Just over three years ago I had the privilege of being invited to preach at Portsmouth Cathedral. Among those gathered was Angela Tilby, former BBC religious programmes producer and known for being a somewhat provocative columnist for the Church Times.
The Cathedral was marking the launch of a ‘Living Well’ initiative to run throughout that year and I was asked to talk about the importance of mental health awareness. I returned a few weeks later to provide some workshops for the Dean and Chapter and others who worked there. More recently, I have had the similar privilege of delivering such sessions to those training for ministry and the need to care for themselves within it.
Three years and a pandemic on, all over the country there are people in ministry (whether ordained or not) who are exhausted. Many struggling with depression and anxiety. An experience they find difficult to be open about for fear of being seen as weak (not unlike those in other work situations, of course). ‘You can’t possibly be depressed, you’re a vicar.’
Holy Week and Easter: the most important few days not only in the church year but in the lives of any who call themselves Christian. And what do we have? A repetition of last year, when Mark Oakley coined the phrase ‘wholly weak’.
While the national Church of England and other organisations, have made significant progress in equipping and supporting the wellbeing of those who work for them, the conflicting message continues:
‘Make sure you take time off to rest and recover from the rigours of the last few years….’
Alongside…‘We want to you take on these additional parishes and do more on your mission strategy…’ or similar such demands.
Like many organisations and businesses, churches have suffered financially during the recent times. Combine that with reducing congregations of increasing age, the outlook in human terms is not good, particularly for the smaller, often rural churches. Hard decisions will need to be made and they will be painful for many.
In a recent, less controversial but still provocative article, Canon Tilby wrote ‘I get the impression than many of us are also now experiencing exhaustion: physical, emotional, and spiritual. After two years, we have got used to living on the edge of fear and grief trauma, and we still don’t know when it will end.’
She goes on to describe this as burnout: ‘Burnout is depletion, a loss of inner resources, even when most outer ones appear to be repaired or restored. Burnout is a sickness of the spirit, when it can no longer respond to the demands of the will. There is no immediate solution, because this condition needs time as much as it needs rest.
‘If I were in parish ministry now, I would not be wanting to implement big plans or shiny new initiatives. I would be hoping for a gentle Holy Week, a modest Triduum*, an Easter joy no less real because restrained.’
Alas, many of those in church ministry will not be that fortunate… apart from, one hopes, an Easter joy.
For Jesus said: ‘I have come that you may have life in all its fullness.’ (John 10:10)
*The three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday