Members of the clergy now suffer from hypertension, obesity and depression at rates higher than most. According to Paul Vitello, author of “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work,” a front-page article in the New York Times last August, clergy’s “use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”
Our own 2005 United Church survey of ministry personnel also found that one in six is considering leaving the vocation of ministry, and almost 60 percent agreed with the following statement: “There are few people I can openly trust and confide in.” And yet, in a survey this year, 95 percent of ministers said they are proud to be personnel in the United Church. Such articles and surveys have joined a growing stack of materials and memories I’ve collected over years of listening to the joy and heartache of ministers.
The Times article suggests that taking time off is key to recovery and health. Full vacations, continuing education opportunities and sabbatical time are necessary, of course, but I don’t believe they’re enough for healthy leadership. What more is needed?
Allow me to offer reflections from two sets of my own experiences: first, meeting with and listening to ministry personnel in retreats throughout our church over the past two years; and second, personally holding an office of church leadership during anxious times.
The job of minister can be a heavy mantle. I am a layperson; as moderator, I have come to better understand how it feels to wear an office on which others may project their best hopes and their worst fears. Like all who share leadership, I have had to find ways to remain healthy amid lurking feelings of inadequacy, pressure and isolation.
From clergy, I hear the same thing that I hear from deep within myself: my soul needs places where it is safe for me to be who I am, “to trust and confide” without fear. Ministers tell me that it’s often hard to find such places. They experience Presbytery as dangerous, saying, for example, “We don’t support one another in ministry,” or “We compete with one another.”
Some say they’ve given up on clergy-only gatherings because, in their experience, such meetings degenerate into complaint, when what they long for is encouragement.
But many others are finding safe meeting places where they are taking heart and finding renewal together. Some of these are facilitated by outside resource persons and some by disciplined, rotating leadership from within. The leaders take responsibility for the necessary preconditions of soul safety, including following American author and educator Parker Palmer’s rule that there is to be “no fixing, saving, advising or correcting one another.”
It is in such circles of spiritual companioning that my own soul has been given the safety to listen to how Christ expects me to lead, and I have become re-energized. Without such support, I’d more likely squander my energy trying to be and do what others think I should be and do; or be distracted by the need to protect myself from the critique that always accompanies leadership. Don’t get me wrong — I learn from my critics, and I need them. But I must be true to leading in the way I have been called.
A minister recently told me,“I am no longer going to conspire in my own diminishment.” My heart leapt with joy— and sunk. I am joyful that she will no longer allow herself to be diminished. I suspect, though, that she may leave her charge — or even ministry itself. If our church is not able to receive and support her and her considerable gifts for ministry, we will be diminished as a community of Christ.
How can I ensure that I remain connected with who I am as a leader? How can I support other leaders to remain connected to who they are? These are questions for both lay and ordered people. I will continue to encourage those who pastor to me to take their vacation, their continuing education and sabbatical. I will do my best to make it safe for them to speak the truth of their hearts without fear of losing my love or support. I will do my best to continue providing retreat opportunities where they can explore who they are — an equally demanding task as learning the what and the how of ministry.
If you are a church leader, I hope that you are enjoying more than a nice summer escape. I hope that you are finding places where you can reconnect your soul with your leadership, and helping to create such places for others. It’s important. A healthy church is led by healthy leaders.
Mardi Tindal is the 40th moderator of The United Church of Canada.