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Clergy and stress: a time to rest

05 April 2019

What happens when the stress simply gets too much, asks Ted Harrison


ANDREW is the vicar of a busy, middle-England parish. Late one Saturday evening, he was sitting at his desk preparing for a busy Sunday. He recalls thinking: “I just can’t do this any more,” and leaving the house.

He walked though the night. The next morning, he found himself in a town seven miles away. “I spent Sunday wandering around the town. I remember looking for a church to sit in, but couldn’t find one open.” That afternoon, he went into a police station. He told the officers who he was, and he was taken to a hospital near by. “I was a psychiatric in-patient for the next three weeks.”

Not every breakdown is that dramatic and sudden. Nevertheless, the Revd Dr Gillian Straine describes being “taken by surprise” when she experienced serious depression, shortly after her husband had moved to a new parish. She was, at the time, expecting their second child, and had left behind friends and a church where she was an assistant curate.

“With the new parish, we hadn’t realised what we were walking into. There were a range of problems we had not expected. The pressure I felt was greater because, as the new Vicar’s wife, I was in the public eye.”

Dr Straine, who is now director of the Guild of Health and St Raphael, an organisation supporting the Christian healing ministry, recalls the symptoms. “I had no energy. I simply wanted to fall into unconsciousness. I fantasised about being dead — that it would be nice not to be here alive. I couldn’t see a way out. I experienced anxieties, especially about the children.”

THE charity Mind estimates that one person in four in the UK experiences a mental-health problem in any year. And, while the overall number of people with mental-health problems has not changed significantly in recent years, worries about things such as money, jobs, and benefits can make it harder for people to cope, and the numbers who self-harm or have suicidal thoughts is increasing, the charity notes.

The Christian writer Adrian Plass recalls the mental-health problems that he faced 30 years ago. He reached a level of tension and anxiety which continued to worsen, until it became almost unbearable. He says that his life “imploded”.

He describes what happened as entering “the tunnel at the end of the light. And I wouldn’t recommend the tunnel to anyone. Yet one can emerge into a brighter and clearer light. It was the beginning of a new life, a born-again experience.”

Christian writer Adrian Plass

Thirty years on, he finds others coming to him for advice. “People are often very disappointed with God, with the Church, with themselves. And when you poke down into the very heart of what’s going on in them, you find the same question: ‘Does God love me?’

“You can’t take the answer to that out of your pocket and give it to them. But you can love them. A lot of people need long-term love and support when they are in that situation. If you’re going to help someone, don’t look for an answer, look for them. Look for who they are, and what’s happening to them.”

The chaplaincy team leader at Sheffield Health and Social Care Trust, the Revd Sally Ross, has written guidelines for Sheffield diocese which suggest ways in which friends can help their fellow Christians through mental-health problems.

“Some people may be feeling very angry with God,” she says. “Reassure them that God doesn’t mind our anger, and that he understands the reasons for it. He knows and understands our pain and fear. Illness can lead to a distorted perception of God as harsh and judgemental. If we speak gently and kindly, we can embody the tender, merciful love of God.”

Sometimes, actions speak louder than words, she says. “Offering a shoulder to cry on, or allowing someone to weep with us, may be very healing. Praying with and for someone can bring comfort and reassurance. Practical support, such as going out for a walk or a coffee, or playing a game, may be less threatening than just conversation.”

Healing services in churches can also be powerful, she says, “helping someone to find a sense of wholeness and peace and providing a recognition that we are all in need of healing and grace”.

HOW many clergy have experienced breakdowns, or serious mental-health problems that might be described as such, is difficult to quantify. A study by St Luke’s Healthcare for the Clergy, in 2011, suggested that stress, anxiety, and more serious mental-health issues accounted for about one third of all clerical sickness. The Ministry Development Adviser for Durham diocese, Canon Alan Bartlett, says that, from his observations, that figure still holds true.

The symptoms for anyone, clergy or lay, can range from individual to individual. At St Luke’s, specialist help is offered in cases of eating disorders; self-harm; addiction to, for instance, alcohol or pornography; and well as breakdown and stress-related crisis.

“We recognise that ministers can easily become exhausted, that burnout can arise from the very offering of compassion,” says Dr Sarah Horsman, warden of the Devon-based community the Society of Mary and Martha, also known simply as Sheldon (Comment, 29 March). “We can have ‘plenty in the tank’, but fail to notice the wear and tear on the tyres.

“Ministry in the real world is more like a daily tug-of-war, or even a wrestling match between the apparent opposites. The seemingly endless attention to the needs of others competes with the need to be still and reflective. Like Martha, we need to be activists; like Mary, we need to be contemplative; and, like Lazarus, we need to know our own needs and limits. Lazarus cannot raise himself.”

The daily challenges of life, or of a parish, can be immense. Until 18 months ago, Canon Bartlett served a parish in a particularly deprived and demanding area of the north-east. “In my last three months in the parish, for example, I conducted the funerals of three young women: one died of a drugs overdose; one of alcohol addiction; and one of addiction to painkillers. Two left children behind; all three, devastated families.

picture by Keith BlundyCanon Alan Bartlett, the ministry development adviser for Durham diocese

“As the local vicar, I was also one of the very few professionals whose home was in the parish. The medics and the social workers and teachers almost all commuted in. Vicars live in their parishes. We frequently find people in need on our doorsteps. People know where the vicarage is — it’s a public building as well as a home.’

Twenty years ago, when working as a college lecturer, Canon Bartlett suffered a breakdown. “Two years into the job, and I just popped. I went through a period of deep depression and anxiety; a deep crisis of asking: ‘Where is God?’ and ‘Will I ever minister again?’” He had, he says, a very wise spiritual director, and received help, eventually, from the NHS.

Now, talking to and supporting clergy in Durham diocese, he describes how faith and mental health relate. “I hear two different approaches from clergy: a feeling that God has let them down, when they ask ‘Where is God when he’s needed?’; or, while personal trust in God holds up, there is a feeling that the Church has let them down: they don’t believe in the Church any more.”

Before his breakdown, Andrew (not his real name) knew that he was burning out. “I had a mountain of tasks stretching ahead of me. I had studied issues of mental health and faith, but I put a brave public face on things. I was self-aware, but couldn’t apply all that to myself.”

Rebuilding his life and his ministry after his breakdown began with three weeks in hospital, which gave him rest and space.

“Mine wasn’t a crisis of faith, but perhaps one of vocation, which I still haven’t resolved. I had been struggling with prayer, and, although I took services, I was finding personal prayer harder and harder. It was drying up. The time in hospital allowed me to pray the Offices properly again. Getting back into reading the cycle of the Psalms was like meeting old friends.”

THE problem of breakdown for people of faith is not uniquely Anglican, nor even uniquely Christian. But the psychiatrist Dr Russell Razzaque has suggested that psychological suffering can be a spiritual gateway. Drawing on traditions of Eastern spirituality, he says that mental illness, “to which every one of us is vulnerable”, can also be a form of spiritual awakening.

He advocates forms of treatment for mental illness inspired by Eastern approaches centred on practices such as mindfulness. These therapies go beyond just treating episodes of mental illness: they also help someone complete the process of spiritual growth which they have begun.

One priest I spoke to describes how, after her experience of breakdown, she found “support in silence and meditation, and discovering time and space for God in spiritual ways that are not specifically Christian”.

Dr Straine says that she never lost faith, and continued to believe in God, “but I had no relationship with him. I quickly lost worship. I felt dead. I believed in God as creator, but didn’t think anything could be changed by calling on God.”

The Revd Dr Gillian Straine

People who come to Sheldon have often “diagnosed themselves as having a spiritual problem. They feel God is not showing up,” Dr Horsman says. “But, first and foremost, they are exhausted — and it is normal and common for prayer life to dry up in such circumstances.

“Certainly, for some people, what they need is to take time without pressure. We say, ‘Don’t try to pray: you have done your bit just turning up at the retreat centre. Allow time to rest.’ It’s very common to see the spiritual connection spontaneously come back.”

It is quite normal for faith to change, she says, “sometimes radically, and losing the old can feel like a complete loss of faith, before something new takes its place.

“But, when you are a religious professional, the task is to honour the private inner journey while maintaining enough public stability. If the gap between the two is too large, for too long, then the dissonance can lead to a breakdown.”

RECOGNISING the pressures of modern ministry, St Luke’s now runs resilience workshops, which, to date, have been attended by 1500 clergy. They are aimed primarily at encouraging clergy to adopt healthier lifestyles and then to engage in ministry in a sustainable way, by offering ongoing support with self care and ministerial practice.

“Clergy are likely to share the increased levels of mental ill-health in society, and find their ministry affected by it,” the psychotherapist Jan Korris, who is the St Luke’s reflective-practice adviser, says.

St Luke’s also enables small groups of clergy to meet regularly in reflective-practice groups. “Clergy work in an anxious, survivalist-driven church, and, when personally experiencing mental-health problems, tend to wait too long before seeking help. They may face a sense of disappointment in themselves and their calling, and can experience an absence of God and an inability to pray. There is also a fear of the disapproval of others — congregation and Bishop — whether this is a reality or not.”

It is important, too, she believes, for ordinands to think about how they could continue to minister at times of mental ill-health, spiritual dryness — or even loss of faith. Coming face to face with the realities of ministry in the early days can lead to a “wobble in faith or sense of calling”.

Finding ways to recover from breakdown or burnout differs from person to person. But the caring support of friends and professionals plays a large part. Dr Straine recalls having a post-natal-health worker who “was good and caring. For two years, she phoned before Christmas and Easter, as she knew they would be specially difficult times for me. It was also very helpful to be really honest with my husband.”

She discovered one important therapy that helped her come through. “I took up running. The release of endorphins helped with mood.” She eventually completed a half marathon. ‘”That was healing and cathartic.”

Today, she looks back at a stage in her life which helped her to learn and develop. “I hope it has made me a better pastor. I now look after my mental health better, aware that we all have a mental-health landscape. I have changed a lot in the way I pray — less so in church, as I discover different opportunities for prayer.”

THE Revd Ian Whitehead’s big mistake, he acknowledges, was not taking a sabbatical from his parish responsibilities in Lichfield diocese when “my body and mind were shouting for a break. I kept going. Mental health can still be seen by many as a stigma, but it actually affects so many of us; so perhaps we need to talk about it more.”

Burton Mail/Derby telegraphThe Revd Ian Whitehead, who now works part-time as a woddturner

Since his own breakdown, “numerous people, mainly men, both from within and outside the Church, have come to me with their own story of breakdown.

“I have been able to talk with them about the feeling of abandonment by friends and God. But, also, I have talked about the support that other’s prayers can give you, when your own prayers are nothing but grunts or shouting in the darkness. If you don’t want to talk to your friends, try talking to God, and tell him what is worrying you. Through my dark days, I found that God was there, and helped me find my focus.”

Mr Whitehead refocused his priorities by turning to the Benedictine Rule of Life, which emphasises balance. He now structures his life to give himself regular periods of respite. For a half-day a week, he works with his hands as a woodturner.

“My breakdown strengthened my faith, and gave me a new emphasis, where I was no longer the bottom of the pile of stuff to do, which, in turn, has given me a renewed love for Jesus and people.”

Sources of help can be rather disjointed, Dr Horsman says. “But I would say that a breakdown is always a whole-person thing. Rest and physical nourishment come first, along with hearing the whole story. Then, as capacity grows, more specific attention can be given to learning whatever is needed to put the pieces back together.

“Sometimes, it’s relatively simple; sometimes, very complex. It might include learning to reduce anxiety, or lift mood, or recover from grief. It might be facing big questions about who we are and what we’re for, and demanding to know where God is in all this.”

But recovery and healing are possible, she says. “We at Sheldon are here because, day by day, we see those wearied and wounded in the service of the Church whose lives are mended and changed.”



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