Reach Out, Check-In

Dear ones,

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.

18 Replies to “Reach Out, Check-In”

  1. 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.

    Thank you. I needed to read this.

    I’m in a rough patch in the formation process (and getting help and support) and the reminder that being messy and human is not a total disqualification from this work is… important, right now.

  2. Thank you. As an introvert, it’s not so easy to reach out. So I like that you remind us to ask, “are you okay?” … Even at collegial gatherings , I have, at times, felt so isolated when my spirits have been low and my depression is active. Lets face it: our culture also does not welcome weakness or perceived disability in the clergy. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling I cannot be truly myself amongst colleagues, and that exacerbates isolation. Hard stuff. Wish I’d asked Jennifer “are you okay?” A few times when her posts sent up red flags. I didn’t know her, except in the way we who have suffered depression know one another.

  3. Thank you for this. Recently I took a month off, for medical leave and returned, probably too early. I came back to a funeral, a sudden death and today a wedding. The rhythm of the Church is always in motion, as is life, and to step off is terrifying but absolutely necessary.

    Holding you and the UU community in prayer. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

  4. Wise words, and ones which we probably all need to hear time and time again.
    Thank you.

    Prayers for your colleague and all who knew and loved her.

  5. Prayers said for all of us who walk difficult roads….And `Thanks` for your honesty and integrity are an inspiration to me. x

  6. I read the truth in your words… How can we be of service to others if we are unable to take care of ourselves. Thank you and prayers for all of us who choose to do this work and our families.

  7. Thank you for this. I, too, lost a colleague to suicide this month. Although he was not a close associate, we had collaborated on some projects, and I knew he had a wife and children. He was much admired in his field, and he had done wonderful things for his students and his community. It’s completely mystifying to me but a reminder not to underestimate the toll that anyone’s life may take on them.

    Last week I had to talk to a student who wanted to write a college admissions essay about his suicide attempt last year. He’s receiving counseling, but it’s not easy to know how to treat the issue, and I knew that an essay on suicide would not serve him well in the future. After much stammering, I finally said, “This thing is true, but it’s not the only thing about you that’s true.”

    I’m grateful for your post. There hasn’t been anyone else I could share this with. I’ll pray for all for whom this life is causing pain.

  8. Amen. Your story of prayer with a colleague…beautiful. Indeed we are all worthy of Gods love simply because we are. The ministerial role, held too tightly, can get in the way of this wisdom as we try to be worthy and deserving and LIKED.

  9. My heart goes out to Rev Jennifer Slade’s family and all those who love her as I contemplate how close we came to that same grief ourselves. You are right – sometimes even in the face of treatment and meds and loving family, the pit rears up and suicide claims another life.

    I struggle with depression on a regular basis. Recently my daughter, who has bipolar depression, relapsed and made a suicide attempt. It’s been a tough summer for me – ministry, caring for my daughter and self care. Thank you for your wise words – they bring me comfort and give me courage to ask for the time I need for self care.

  10. You know, I want to believe that it is okay to drop all of it or, as you suggest, part of it.

    I did drop it once, many years ago in a different profession. So the reason I say I want to believe that dropping everything is okay is because when I dropped everything, I lost everything: my apartment, my spouse, my job. And then I spent years trying to find work, trying to find my balance, trying to get back to a level of functioning that would work for me.

    There is a real and true stigma attached to giving up, surrendering to the pain, and doing the complete self-care that is necessary, by going into a safe and healing place. Ministers are supposed to be invincible. We have to get out of bed when we cannot. We have to be in the moment in pastoral care, while our minds may be in real crisis and anywhere but in the room with the person seeking help. If I were not hopeful, if I didn’t have faith, I wouldn’t have made it through the first time. But the fear is always there that life will overwhelm me yet again and I will have to make incredibly difficult choices. My hope is that the tools I have since learned will carry me through, but there is always a little feeling of possible collapse.

    At this point in my life, I have a sense that the world is even less forgiving when strong women trip. I know that I am strong, but conversely, I know that I am still in the process of healing from a life of trauma. I can only dance as fast as my heart will let me. I cannot force it. I cannot pretend that the trepidation and fear that I have from time to time – regarding the central powers of the denomination to allow or disallow ministers to continue after a “break” -may make me shut down to my own pain.

    I do completely agree that the only way through anything like you or I are suggesting is with the support of colleagues, friends and family. Support is a thing that must be continually cultivated and fed or it has the tendency to disappear when one needs it most. Learning all of this has been like walking on a tightrope without a net. It is frightening, it is exciting, and I have to believe that the process will help to heal and center me as I continue on the path.

  11. And if you ask the question “are you okay?” be prepared for an honest answer and be willing to help. A response from long ago of “don’t be silly” did not help in any way.

  12. I did not know Jennifer Slade. But she was a colleague of mine, and I have been grieving her death by suicide. It touches a nerve, because I myself have at times considered suicide. I grieve for her children, for her congregation, for all who have known her and been touched by her. Suicide (even more than other deaths) touches so many of us in our tender places.

    Thank you for your words, for your prayer, for your kindness and tenderness.

  13. I also find it helpful to ask and be asked, “What do you need?” Far too often that question is not asked and the guessing begins. Ask. And yes, then do what is needed if at all humanly possible…and legal, or not. Thank you…and prayers of healing and hope.

  14. What a gift you have given us with these words and your spirit. Through your example and invitation to be more honest and compassionate with myself and others you have encouraged me once again. Thank you.

  15. Thank you for all of these great thoughts, because as a spouse for 59 yrs of ministry. These words are never expressed, and really need to be…….even in many years of retirement, it is easy to feel totally responsible!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *