Clergy mental health
“KEVIN!!!” A family arrives in Paris for their Christmas holiday only for the parents to discover one of their children has been left behind in New York. Their stress levels are immediately off the scale. This is the plot of Home Alone, but a familiar feeling for many parents who have lost sight of their child, if only for a moment.
In a similar way, the disciples wake up one morning and become anxious because they can’t find Jesus (Mark 1.35-37). They rush around trying to find him. Eventually, they find him – alone and praying. The crowds place constant demands on Jesus. His response is to withdraw for a time and rely on his Father’s power and strength.
The challenges of 2020 have been a combination of both these situations. When COVID-19 came to Australia, Church ministry was unexpectedly forced to change to keep our communities safe, as places of worship needed to shift how they conducted services and connected with parishioners, and with very little notice. Suddenly, online ministry became mainstream. Clergy and lay ministers had to grapple with adapting their many and varied ministries to the appropriate online platform to remain connected to their communities. The ongoing effects of COVID-19 have resulted in chronic levels of increased stress as churches have shifted in response to Government requirements, while the usual demands on ministers have remained. It has been absolutely clear in the COVID-19 environment that self-care is vital for all those in ministry, as for all in the caring professions. This learning is an important one for clergy and lay ministers to take into the Advent season.
According to Bishop and New Testament scholar Tom Wright, Advent is a time during which we prepare to “celebrate Jesus’ first coming and use that sense of fulfilment to fuel our hope for his second coming and to strengthen us to work for signs of that kingdom in our own day” (from Advent for Everyone). It is a time to pause and reflect…to ask: “How have we contributed to God’s kingdom, ‘on earth as in heaven’, which Jesus launched?” It is also a time to act…to ask: “How can we bring light to situations of darkness, injustice and brokenness?”
There are two common approaches to Advent which can have negative consequences for those in ministry. The first is making the most of every possible opportunity by filling the calendar with as many events as possible. The second is trying to exceed your own and your community’s expectations by working as hard as possible. Both approaches result in a level of busy-ness and fatigue which is not conducive to personal wellbeing or the time and space needed for reflection and action.
The following 10 tips for Advent are based on the principle that we ultimately rely on God in all things, with steps we can take to maintain our wellbeing.
10 tips for clergy and lay ministers in the Advent season:
- Pray: Following the example of Jesus, ground your community’s Advent and Christmas plans in prayer, as well as seeking God’s guidance, sustenance and protection during this busy time. When we pray, we rely on God’s strength and wisdom rather than on our own.
- Build a team: Spread both the workload and stress by a building a team to support you in your ministry and the ministry activities and events themselves. Unlocking the gifts and talents of your people will also enrich the ministries of your community.
- Prepare (and be adaptable): Preparing for events well in advance will reduce stress and help ensure all COVID-19 SAFE requirements are met. Of course, this year has demonstrated that flexibility and adaptability are equally important, as circumstances, restrictions and requirements can change at any moment.
- Use technology wisely: Technology has enabled many church communities to connect with vulnerable members of their community, as well as people who wouldn’t normally attend church. Using technology to live-stream services, events and activities can help to reduce the workload while even increasing our connections within and beyond our communities of faith.
- Build an invitational culture: When members of your community actively invite people on their frontlines to your community’s services, events and activities, it will lift a burden off your shoulders.
- Be hopeful: When we approach Advent with hope, we trust that God will work through us (and our community), drawing people closer to Jesus.
- Rest: Make rest a priority, maintaining a regular sleep pattern and your day or days off. It can be tempting to work extra hard through Advent and Christmas, relying on a forthcoming time of holidays or a quieter period after Christmas to recover.
- Exercise and recreation: Maintain your usual patterns of exercise and recreation as they are vital for physical, mental and emotional wellbeing and managing stress. Remember, if you are starting a new exercise regime, see your GP first.
- Moderate food and alcohol intake: Moderate food and alcohol intake during the many social events in Advent, as overindulging can adversely affect your interconnected physical and mental health.
- Connect: Maintain connections with the people who are important to you – your family, friends and parishioners. Offer opportunities for new people who attend your events and services, in-person or online, to connect with you providing a launch pad for 2021.