The following recounts the experience of one of our United Church of Canada’s ordained ministers (used with the person’s full permission).
“I can remember it well. It was your typical day in the church office, I went to the phone to call an official of the church. As soon as the official answered my call I was in for it. I found myself being wrapped on the knuckles for an error I had done. It was nothing sexual or anything like that. But the reality is that I had made a mistake. To be fair the person was doing his job and I hold no ill will towards him. I was being reprimanded and unfortunately, I was not given an opportunity to explain myself. I got up from the conversation, gathered my belonging and went immediately to my car. In the car, my life fell apart. I had an emotional breakdown. I felt alone and as though the walls were closing in on me. In my desperation, I bawled and begged God to take my life! It was during that experience I heard myself asking a question I had asked once before, “where is my pastor?” To whom could I turn to help me sort out the emotional morass in which I found myself? Who would be the one to offer me pastoral care? Who was the one I could believe would genuinely hear me and I could trust not to use my issues against me? There was no pastor and the next days, although I felt hollow and numb inside, I was back in the church doing my job and giving the pastoral charge my best “game face.”
The specifics may differ from minister to minister, but if I were a gambling man I would have made a wager that the experience of needing a pastoral shoulder cited above is not a unique one.
The month of October is considered by some as Pastor Appreciation Month. It is supposed to be a time where congregations can intentionally express their appreciation for the ministry offered by their ministry personnel. The vocation of the ministry personnel is part of the helping ministries of the church; service to help others. It falls to the ministry personnel to support and help persons during what is called those critical times in the lives of individuals and families. At times, we call this pastoral care, and it, according to The United Church of Canada, is something that the ministry personnel is either ordained, commissioned, or designated to do.
Ministry at the best of times is difficult. The pressures on the minister, and the ministerial family, are great and can lead to ministry burnout, isolation, or disillusionment. The susceptibility of ministry personnel to depression and other mental illnesses are well documented. In 2013, for example, the Huffington Post carried an article which declared that ministers are at a great risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders.
Many ministers have, in one way or another, passed through the times of feeling alone and having to suffer their pain silently. These pressures may be caused by the pastoral charge, the wider church, or by the personal and domestic situations of the minister. The obligation of boundaries causes some ministers to believe that we are not there to be friends to people in the congregation. Boundaries also remind us that it is not correct to off load our problems on to the congregation members. Sometimes it has been the spouse or partner of the minister who knows that the pillows have been tear stained because of the issues being faced. Even so many ministry partners will also admit that they have been shielded by the minister from many of these realities in the pastoral charge.
So, what happens when the one in the helping profession needs help? If ministry is so complex, then who are the ones set aside to support ministers through the entanglements of serving in a pastorate? At times, it can appear that church courts really do not care about the ministry personnel so long as he or she gives a reasonable sermon each Sunday and is available for what the pastorate and the wider church needs to be done.
I am concerned about the presence (or more specifically the absence) of the systemic institutional support available and given to ministers. I am even more concerned when I cast my view unto the changes that are to come to our structures. What I see in large part is a silence about the intentional support ministry that will be available for ministers. Let me acknowledge that the issues of the care and support of ministers is a responsibility that is shared. The minister has a responsibility to care for him- or herself. But the church also has a sacred responsibility in this regard. Part of the formation for ministry in our present age must include discussion on self-care and looking at some of the best practices that are occurring among ministers.
Under our current structures it is the presbytery which has a primary responsibility for the care and support of ministry personnel. Some presbyteries do a great job of this and honestly some seem to have forgotten this reality. So, when the presbyteries are no more, whose responsibility will it be to care for and support the minister? My sense of unease is not calmed when I read about some of the visions for the proposed Office of Vocation. What I see are mostly proposals to guide the business of organizational process; the paper pushing of processes and decision making. These things are important, we must, after all, have clear processes and procedures for candidature, admission, ministry formation, and discipline. But have we forgotten that ministers are human beings, not superhumans, and that they will need support?
So, this month I am raising my voice to ask the question of The United Church of Canada, who is the pastor to the pastors? As we contemplate restructuring who will have this responsibility? Both the regional councils and the Office of Vocation need to ensure that the provision of pastoral care for ministry personnel as an important concern, in addition to the administration responsibilities they will be tasked with. At the 42nd General Council in Corner Brook it was agreed that the proposed regional councils would have responsibility to "encouraging and supporting ministry personnel towards health, joy and excellence in ministry practice.” If this continues to be the plan, then the question of geographic size of a region becomes a point of concern. I would plead with the Boundaries Commission to give some contemplation to the need for effective support of ministry when they render their decision on the number and size of regional councils.
The church, the body of Christ, has a fundamental responsibility to care and support all of its members. And one does not cease to be a member of the body of Christ because you become a ministry personnel. Any reason we can give to have a minister in a congregation to offer care to others must lead us to realize that the set of human beings called ministry personnel will at times also need the same ministry of support that is offered to the laity.
Could it be that one of the greatest ways, in the short and long run, to show appreciation to ministry personnel is to acknowledge the inherent pressures associated with the vocation and to ensure that the structures to support and care are in place institutionally? Also, in the event you have not done so yet, show some appreciation to the person who is the ministry personnel in your congregation. A simple, “thanks for the work you do” may go a far way in showing your support for that person.
—Paul Douglas Walfall is the ministry personnel in the Fort Saskatchewan Pastoral Charge in the Yellowhead Presbytery, Alberta and Northwest Conference.