Before becoming a minister, Rev. Lynne Gardiner was a behavioural therapist for 15 years. She says this experience has been invaluable in her ministry, allowing her to recognize and respond to behavioural patterns in her congregation and to put the challenges of congregational life in context. But her time in a different profession helped her realize something else, too.
“As a therapist, I was surrounded by a community of support and accountability,” says Gardiner. Weekly staff meetings and connecting with her supervisor helped ensure she never felt alone in her work. “That doesn’t exist in the church,” she says. “We are disconnected from our colleagues and the denomination.”
When the pandemic started, these feelings of isolation grew. Thankfully, her congregation stepped up. As she prepared services from her home office, the phone would ring — it would be Brenda Gray, the chair of Bethel Rideau Ferry pastoral charge’s ministry and personnel committee, calling to see how she was doing and what she needed.
“Lynne is caring and committed, and we truly appreciate what she brings to the table,” Gray says. “We want what’s best for her….It truly is a reciprocal relationship.” The congregants created a team to help Gardiner plan Advent and Christmas and to see what they could do to lessen her load. They made sure their support had tangible signs — in one week, they sent 18 thank-you notes.
Gardiner says she is very grateful for what her congregation has done for her, but she’s concerned about clergy who find themselves in a difficult situation in their pastoral charge. What happens if they encounter a bully who is causing problems, or they have congregants who see ministry as a solo act rather than a shared commitment? If they feel stressed, alone and unsupported, where do they turn?
The United Church is facing a crisis of clergy mental health. In 2018, a University of Notre Dame study asked 520 of the denomination’s ministers how they were feeling. Almost all of them said they enjoy their work and find it deeply meaningful, but 86 percent said they experience work-related stress, only 62 percent were optimistic about their future in ministry, and 41 percent said they feel little or no support from their denomination.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started two years later, things got worse. “There is a lot of grief in congregations right now as they are aging and feeling real anxiety about the future, and so clergy are becoming the lightning rods,” says Rev. Adam Hanley, the program co-ordinator for ministry personnel vitality at the United Church’s General Council Office. He adds that COVID has magnified these trends. “Pandemic-related stress has been huge….Clergy are spending a lot of time putting out fires.”
In interviews for this article, clergy across the United Church said that they are experiencing increasing isolation, and that the end of Presbytery in 2019 disconnected communities of faith and clergy who used to collaborate and support each other. Regional staff are run off their feet and don’t have the resources they need to support ministry. As the institution declines, many ministers are exhausted — not just physically, but spiritually.
The depth of these challenges is daunting, but there are ways to build a more supportive culture, and some of this work is already underway.
Hanley and Michelle Voss Roberts, a professor of theology at Emmanuel College, received a grant for a pilot project called “Pathways to Wellness: Renewing Hearts, Minds and Spirits.” Based on more than 400 survey responses from across the church, it focuses on creating resilience in clergy through self-care and the use of spiritual practices. They are currently weaving practices like prayer, deep engagement with scripture and times of deliberate solitude into Emmanuel’s master of divinity degree, and hope to eventually offer a continuing education program. “[Ministers] will take these habits into the pastorate, so that they can come at issues from a centred place and not a reactive one,” says Voss Roberts. “The metaphysical connection to God provides an inner strength in knowing that you are God’s beloved, even when your identity is under attack.”
For some clergy, taking care of themselves comes with additional layers of complexity. Indigenous clergy have had to deal with increased anxiety and stress after the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools, says Rev. Murray Pruden, executive minister for Indigenous Ministries and Justice. “We needed time to process and grieve, but suddenly everyone wanted our Indigenous clergy to be spokespeople on this issue for the rest of the church,” he says. At the same time, a string of churches were damaged by fire across the country. “Our ministers were concerned for the safety of their communities and for their own personal safety.”
Pruden sees hope as more and more Indigenous clergy are returning to their origin languages as a way to address intergenerational trauma. “Language is culture; learning our language reconnects us,” he says. “We are tired of just surviving — we want to thrive.” Pruden also points to the mandatory year-long healing and self-understanding program that he undertook at the Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre as part of his training. Working with an Elder or a psychologist, participants recognize that until their own trauma is faced they cannot be in a healthy pastoral relationship.
“We don’t talk about our mental health issues with our congregations because we are afraid of what will happen to us.”
One way clergy can get personal support is the Employee and Family Assistance Program, which offers free short-term counselling through an approved list of therapists. While this is the practice of most such programs, the challenge is that the counsellors may not have experience with church or religious life, says Don Collett, who was in pastoral ministry until 2008, when he became a family therapist in Vancouver and Victoria. He says allowing ministers to select their own therapist through the program would make a major difference. “You need a therapist who gets church.”
He believes that a complete refocusing is needed: “The denomination and congregations need to think in terms of advocacy and the protection of their clergy,” he says. Congregations, in his view, must intervene to stop abusive behaviour. He tells the story of one congregation that assigned people to surround their minister after church to protect him from a toxic individual who always went on the attack. He adds that he believes the denomination should remove toxic individuals from the church, for the health of the overall congregation.
Until we invest staff and financial resources in treating the complexity of the church as a system, Collett says, nothing will change.
Rev. Alan Hall is concerned that the denomination is facing a resource issue in ministry. The executive officer of ministry and employment for the Office of Vocation, Hall says that while ministers have been remarkably resilient under the stress of COVID and constant change, he believes many are on the edge of burnout. “We need to be focusing resources on the people who support ministers and congregations,” he says. “Too many of our staff are overworked in every direction, and I give kudos to regional council staff who have stepped up in every way.”
More on Broadview:
- Survey reveals how United churches adapted during COVID
- Is the United Church going to disappear?
- What to do with your grief when a church closes
Focusing resources on personnel and programs that could help congregations discern their future and connect with their wider community would be invaluable. Hall also supports the idea of regional chaplains, whose job would be to support clergy and look out for their interests, and notes that the former London Conference had such a position that was half-time.
In the meantime, ministers should turn more to each other. Rev. Paul Douglas Walfall ministers at First United in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., but used to work within the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas. “The Methodist Church placed emphasis on finding connection with your colleagues; you counted on each other,” he says. In the United Church, “you are schooled to be lone rangers, and so ministry is a lonely job.”
This is something Rev. Kathleen Anderson has seen in her research. The minister at Crossroads pastoral charge in Halifax, Anderson is focusing her doctor of ministry degree on clergy mental health. “We don’t talk about our mental health issues with our congregations because we are afraid of what will happen to us,” she says. “We don’t talk to our colleagues because we are in competition for the same jobs and that information could be inappropriately shared, and we are worried that the bureaucracy doesn’t have our backs if we have a mental health issue.” She urges congregations to develop strong lay leadership, and for ministers to use the support systems around them, including family and friends, and talk to their colleagues about what is happening.
But there is a deeper reality that the United Church has to face. The mental health of ministers cannot be separated from the issues of institutional decline. When the church’s frontline workers spend their lives trying to support a model that continues to break down, how can we be surprised by the impact? We have been experiencing death by a thousand cuts for decades, and clergy are bearing much of the burden. Until we come up with a new model for the church, the situation will only get worse.
Rev. Christopher White is a minister at Kedron United in Oshawa, Ont.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2022 issue with the title “Stressed in the Pulpit.”
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