Mission post-collapse 7: Mental health

Posted: August 12, 2014 by J in Church, Church history, Pastoral issues

Most of this series has been from the point of view of the whole church, living after the collapse of church involvement in Australia. But the issue of leadership has also come up. One other aspect of leadership is well worth considering: what’s it like leading the church at this time in history?

Think about this chain of factors:

1. Our leaders are generally employed full time as church workers.

2. People in general derive a fair bit of their sense of identity and self-esteem from their work.

3. We are asking our leaders to find ways forward for effective mission. We expect them to make our churches to grow.

4. Our churches are mostly small, not growing much, and most people in Sydney are not remotely interested in joining us.

Putting all this together, our leaders are experiencing ineffectiveness and failure in a key area of the work that gives them their identity. In our post-collapse setting we are looking to them for answers, and they don’t have answers. For ways forward, and they don’t know the way forward.

That’s not a comfortable situation to be in. At the existential level, it’s pretty stressful to be that leader. There’s a level of strain in just being, as a leader in this climate, quite apart from any specific demands or tasks that you might have to deal with. We all feel disappointed about the collapse in Australia. But for our leaders, it’s personal. It’s a threat to their identity.

Of course it’s true that a few of our leaders ares seeing growth in their churches. But many don’t. And even those who do, you’d be surprised how much failure and confusion they experience in their ministries. Our leaders often feel powerless and baffled. They don’t feel too good about themselves.

Over the years this takes its toll on mental health. Inevitably. We’re talking erosion of morale. Feelings of lostness and lack of purpose. Worthlessness. Ultimately, depression and anxiety.

Add to this, most church leaders don’t have a fallback occupation they can switch to. They have no option but church ministry, if they want to feed their family. So on top of the above feelings, they feel trapped.

Pastors struggle under these burdens for years. Sometimes it shuts them down completely, and they have to drop out. Other times they limp on, in self-protection mode. Waiting for retirement. Others manage to still function, but they are carrying mental health troubles, their energies sapped, their joy dampened. Often for years. Generally they hide these disorders from their people.

What I’m describing is not an occasional or rare experience. It’s a common problem. This is what it’s like trying to lead the church, post-collapse. It’s like trying to lead the army when the enemy has been kicking your back side for years and you’ve been in retreat, and you feel outgunned and outflanked. You feel a massive weight of responsibility, and not a whole lot of hope.

One thing that makes all this worse is the constant stories of success in the church magazines. Their MO seems to be, look around for the few bright spots in the dark scene, and focus on them relentlessly. Create the impression that those successes are the norm, that they are the story everywhere. That should cheer us all up!

Of course these magazines actually have the opposite effect on our leaders: a corrosive effect. It tends to sap the little strength they have. It isolates leaders in their feelings of failure. By creating the impression us that everyone else is on the front foot, bolding going where no man has gone before, seeing lots of converts and generally prosperous, these stories make our leaders feel alone and ashamed. The others seem to know what they’re doing – why do I feel so confused? They’re all pushing forward with energy – why am I treading water? What’s wrong with me? All of this makes the burden twice as heavy for already-struggling leaders.

Our failure to discuss our post-collapse situation openly, only perpetuates this isolation. If we could admit openly that we’re all facing these times, we could have a sense of facing them together. We could get some perspective on our lack of success – it’s part of a much bigger picture and it’s not my fault.

That perspective is going to go a long way to help sustain the mental health of our leaders in these difficult times.

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Comments
  1. Jim Crosweller says:

    Hi J,
    I think this may be the most penetrating of all your post-collapse blogs. This is a HUGE issue. I have battled withit for 9 years after a triumphant, ego-inflating early few years when the going was easier and various forces (and not just God) were working for growth in my church at the time.
    Neither success stories, nor ‘failures’ are analysed well.
    The best answer I think is really good recording/celebrating of discipleship stories for thanksgiving for small churches, or if you are bigger as a church – rigorous measurement of stuff for regular reality checks.
    An example from my patch:
    20 years under 3 ministers has seen my church grow not a significant bit, structurally. Great discipleship, good individual stories, saints well-guarded. But if you hope to see manifest growth of the kind we crave and the stories are told about – forget it.
    In the last 8 months 107 people have come through our church who might really possibly return and stay – who wouldn’t dream of that!!! Then the reality…..we have followed up and been rigorous in welcoming (and warm too!) 66 have left already, 16 long-termers have gone too with them, 17 well-integrated, a few people still in play, but to date, a sum total gain of 1 body! And that is with a near 30% integration rate, which is high I am led to believe.
    Tough!
    The data really has helped me put my failures in context and separate real weaknesses from systemic realities. It has helped me refocus on important bits of ministry in given moments and helped me not enter a general lassitude, or a chest-thumping moral decrying of everythign around me as ‘hard, hard, hard’.
    The key to this for me was the Katay-Forsyth rector-development program – Sauerkraut. It took some robustness to sit through more success stories, but people spoke of faliures, and more importantly, I learnt to do ministry with some evidential basis and not just elating/crushing anecdote.
    Sounds pseudo-scientific, and may be, but it’s been a terrific pyschological boost!
    I pray God blesses you in your hard patch, and you have great satisfaction knowing you are trying to reach people where they are at, whatever may come.
    Jesus will.
    Amen.

  2. J says:

    Jim, thanks so much for taking the time to give us a taste of reality from your local patch! Those are sobering figures.

    Great to hear about Sauerkraut. So good to hear of rectors being supported in this way.

    Press on brother, your labours in the Lord are not in vain.

  3. Bill says:

    This is an important time to keep faith in The Lord Jesus Christ and our calling to serve the body of Christ, his church, even when we seem to be failing in our institutional Church. This problem of disillusionment, particularly on the part of the clergy, is a significant problem. I heard at the Oxygen 14 Conference last week that American research is reporting that 60% of the clergy would like a way out. I understand that the local proportion is probably higher – perhaps 80%.

    I’ve been working on this challenge for several years, and have come to the view that we’re blind to the truth of the matter because our institutional Church culture is trumping our theology. Church culture allows lay-people to wait on the clergy for answers, and for clergy to assume that the answers must come from them. Whereas Ephesians 4:15-16 and Romans 12:4-6 are clear that unless the lay-people, who literally comprise more than 99% of the church, show some initiative the Church will struggle.

    It’s little wonder that the clergy tend to despair!

    However, for clergy reading this: Do you really want to see a ‘Lay Ministry Initiative’? Regrettably, the initial response of most clergy is that they don’t want to see a broad-scale lay ministry initiative. For lay people reading this, the fact that you’ll receive scant encouragement from the clergy if you take any initiative, provides a good excuse to play more golf and watch more TV. This comfortable standoff may be coming to an end because the numbers no longer work when the number of Sydney Anglican ordained clergy that need to be fed has grown by 25% in the last decade, but the size of our congregations has remained stable in line with population growth.

    There is a ‘Lay Ministry Initiative’ on the table. Do the laity or the clergy want it? There is more on this at http://www.itsup2us.net.

    • J says:

      Hi Bill, sorry for the delayed response!

      I think you’re on to something in your concern about the way clergy and laity function as roles in our churches. At Moore College Archie Poulos warned us about the professionalisation of ministry, taking it out of the hands of the congregation. He say this as a growing trend.

      In my church, people are encouraged to develop vision for ministries and to run with it. Surely that’s the way it has to be if we are to grow?

      • Bill says:

        Yes, J, encouraging the laity to vision and action is very much the way forward, but we operate in a church paradigm where there are many unseen obstacles. It is very difficult to think outside our cultural paradigm, but if you don’t mind some controversial comment I’ll offer this perspective.

        We’re caught in a double bind because both clergy and laity are in agreement! We each expect the clergy to take the initiative to grow the church. I believe that we’ve demonstrated in the last decade or so just how ineffective that is. The solution will not, indeed cannot, come from the clergy. Initiative for church growth actually must come from the laity. However, as long as the clergy try to do the job the laity will stand back, arms folded.

        Our theology tells us that we’re all part of the body of Christ, and all required to work together to build up the church in love. The clergy are specifically trained to be ministers of the Word to equip the saints for good works. God also has apportioned talents to the lay saints to build the church. These are largely laying dormant.

        The clergy have inherited a paradigm, and been trained to think that they must manage the ministries. Whereas I suggest their proper role is to lead the laity with the Word. We need to clarify the distinction between ‘leadership’ and ‘management’. Clergy are attempting, but failing, to do both. Training clergy to be better managers exacerbates the problem if it leads to the view that they are the experts in management! I suggest that the laity are best equipped to manage ministry operations, providing this is governed by vision grounded in the Word. The laity and clergy need to redefine their relationship so that they work together using their talents in the roles to which they’ve been called. Evangelism is a priority, but it doesn’t occur in its broadest sense without the comprehensive support of non-evangelists.

        This is not the place to unpack such a major topic, but paradigm/cultural change is notoriously difficult. It requires a compelling trigger. Just how this would be achieved is the point of the itsup2us.net website mentioned above, where people who are interested are invited to become Friends of IU2U, and to participate in this paradigm changing work, starting with prayer.

        Unless we come to terms with this we are going to damage and lose too many of our dedicated, talented and hardworking clergy to depression and despair. But even worse, we’re failing to use the vast resources provided by God for the sake of the Gospel. Who do you think is accountable for that failure?

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