we set limits, and honor boundaries.
Seek and accept help.
Clergy are trained and equipped to serve others. When we are dangerously tired, though, we must learn a new skill: that of seeking and accepting help for ourselves. Too often, this can feel selfish or awkward – yet it is exactly what we need to do if we are to continue helping others.
There are many sources of help, from the neighbor who offers a meal to colleagues who offer to record a sermon. In this season, we may need to make it a spiritual discipline of sorts to say yes whenever help is offered, even if we think we don’t need it. Receiving with gratitude frees us to rest well.
In addition, we may need to seek professional help. These are sources I’ve found to be important in my life during different seasons:
- Counseling. If you or anyone in your household needs help finding a counselor or mental health therapist, I would recommend beginning with the Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) available through our UPMC Health Plan. It is called WorkPartners Life Solutions. You can learn more by clicking the Workpartners EAP Overview link at wpaumc.org/ActiveHealthcare
- Spiritual Direction. A spiritual director is a trained, certified companion who listens with you for God’s voice, and helps you notice God at work around you. As clergy who are often helping others notice God, spiritual direction is an important practice in my life that helps me stay focused on my own relationship with God. You can find a spiritual director through Spiritual Directors International (https://www.sdicompanions.org) or through word of mouth and recommendations of others.
- Coaching. A clergy coach is a person trained to listen well, ask thoughtful questions, and assist you in decision making and prioritizing your work. Coaches may attend to all aspects of your life – relational, ministry, and personal – but are usually focused on helping you set and reach goals in a particular area(s). A coach could be especially helpful now in helping you sort out priorities, evaluate options, and make decisions regarding ministry plans and programming. You may request peer coaching at no charge from WPAUMC colleagues at wpaumc.org/coaching-on-demand or seek a coaching contract for a longer-term coaching relationship.
A year ago, everything seemed to change, but for one: God was still with us. Today, God is with us. A year from now, God will be with us. May we walk with God through the changes and rest in God amidst the exhaustion. Because, as Nadia Bolz-Weber says in this prayer, we are not who we were a year ago – but we are still and always the “we” and the “me” that God knows and God loves.
Dear God who made us all,
A year ago we did not know that we were about to learn:
What we could lose and somehow live anyway;
What we could lose and somehow live anyway;
Where we would find comfort and where it would elude us;
Whose lives matter to whom;
Why we have kitchens in our homes.
In mid-March 2020 all I knew for sure is that
Hoarding toilet paper doesn’t make you safe – It just makes you selfish.
But God, it feels like the world is about to open back up.
And I’m both thrilled and kind of scared about that.
Because I’m not who I was a year ago.
I want so badly
To hug my friends again
And laugh like hell again
And have amazing conversations again
And yet I am not sure how long I could do any of this before crying or just getting really quiet.
My emotional protective gear has worn so thin, and grief just leaks out everywhere now.
I am so afraid that I will never be who I once was.
And I am also afraid that I will be.
(Not to mention, I’m not entirely clear what size jeans I wear as the me I am now.)
And yet, when I quiet my anxious thoughts, I start to suspect that I am now closer to the me
you have always known and always loved.
So help me trust that, Lord.
As things change, help us be gentle with ourselves and with each other.
We are all wearing newborn skin right now.