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The Health of the Minister (A follow up to my talk to the General Assembly)

Picture Matthew speakingThe health and well-being of leaders is hugely important to the vitality of congregations but it is very rarely talked about.

(Pause)

A few months ago I was invited to speak to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. (It’s kind of like a national AGM).

In light of some of the good things happening at Westminster Church in Barrie, I was asked to share remarks as a part of something called Good News in the Church: Vibrant Connections.

(You can watch my 12 minute presentation by clicking here and scrolling down — I start talking about 6 minutes into the video.)

In this blog, I just want to share a bit on one of the things I talked about. It’s close to my heart and also something that I’ve received a lot of feedback about—from other pastors and congregants and friends and strangers on the web.

(Un-pause)

Topic: The health of the minister.

In A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Rabbi and leadership consultant Edwin Friedman argues that the nature of the leader’s presence, their emotional health and their ability to communicate and take care of themselves is a major factor of influence in any organization. 

And yet we live in a time of high anxiety for pastors. There are incredible (and unhealthy) pressures at the centre of an organization to perform, please and produce at all times. Plus, pastors are also called to bring a word from God every week.

If you are truly “called” there is no calling it in.

It should also be noted that we live in a society which gives no substantive importance to being a Christian. Our “way” is often, at best, tolerated. The perpetually insightful Frederick Buechner has a great way of saying it: that the minister is often perceived as either an outdated superstitious person or a wild man (sic) of hope. (And it’s usually the former.)

Many of the text books we have read are rooted in a time which is foreign to today’s landscape.

And so:

The health and well-being of leaders is hugely important to the vitality of congregations but it is very rarely talked about.

Why is it rarely talked about? It’s hard to say. Perhaps it is because people assume (ministers included) that since they’re disciples they should be beacons of perpetual wellness. (Despite the biblical stories of disciples often facing hardship.) I think a part of it is also that if we talk about the importance of the minister’s health, we’ll have to admit they’re broken struggling humans (like everyone else) and therefore they won’t be at our own disposal whenever we want.

And maybe there’s also some of the old thinking that talking about these things is a sign of weakness. I also wonder if our strong sense that we’re all a part of God’s family somewhat blurs the fact that the minister has a special role within the mix.

My story

As a part of my own story, there was a time when I was really struggling a few years back. I was stressed out and anxious about a series of things. It wasn’t good. I wasn’t sleeping or eating, I think I may have had ulcers. I realized that I needed help to get better and gain perspective. Many things in my life were hurting because of it.

So I sought help.  I called the Employee Assistance Program, got in touch with my doctor, and did something very critical: I set up a care team that includes:

1. Getting a prayer partner. This is someone who has a strong faith and who holds me up in prayer and is someone I can pray with regularly. It is someone who can be trusted.

2. Proactively seeing an excellent Christian counselor every few months. I say ‘excellent’ because I think you need to find the right person. (There are excellent counselors and bad ones; just as there are excellent pastors, and unhelpful ones.) The person I see is totally focused on my own wellness; he understands ministry and also the challenges of being human in these strange times. As a counselor, they need to be a Christian because one’s worldview totally alters the kind of care they provide. (And as I said during my talk, right now our benefits coverage for counselling in the PCC is inadequate; hopefully that will change soon.)

3. Getting in shape. I had let my physical well-being slip. This is hard because you have to make time for it and keep at it. But fewer things have helped me with my mental strength. Now it’s a part of my self-discipline.

4. Touching base with a mentor. A mentor is someone who can shepherd you and give you wisdom, laughter and accountability. A golden soul who will journey with you even though they’re a little further down the path.

All of this has a direct impact on the well-being of the church, especially in those pastoral-sized churches (like most of us in the PCC, 50 to 150 active members) where the pastor is at the centre of many of the things that go on.

I should also say that if you need a spiritual tune-up, that should be at the top of the list above. Pastors need to have a rich devotional life where they are growing more and more every year. If that isn’t happening, they’re of little help to anyone. Wither.

Implicit in Mark 12:31 (“Love your neighbour as yourself”) is that you love yourself. Read the passage again. If you’re slothful about caring for yourself, is that the model of care you extend to others?

At Westminster in Barrie, I’m grateful that they’ve taken my well-being seriously. They created a Human Resources Team to ensure my needs (and those of my family) are being met. And they also seek to give me extra time off and are good at respecting boundaries. I am not expected to attend many committee meetings. (I meet with leaders and other people in the church about various things but the only monthly meeting I’m expected to regularly attend is the elders’ meeting (Session) that I run.)

And I can actually feel them surrounding me in prayer. That’s a game-changer.

If the pastor is healthy and strong that sends a ripple effect over the congregation. And if the pastor is unhealthy it also sends a ripple effect over the congregation.

If the minister isn’t healthy—spiritually, mentally and physically—how can s/he expect the same from the congregation?

Right now I think I’m stronger and healthier than I’ve ever been. But it takes work. It’s not easy. (But things that are worth anything rarely are.) It’s worth it for Christ and his kingdom, for myself, for my family, and for the church.

Ministers need to make themselves a mission project.

Mark Twain once said that to be a pilot, one needs to know more than one ought to know, and you have to learn it all over again every 24 hours.

So with leadership.

Above is a funny-mouthed pictured of me taken while speaking at the event. Courtesy: The Presbyterian Record

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4 Comments »

  1. Well written Matthew. I know from experience that, important to every person’s well-being is; a good support system, exercise & a decent length of “down-time”.
    Good luck.

    Like

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