I remember the day well. I was summoned to a meeting by one of the senior lay leaders of the church. He was evasive about the reasons for the meeting, but it was serious. There began a series of events in my life which caused ministry to become extremely difficult. I remember the incredible pressure I felt myself to be under and everything in my life began to fall apart.
I recall one day coming home from the church office, and before I knew it, I was sitting on the floor of the kitchen just staring into space. I do not know how long I was there, but that was where my wife found me. The sight of me sitting there was so traumatic for her that that evening, although she had plans, she refused to leave home. She feared for the safety of our children and for my own safety. Not long after that experience I found myself a counsellor who told me that I had depression.
This is the first time that I have publicly acknowledged this part of my history. A combination of shame and not knowing how people would respond has kept me from saying anything to anyone. To be honest, I am still afraid of sharing this story. I am not, and do not wish to be, the poster child for mental illness among ministers. I acknowledge that, although I have passed through those dark times, I know the reality of mental illness all too well.
I also believe that greater awareness is needed about mental health in our church.
In recent years, I have come to discover that my experience of mental illness is not unique. I recently heard that nearly half of the claims for disability benefits from ministers are because of mental health issues. And those are only the reported cases. I have heard the stories of many colleagues for whom the pastoral relationship has been a toxic experience or who face their difficult times alone and sometimes in despair. I have also heard the stories of ministers who feel uncared for by the church and of ministers who are living with various mental illnesses. All these stories remind me that the call to be a minister does not make us immune from stress, or the effects of what are sometimes traumatic experiences.
My experience tells me that the church owes ministers’ spouses, immediate families, and close friends a debt of gratitude. For these are the people who oftentimes singularly bear the burden of caring for the minister and providing mental health support. Too often, ministers live without support from their faith communities. Their loved ones hold the secret when the minister is living with mental illness and put a brave public face forward to the people of the church.
Since coming to Canada, I have become acutely aware that pastoral stress is also connected to racism. If racism is understood as putting stress on the mental health of people of colour, then it must be understood that those who face racism are under considerable stress. For Black and other racialized clergy, there are not only the usual pressures of ministry, but also the presence of racism. So while we must be concerned about the mental health and wellbeing of all ministers, we need to pay extra attention to the challenges facing ministers who are people of colour.
I share my story to raise awareness of the need to care about the mental health of our ministry personnel. Ministry, under the best of situations, is filled with many stressors. Often it costs us nothing to show that we care, and we should be intentional about expressing this great thing we call love to those who serve us as ministry personnel.
If you know that your minister is facing considerable stress, then don’t pretend it’s not happening. Express concern and help to make your congregation a caring, non-toxic environment.
I wonder if part of all ministry covenants should include a commitment to allow ministry personnel to have annual appointments with a counsellor or other mental health professional as they serve.
In the current structures of The United Church of Canada, this intentional concern for ministers would fall under the responsibility of the regional councils for “encouraging and supporting ministry personnel towards health, joy and excellence in ministry practice.” I commend the work of the regional councils and pray that they will indeed find ways to do this important job.
At the end of the day, our ministry personnel are not merely paid accountable staff. They are people called by God to serve the people of God! As ministers follow the example of Jesus to wash the feet of God’s people, I believe that we should also be intentional and deliberate about ensuring that ministers are ministered to. October is Clergy Appreciation Month! This month is set aside to intentionally let ministry personnel know that they are appreciated, even if it is just to remind them that they are being prayed for by you.
—Rev. Dr. Paul Douglas Walfall is the minister of the Fort Saskatchewan Community of Faith in the Northern Spirit Regional Council.