One of the things that I have learnt through having depression is that so often it is a silent disease. But it’s only when we start talking about it that we discover that we’re not alone and lots of others are going through the same struggles. We are created by God to be unique, but, at the same time, others experience life in a similar way to the way we do. This reflection is very personal, it is about me, my personality, my situation and my struggles. However I strongly suspect there are lots more who experience life in similar ways.
As a church minister we don’t often talk about things that are difficult. Within the Church of England, and probably other denominations, there is a sense of deference to senior diocesan clergy and a fear of saying it as it is. The fear is that we won’t be taken seriously, that we could jeopardise future help and support from within our diocese and that our future prospects will be marred with a black mark against our name. And then there’s the totally wrong perception of competition with other local churches. I daren’t admit that I’m failing or struggling. So often we only hear the good stories and not the difficult ones.
Well I’m 62 in January, about four years off retirement. I’m not likely to move to another clergy post so I’m no longer worried about saying it as it is. Maybe my depression has changed me!
This is personal so a bit of background. In May 2019 I was told by my doctor that I was suffering from work related stress, depression and anxiety and he signed me off work. That came as a real surprise and a shock to me. After about 2 months I slowly began to feel better and started thinking about returning to ministry. However I was then diagnosed with possible cancer and was off until November with two operations under general anaesthetic, but in November was finally told the lump was benign. I returned to ministry in November and worked through Christmas and the start of 2020. By the end of February I was going downhill again and then – yes – the pandemic struck. And yes my depression deepened. I’ve struggled through but as I write this I’m just over a week on from a change in medication and my low moods aren’t as deep or as long which is great.
So yes, this comes from about 18 months of suffering from stress, anxiety and depression.
So why do I feel like giving up?
Firstly you need to understand what virtually no one who hasn’t been a full time church leader understands. That what we do is lonely and isolating. It is tough and difficult even when things are going well. You are aware that whatever you do you will always upset some. You also need to know that being a full time church leader takes a real toll on our spouses and families.
I am an introvert, and so I make few friends and the friendships I make tend to be longer lasting. At least that’s the theory. We moved church communities 3 times in 6 years, moving house twice in that time. Sadly the distance in time has meant those older friendships are hardly there at all for me. I’ve been in my present post for 17 years and, as most people in church leadership know, it’s next to impossible to have true friends within the church where you minister. There are challenges, difficulties and confidences that you simply cannot share with even the closest friends within your church community.
And then Covid struck. Almost overnight it deleted almost every setting of community for most of us. We weren’t allowed to meet, even our church buildings were closed. What had always been difficult but manageable became really, really tough as the feeling of loneliness and isolation deepened. I saw others leaning into their friendships and relationships both within and outside of the church. But for me those simply weren’t there.
Through this it would be amazing if I could say we were loved, cared for and supported. But, if I’m honest, we have only felt that rarely. You might think that we would be well supported and cared for by the senior clergy in the diocese, our Archdeacon and Bishop. You might think that but the reality is sadly different, although my archdeacon may disagree with me! One phone call in March and agreement to pay for more counselling, but nothing more despite them knowing I was depressed and having counselling. That is on top of receiving virtually no pastoral care when I was off sick for six months in 2019 and not even having the most basic of HR support when I returned to parish life. Not even a phone call after returning to parish ministry to ask how I was doing!
I was recently asked what would good pastoral care for church leaders from their institutions look like at the moment in Covid? It’s actually not a straightforward question to answer. I would say regular contact, at least monthly, by phone, card or email always making the open invitation for a conversation. True pastoral concern for who we are rather than what we do. And this needs to come from the senior church leaders. In the Anglican Church Ares Deans can and do offer support which is gratefully received. However it is entirely different to receive support from those in authority. I’m aware that our Archdeacons and Bishops have been impacted by Covid just as much as parish clergy have been. They too are stressed and stretched. However if they don’t have the time, or consider it isn’t in their job description to offer pastoral care and support to parish clergy then something has gone very badly wrong.
My support network has been with local colleagues with whom I’ve been able to share fairly openly as we’ve met, mainly virtually, every fortnight or so. And also a mentor who I’ve met with regularly.
I followed a recent thread in a closed group for vicars recently regarding APCMs. The questions was how often have you been thanked for what you do as the vicar? The overwhelming response has been only rarely, if at all. The impression of most is that while we lead the thanks for others in our church communities it’s rare for anyone to publicly thank the vicar.
Think about yourself, if you are not a church leader. When was the last time you sent a card saying I’m thinking of you, or dropped round a small gift, or phoned them up simply to ask how are you?
So I feel like giving up.
You know it’s incredibly tough to see 17 years of hard graft and toil decimated by the pandemic and my depression. What has kept me going for so long has been the opportunity to minister amongst families and children. Weekly Open The Book assemblies, school Christmas, Easter and Leavers services, our Tea Service for families which was growing a new congregation of the generation that are missing from so many churches. Through Covid and my depression all of that has gone for over six months, and most of this looks nearly impossible for at least the next six months as well.
So I feel like giving up.
For the past 17 years I have sought to preach, teach and lead in such a way that Sunday wasn’t seen as the centre and heart of church life. Yes, I probably didn’t do that as well as I could. But what is happening now is that church life revolves, once again, around Sunday. In fact the majority of time, effort and energy in almost every church I know of has gone into making Sunday the heart of church life again. Whilst this meets the desires and wants of most of those who have attended our churches in the past it will never reach the 95 percent who see church as irrelevant.
So I feel like giving up.
On top of all that the financial realities that have impacted so many others are just about to hit the Church of England. Our diocese will have to make massive financial savings and the only real way of doing that is to reduce the number of paid clergy. We are just starting conversations in our deanery (group of churches) that might lead to me being made redundant, or as the Church of England calls it, being pastorally reorganised so there is no longer a post for me. I enter into that process with no trust in the abilities of our senior church structures of being able to run a good process. I shared with our congregation that there may not be a post for me in 12-18 months time and went into more details with our PCC. Did anyone ask how I was, or how my wife was? Did anyone say ‘Are you OK.’ No not a single person.
So I feel like giving up.
But I won’t give up! Why?
Well firstly and formostely because I am absolutely clear that God called me to become the vicar of this church. He has yet to tell me that He has rescinded that calling. That may be me rather than God as my spiritual experience has been that God has been on mute for the past many months. But even If I’m deaf God is big enough to tell me clearly and I haven’t heard that yet!
Secondly because I can’t afford to. I won’t get my state pension until I’m 66 and that is still four and a bit years off. Until then I can’t afford to retire and finding another post for four years that is local to our children would be next to impossible.
Finally, and most importantly, because of the 95 percent. We used to have a notice up in the entrance porch of our church that said; “St Pauls’ is a Church for the Unchurched and a Church for Children.” One day a member of our church community asked me – so where am I in that statement? Good question. I wanted to say, you’ve been part of this church for many years, you’ve received teaching, support and nurture. You should by now be able to care for yourself as a Christian and start teaching, supporting and nurturing others who are not yet part of our church community. Yes it is important to care for those who are already part of our church communities, but what about the 95 percent who think God, Jesus and church are irrelevant to them. Early on in my time at St Paul’s I used to say my vision is to get to heaven and to take as many other people with me as possible, deep down that vision is still the one that drives me.
I still feel like giving up but I won’t because of the 95 percent.
Is this a cry for help – possibly. But it is far more a call for church institutions of all denominations to take seriously the pastoral care of church leaders who have been stressed, and stretched beyond imagination by the pandemic. It is a cry for ordinary Christians also to care for and support their church leaders who have been doing a nearly impossible job over the past six months, and the next six months aren’t looking much easier.