I haven’t written in awhile because I have been so busy I kind of forgot I was PeaceBang! This is my first summer taking shorter vacation periods interspersed with work. It’s a whole new rhythm. I said to my leaders, “Hey, if I drop from exhaustion in February I’ll know that I should have taken a longer summer vacation!” We try new things, we learn.
One thing that is not new is how deeply we bear our work and our calling. Although I often caution clergy about getting “too precious” about the way we talk about ministry, the fact is that it is relentlessly intense. It cannot be done in a casual manner. None of it. We are accountable to so many relationships, we are subject to so many projections, we are responsible for facilitating so many sacred moments of life’s passage, we are beholden to speak thoughtful, considered truths as we have come to understand them through prayer, study, life experience and discernment with others — we who do this work carry a heavy burden.
No matter how much we love it, it is still heavy.
And when we are already disposed to inner heaviness such as is suffered in depression, the burden can become unbearable.
I lift up to the Lord the name and spirit of a Unitarian Universalist colleague whom I did not know personally, the Rev. Jennifer Slade, who died of suicide this week.
May she be at peace. May she be held in the love of God that was her origin and shall be her eternity. May those who grieve her be consoled by the ministry of the holy spirit, by memory, by the strength of friends, by time, by rest and care.
Colleagues, let us reach out for each other and make time for each other. Instead of asking, “How are you?” we might ask, “Are you okay?”
The work of religious leadership is especially demanding in this time of closing churches and anxious laity. No one can afford to be comfortable and staid while our beloved institutions are falling around us. Even those of us who embrace the possibility of what God is doing in this time still have no idea what is coming next, and we are called upon to both serve the church as it is and imagine and prepare for what it will be tomorrow. We are “making it up as we go along” in a way that previous generations of ministers may be able to relate to culturally or theologically or organizationally, but not institutionally to this extent. The pressure is fierce. This is to say nothing of other life stresses of health, finance, family, community.
Are you okay?
From me to you, beloveds: you can drop the mic and walk off the stage if you have to. You can be the needy, the lost, the broken and show up at the door to say “Help. I cannot walk a step more.” You can check yourself in to that same hospital you have visited so many times in your shined shoes and your stiff collar and your softly furrowed brow as you searched out the right room number so you could visit, and comfort, and pray for someone else.
You can be the one who receives care while others visit or pray for you.
You can pick up the phone and text, “I can’t get out of bed, please come.” You can call into the office or to your board president and say, “I need to take emergency mental health leave so I can get the help I need.”
Nothing that any of us do can ever completely immunize us against despair and self-harm. I do not share this message in judgment, as suicide may still be the final choice for those who have asked for help and received it. I share this message only to say what is never said among us, which is that you are allowed to be a mess, you are allowed to drop out of the race and sit at the side of the road thumbing for a stretcher.
Once in my ministry, I was functioning quite well but suffering so many anxiety and panic attacks that I thought I was losing my mind. One day, a colleague called to ask, “Are you okay?” I honestly did not realize until she asked that I actually was not okay. She came right over – bless her heart forever — and prayed with me. I knew I probably needed help, and God knows I knew I needed healing, but when my colleague prayed with me she opened me to the truth that I DESERVED that help and healing. I deserved it, I was important to God not because of my service in ministry but just because. I was astonished that I had genuinely not realized and accepted this. I understood that I could not preach God’s love if I could not allow myself to receive it in the form of care and help from humans. I packed a bag and we drove to the hospital. It was December 19th and Christmas actually came even though I took time off.
We who spend our lives sending our spirit out over communities trying to understand, lead, help, and inspire are not necessarily the best at dropping everything and rushing to our own aid as we do for others. In the name of the God who loves us more than we can possibly understand, please drop everything if you need to. Or if that doesn’t feel necessary, drop some things. Make time for each other. Reach out, and check in.