Ministry from June to December in the Coronavirus year

When I read back to the last blog I wrote in June 2020, I seemed to be doing okay. Our church building was closed along with every other one, and we were managing to worship together at home ‘in communion’ with one another. Some churches were streaming live services, some were recording at home and then in empty church buildings and some were Zooming together. My tech skills weren’t up to much and with nobody allowed to come and show me how, and an elderly congregation not all of whom had computers or tablets, I carried on emailing and posting services out each week.

I was taking part in more Zoom meetings and it seemed so easy really. I thought that perhaps I could do something online after all and with the help of some friends remotely, I put together a midweek service to practice. Folk were invited to come along and 12 said yes, they’d like to have a go. I was up half the night worrying about it, and up early to get dressed as a priest once more, balance the pile of books on which the altar would be laid, and adjusted the camera many, many times to allow folk to see the holy elements. Finally I was ready with minutes to spare. I opened Zoom. This was the first time I’d hosted anything but it seemed so easy before when I’d talked it through with folk. But I did something wrong. I don’t know what. But there were two of me in that meeting, one as host, one as participant. And where was this elusive Waiting Room? There were no buttons for Waiting Room. I pressed buttons, I swiped back and forth, I started to get hot under the collar, and the minutes ticked by. To cut a long story short, I lost my mind, as the song goes. The phone began to ring as people said they were waiting to get in and why didn’t it work? Was it them? They were so looking forward to it. I felt as if I’d really let them down. The service was cancelled.

How To Get Out Of The Black Hole Depression - A Pictures Of Hole 2018

And that is the day I became ill. Not physically ill. Mentally ill. The failed Zoom service was the catalyst. I started to cry about letting those folk down. And I couldn’t stop. Every time I thought about it, and yes it did come back to haunt me many times, the burning tears would fill in my eyes and overflow. I had let them down. Some of them lived alone and had been so looking forward to seeing their friends again, and I had let them down. I was too old for learning these new skills and so frustrated that nobody could come round to my house and just show me. The isolation became a black hole and I stood on the edge of it looking down into crippling anxiety. For a happy, optimistic extrovert this was a very new experience. I know about anxiety because some close to me suffer from it, but I never knew it was like this. The fear was overwhelming. Kind words were of no consolation whatsoever.

On top of the Zoom anxiety came the Coronavirus anxiety. I’d been shielding since March and was kind of getting used to it. Statistics were improving, the sun was shining, and we were told to go outside for exercise. Everyone I knew was on social media showing photos of their daily hike, boasting of how many steps they’d taken, getting more tanned in the summer sun and I was bitter. Exercise is hard for me because I have lung disease, and a host of other illnesses which make me overweight and in pain but I made the effort. I drove to a lovely, quiet place and got out to walk. Withing minutes joggers had elbowed past me with no masks, puffing with effort, cyclists sped past with no masks breathing heavily within a few feet. I jumped back in the car and came home. If I get this virus I don’t stand much of a chance. I’m one of the ones they talk about who died ‘with underlying health conditions’. I added that worry to the pile in my head and it was a bit of a squeeze.

Where was God in this? I’m sure s/he was there somewhere. At least I’ve told others that. Praying with others made me cry so I stopped doing that. I had a few clergy support groups going on Zoom and I couldn’t face them either. I withdrew. How could I tell them I was ill? I mean, I’m usually the life and soul of the party. That’s a role I used to play well. So instead of God I turned to my GP who knows me quite well. She told me it was anxiety and not depression and offered me medication which I grasped with both hands. Then for over a month I sat in my chair in the kitchen and did nothing. If I wasn’t in that chair, I moved to my granny chair in the lounge and slept. And slept. I slept all night and had to force myself to get up in the morning. The only reason I got dressed was in case someone came to the door. But really I didn’t care and all I wanted to do was sleep and hide. I managed to do the service sheets and the sermons and the newsletters full of fun stories to go out each week, but that was all I managed. The other things I had to do or plan lay in my in-tray. It was such an effort to phone my little flock and see how they were and it felt as if I was putting on a mask to be someone else, someone they used to know, just to get through it.

My GP changed my medication and I stopped sleeping. This was good, I thought. But it was just more hours to sit and ponder. I was able to return to my prayer group and support groups, but I didn’t want to say anything other than hint that things were difficult. You don’t want to bring it up in case it makes you cry again and what if you can’t stop? For once I didn’t want the attention.

In August the church buildings were allowed to open again but there was a lot of work involved in doing that. Things would be very different. I worked hard in preparing Risk Assessments and I realised that I was frightened to go back into the church building. I was worried that, despite all the new safety restrictions, I would be at risk. I knew that a few of my little flock were not quite as careful as they might be when out and about. I was worried that I was going to have to hand over control to other people to ensure our safety and I’ve never liked handing over control. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you. Would our Sidespeople make sure everyone was wearing a mask properly? Would people always fill up church from the front or would they want to sit where they usually sat? Would they get up and go and chat to friends because they couldn’t hear through the masks? Would I have to tell them off if I saw a mask pulled down from their noses because their specs were steaming up? Why was I doing it? Why open when some others weren’t? But those who decided to play it safe had good established online communities by that time. I didn’t. It turns out my GP was right… I did have anxiety. My pills were put up.

Being back in the church building was actually okay. Yes, there were a few hiccups and as weeks went by the strict rules seemed to relax a bit. We reduced the length of the service, and sermon, and our lovely organists pulled out all the stops to make us feel in the mood, even if we couldn’t sing along. It looked as if the ‘new normal’ was working okay. Nobody was complaining about no biscuits with coffee now. That was the least of our worries. No coffee after and a quick exit was the new way of leaving church. We were full to our capacity of 22 folk spaced out 2 metres apart most weeks. And gradually more folk who had been worried about coming back, gradually came and joined us. My new increase of anti-anxiety meds had started to make me shake and feel worse so the doc suggested another kind which involved slowly coming off the current ones and having a break of a few days before starting the new ones. But when I did come off them I felt so much better. The trembling hands stopped, my diabetes sugar levels sorted themselves out, and I felt more like myself. And I had energy once more. I got my Income Tax Return done with minutes to spare, I cleared out the in-trays, I was up and down off that wretched kitchen chair tidying and cooking and feeling normal again. It was such a relief that I didn’t bother starting the new tablets.

It was only then that I felt able to tell some people what had been going on. I don’t know why I couldn’t do it before but that’s how it was with me. I told the Vestry and some friends and of course they were all lovely. My GP was fine about me not taking the pills any more but is there if I need to talk again. Yes, I’m still anxious when I see people breaking the rules but not any more than anyone else. Well, perhaps just a little. I haven’t been out for months now and would dearly love to go into a shop once more but I daren’t. Not when we are so close to getting a vaccine. My only outings for months and months have been for medical reasons and I so miss seeing people but that’s how it is.

Then last week it all flooded back when mention was made of a new strain of the virus. This strain was 80% more virulent. Yes, it was mostly down south but it wouldn’t take long for it to reach Scotland. Not while people were gadding about the country because the Government are unable to make difficult and decisive decisions. We’d been promised a few days at Christmas for limited numbers to gather indoors and all of a sudden that was withdrawn. Now only 3 households can gather on Christmas Day. And even then, said our First Minister, it would be better if we didn’t. She went on to say that if she had her life to live again one of the things she would change was not locking down sooner. So, on Boxing Day the Scottish mainland would enter Level 4 which is pretty much lockdown again. I thought about my little flock, the vast majority of whom are over 80 and many live alone. If the First Minister was saying we could only meet a limited number of family on Christmas Day, how could I open my church for two services and encourage them all to come and sit indoors with others? I phoned some clergy friends for advice. There was not a universal opinion, of course. Some had spoken to medical experts in their congregations and had been advised to close immediately. Some felt they were going to be okay and would be open on Christmas Day and then wait to see what the Advisory Committee said about it. We looked for advice from our Church experts but it took some time and the answer was to make the decision ourselves and they would support us. I felt quite shaky again. A text message came from the Scottish Government because I’m on the shielding list which told me from 26 December I should be extra careful. But what’s the difference between 25th or 26th December? Why is it okay one day but not the next? I decided that it was too risky for St Fillan’s to meet in the building on Christmas Day. But how to tell them, knowing how much people were looking forward to it, especially when I knew for some it would be the only contact with other people?

I didn’t sleep much on Saturday night. Then at the end of the service on Sunday I told them that we would close from now. I could see the disappointment in some of their eyes, but I also saw one person nodding in agreement. That gave me hope to carry on. I explained how this new strain made things completely different and much riskier. If we couldn’t spend time with our beloved families why could we come to sit in a church building? Then a voice from the back shouted out, “Ruth, you’ve made the right decision. Don’t worry. We know you’re doing it out of love for us.” And then they clapped. Nearly everyone clapped. My anxiety levels dropped once more. That’s where God was!

Then the next day someone on Social Media started bleating about how ridiculous it was to close churches at Christmas. A responder said clergy who did that shouldn’t call themselves priests. And so it went on. And still goes on. Social media is definitely not good for your mental health. I worry that a wee knock like that will set me back again, and I really don’t want that to happen. So it seems that I’m still fragile underneath the bravado. If only we could all love one another, and respect others for making decisions that are right for them and their context.

So there you have it. It took longer than I planned to share my thoughts with you. As someone wise used to say to me often, “It’s difficult loving Jesus.” He was and is right. And let me share one last piece of good news… we had a practice Zoom yesterday and it worked so we may gather virtually on Christmas day! Of course it may all go wrong again and Zoom may collapse because everyone in the world will be using it, but I shall give it a try.

To all clergy before Holy Week

Dear friends

Next week is going to be hard. It is going to be hard physically and mentally. You will think that you won’t get it all done.

You will worry about hymns and service sheets and people turning up and lists not finished and missed meals and whether you’ve ordered all the right supplies and if the candle will fit. You will worry about the words you’ve carefully crafted and whether they are good enough.  You will worry that you won’t have time to fit in your family and shopping and caring for the sick and visiting the housebound. You will worry that the photocopier will run out of toner or break down or that your laptop will die or need to reboot at an inopportune moment. You will worry that you’ve forgotten something. Not something small that doesn’t really matter but something big, like your Easter sermon or whether you asked someone to bring a brazier with them for the Vigil.

You will worry that this won’t be the best Holy Week and Easter ever. You will worry that people won’t get your passion and be infected by it. You will worry that nobody will come. You will worry that your knees just won’t hold out for washing so many feet. You will worry that you just haven’t done enough. You will worry that you won’t have a clean clerical shirt by Thursday and no black trousers by Saturday.

You will worry that Jesus will die and nobody will care. You will worry that you didn’t start the preparations sooner when it was summer and the diary was empty. You will worry that you won’t find time to pray or to sleep. You will worry that someone dear will die. You will worry that the lilies won’t open in time and the daffodils won’t be out in abundance. You will worry that nobody will turn up to clean the church and make it gorgeous.

These things you will worry about.

I know you will worry about these things because I do every year. Every year my study piles up with discarded things until I can’t see the carpet or my desk or where my glasses are. Every year I go through these agonies and I toss and turn and wake up at 2am and watch the shopping channel and talk to the cat until I think I might sleep a little more before the dawn chorus begins. Every year it is the same. And every year it gets done. Maybe not perfectly, maybe not exactly as you’d hoped for, but it gets done.

And I happen to know that worrying about it helps not one jot. But I know that won’t stop you worrying because that’s what we do. We want the best for God. We want the best for our little flocks. And that’s why we worry. But the worrying makes us anxious and crotchety and ill and that really doesn’t help at all. If we cared for ourselves as much as we cared for our parishioners then we’d do just fine.

So care for yourselves, dear clergy friends. I am praying for you all today. I can’t see my desk for rubbish and the carpet is rapidly disappearing and I can feel a tension headache starting but… right now, at this very moment, I have paused to pray for you. For all of you. Know that you are loved and appreciated and that it will all happen. May God’s will be done.

Love and prayers

Ruthx

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In which Ruth ponders busyness and prayer

I am not doing very well with my daily Lent blog and I’ve even managed to fail at a weekly one over at Beauty from Chaos. Those great plans of getting ahead of myself when things were quiet (ha!) and storing them up just hasn’t happened. The excuses could take up a whole page in themselves: a funeral; meetings; a full day on Deliverance ministry; Lent Groups; sermon writing and re-writing; hymn choosing; desperately trying (unsuccessfully) to get cover for foster-flocks; assisting with Congregational Profiles; and all the other minutiae which takes up a priest’s working week. And the worst thing is that none of it has felt very holy.

It hasn’t helped that I’ve been re-reading Easter for our Book Group. There’s nothing like reading about a priest in crisis for bringing you down. Arditti is so good at observing churchgoers and it has made me wonder what goes on in the heads of my own little flock(s) during services. Of course there are some whom you know well and could probably guess. There are some who are unable to hide what they are thinking from the expression on their faces – and its not always good! But I am sure there is lots going on behind those gorgeous exteriors that I know nothing about. How well do we know our little flocks? And would they want to tell us what’s going on in their heads anyway? Post-Easter resolution is to do more visiting. Crisis ministry is not good for anyone.

I have enjoyed reading Harry Williams’ Becoming What I Am, a little book on prayer. Funnily enough it was a Roman Catholic Redemptorist brother who first introduced him to me. Why do our own theological colleges not teach us about these great writers of the (recent) past? It is so easy to read and, although a little dated, still resonates strongly with me. Today I was reading a bit which has helped me. Let me share it with you:

Von Hugel once said that a very fruitful form of prayer could be compared to sucking a lozenge. What he meant was that instead of selecting passages for meditation…, you read through a suitable book, but not in the ordinary way of getting through it. You read a few lines or a paragraph and then ponder over it. It may say something to you to make you aware of God’s presence, perhaps for the whole ten minutes. Or perhaps the lines you read will keep you going for only a minute or two; then you can go on to the next few lines and try them out. On some days you will find that two lines of the book will fill up ten minutes prayer time, and on other days that you will have to read eight or nine pages. But your aim will be not to swallow what you read immediately as in ordinary reading, but to keep it in your mouth and feel its flavour, as you do a lozenge.

Our job is to put ourselves at God’d disposal by the discipline of regularity, by faithfulness to our rule, and by the use of that common sense without which we can’t do anything. But there our job ends. What happens when we pray is God’s business, not ours. God will give us what he knows is best. And what is best we see in the life of Jesus, in his joy and peace and stillness and confidence and trust. And also in his passion, his bloody sweat, his death and resurrection.

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In which Ruth ponders clergy stress

This week I was doing some work with one of my interregnum flocks about their Congregational Profile. They were telling me that in the town there was a very successful ‘Fraternal’. (Picture Ruth doing a silent scream at this point. I hate the continued use of the word ‘fraternal’ for clergy gatherings especially when there are women in them and nobody things this is ironic.) I suggested they put this on the Profile (not the ‘fraternal’ bit!) as any form of clergy support is important and this led on to a conversation about where clergy get their support and supervision from.

“So who checks up that clergy are doing okay?”

“Who do clergy speak to about their problems if they are single and have no partner to yell at?”

“Who provides line management and supervision?”

And it does seem incredible to tell people that once you are ordained and in your first parish it is quite normal to work for three years without anyone asking if you are okay, if things are good, if you are overworking, feeling confident, managing all right. And that is when things are going well. Far worse if things are not going well, and this is where we get to the touchy subject of clergy bullying. Who heals the healer?

One of my colleagues, Malcom Round at Balerno, wrote a blog about this a while ago. it was a very honest, moving and to be honest, shocking article. (I just wish Malcolm allowed comments on his blog so we could dialogue about it.) I mentioned it on Facebook some time ago and now his blog has been seen by thousands and everyone is talking about it. Kelvin mentioned it this morning too over on his blog.

Malcolm wrote:

Many congregations have broken potentially gifted pastors by their attitudes and actions.  Sadly the Christian church is littered with good people who have left the ministry because of the pain, the criticism, and the lack of support they’ve got from congregations.  Some Christians assume they can behave in a church setting in a way they’ve never be allowed to in a work setting.  Minister abuse is much more common than is talked about”.

Isn’t this a shocking thing to read? Unfortunately clergy are not shocked by this statement because we see and hear of it regularly. We all know colleagues who feel unsupported and criticised by their congregations. We know many who have left the church and gone into teaching, chaplaincy, the voluntary sector and that is a horrible waste of good priests. Yes, of course the opposite can be true too – there are abusive clergy out there and we know the stories but mostly they come from an earlier era. But Malcolm reckons that far more common is the broken minister or pastor.

It particularly happens in small churches where the minister is alone and so vulnerable, especially in churches where there is a lot of congregational power, either in the church  business meetings, or in individuals who have held power and influence over many years.

It is most likely to erupt when the minister suggests any change at all.  Even moving the piano 6 inches, or buying new carpets can create rebellion, let alone removing the pews, or changing the worship style.  All change is perceived as bad and hurts our cherished values.

It also occurs when people feel their position of influences is being threatened by the minister or even new people are joining the church changing the dynamics. Often it is a battle for leadership and influence or personality clashes.

We’ve all met those matriarchal and patriarchal figures in church and we may even have smiled at their outbursts when we suggest the flowers are best on the window sill and not in the font. We may even have had run-ins with groups of them at the door who are not happy about the order in which the candles have been extinguished after Mass. (Truly I have seen a young server bullied for such a thing.) We’ve seen them gathering in corners whispering behind their hands, looking over to the victim of their next campaign and it can be amusing at first. But week after week, month after month, year after year, when you know they will never leave although they hate you (yes, ‘hate’ – these Christians can hate just like everyone else) can wear you down. “Clergy come and go, but this is MY church and I’m not leaving.”  And when you know their plot is paid for in the church graveyard you know they are serious. What else can you do but leave? And pass on the problem to the next Rector.

I might add that I have been very fortunate and have managed to deal with any bad behaviour that came my way. When you are an extrovert you know you are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and I find it best to acknowledge that aloud as quickly as possible. I’ve also never been afraid to say sorry if I think I have done something wrong. But I also know that there have been folk who have strongly disliked me and have spread the hate around the little flock. You only have to hope that there are enough friends who will support you in those cases. I’m not aware of any nasty letters to the Bishop, although who knows? Perhaps I just haven’t been told.

But Malcolm’s next paragraph was the one that made me gasp out loud:

Such treatment sadly has become normative in the ordained church life.  Which is one of the reasons I personally will virtually never support anybody going into full-time ‘ordained’ parish ministry.  They really do not know what they’re letting themselves, and more importantly their wives and husbands, and especially their children into.  I just don’t want to be pastorally responsible for the ruined health and damaged families and the loss of faith that inevitably occurs.  Is there any wonder why so many minister’s children become prodigals, when they see the damage that the church has done to their parents?

“I will virtually never support anybody going into full-time ‘ordained’ parish ministry.” Oh my goodness! That is a shocking thing to say and I immediately understood why Malcolm was saying it. I have seen friends leave the church. I’ve heard friends cry, I’ve held them as they wept and I don’t know how many priests are on anti-depressants but I bet its not an inconsiderable amount.

I am also aware of another kind of bullying and bad behaviour going on too and that is with retired clergy, lay readers, non-stipendiary clergy who reside in a parish and are not always supportive towards new clergy. In fact sometimes they can be downright obstructive. But who’s going to believe you if you tell them that lovely old white-haired so-and-so hasn’t told you about the house communion with six members of the congregation he does every Friday morning because he’s frightened you’ll take it away from him? Or that he forgot to tell you about the meeting in town because he wanted to go and was scared you wouldn’t want him? Or doesn’t pass on the news that someone is ill, in hospital, etc etc because they are his friend…

So my foster-flock asked who supported me. My clergy friends are probably first call. They are the ones who get the late night rant and who listen and understand and put their own last-minute sermon on hold to empathise. I also have had good Rector’s Wardens who have kept an eye on me and who listen when necessary. (My current one was my Practice Nurse for a while so even keeps an eye on my physical health too and can tell me when my asthma needs checking! Now that’s good service.) I’ve tried talking to my children on occasions but that doesn’t work. They are not church goers and find the whole system unbelievably bad and uncharitable and at times against the law. Yes, against the law, but of course the Church is exempt from some employment law. My children get angry that ‘so-called Christians’ can behave in such a way and threaten to come and punch their lights out. That never works. Really, darling, that is not going to happen. Mental note = don’t tell children again when you are hurt. So yes, you stop telling your children after a while and I imagine that is true of married clergy too. In time you just stop telling your partner and keep it to yourself.

Malcolm suggests some things you can do if you are a church member and are shocked at this article. You can check that their accommodation is good, are paid well and taking time off. In my first charge I worked at least 12 hours a day for a couple of years before my health really started to suffer and I just couldn’t continue. When I dropped to a more ‘normal’ working day it probably looked as if I was doing next to nothing in comparison.  Offer to babysit for married couples, and Malcolm even suggests paying for them to go on holiday but I’ve never been in a congregation where that was a likelihood! However, I have known some deliciously kind clergy who have helped me in that way and for them I give continued thanks and prayers. (I also know some clergy who have two homes and have offered breaks in their holiday homes.)

Be a supporter, advocate, guardian, watch their backs and bless their families. What lovely advice! Speak up positively when others are being critical and I know that can be hard to do but I’ve done it about others, and I’ve done it about Bishops and I’ve never regretted it. If your priest or bishop has been good to you then please say so. Be courageous. Pray for the strength to speak out if you really are shy and frightened. And express your love for your minister, Malcolm says. Write a wee note, give a smile and a wee hug when they’ve said something you needed to hear. We write magazine articles, we preach sermons and sometimes it feels as if nobody out there hears a single word. It can be like preaching into a void. We don’t need big strokes every day but a kind word now and again goes a long way to helping us feel that somebody out there loves us!  And that one word of love goes a long way to overcome the criticism we’ve just overheard. How can we possibly improve or correct things if we are off the mark if we don’t know? But tell us those things gently please. We may seem confident because we can speak in public but underneath some of us are fragile flowers.

Malcolm finishes with Scripture:

Hebrews 13:17

 The Message (MSG)17 Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel. They are alert to the condition of your lives and work under the strict supervision of God. Contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery. Why would you want to make things harder for them?

 

NIV 17 Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

Amen, I say. Amen.

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