By Eileen Campbell-Reed
This week a new poll reports, “One in every four Americans say they had a great deal of stress in the previous month.” National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard School of Public Health sponsored the survey in March and April. They discovered that more than half of American adults experienced a major stressful event in the past year. Health related problems, including death of a loved one, accounted for 43 percent of those stressors. Problems with work, life transitions and relationships rounded out a list of stressful events in the past year.
People of faith, working as volunteer and paid leaders in church life, are not surprised by these findings. However, the findings of the poll raise important questions about how churches may respond to people under stress with pastoral care, community building and conversations, which confront structures of harm and injustice.
Church itself can be a source of stress, but practices of worship and care, life-giving relationships and courageous prophetic conversation can become sources of blessing to those worn down by health issues, relational conflict, work and life changes.
The summer I graduated from college, I also took 10 teenagers on a cross-country trip, quit my job of four years, celebrated a new marriage covenant, moved to a new city and my grandmother entered hospice care. Often stressors come not one at a time, but in clusters. Each stress compounds the others. I’m grateful to this day for the hospice chaplain, Ann, who listened attentively to layers of grief peeling back, and to family secrets spilling out, as my fierce grandmother’s life ebbed away. In the new city and without a church home, Chaplain Ann was a lifeline for me.
Although stress can be isolating, many people reach for a lifeline thrown out by a chaplain, pastor or church community. Churches bear a long-standing tradition that offers people in stress a solid and sustaining, pastorally sensitive care. Spiritual care is the centuries old gift of the church, taught by Jesus and empowered by God’s Spirit: show up and listen, see that basic needs are tended, and pray (often with few or no words) for healing and peace.
In the 21st century pastoral care is often perceived as the domain of official pastors, yet it is also the work of all member-ministers of a congregation. When people experience stress caused by illness or death, they need sisters and brothers to share the blessings of presence and tangible acts of care to alleviate pain and overcome the isolation. Whether people are living with chronic conditions (like cancer or mental illness) or more acute crises (accidents, heart attacks, sudden death) they need a lifeline and blessing of pastoral presence and sustained care.
In the NPR study four out of 10 people who felt high levels of stress within the past month reported coping by, “Attending religious services or praying more than usual.” People who are stressed look for support and blessing in religious communities and spiritual practices.
And what about people feeling stress who have no connection with a community of faith? Certainly professional caregivers, like hospital and hospice chaplains, and counseling centers, are on the frontlines of care. Yet, the pervasiveness of stress reported in the NPR study suggests that church communities may be among those best situated to offer extensive ministries of care.
Recently I spoke with CBF mission personnel Annette Ellard and Steve Clark about the rising stress levels among the Karen people with whom they work in Louisville, Ky. The Karen families fled from Burma/Myanmar, but spent months or years in Thailand refugee camps before arriving in the U.S. Today they are beyond the immediate trauma of survival, and they are feeling the stress of unprocessed loss and grief. They are also coping with delayed feelings about their major life upheavals. They are people in need of care, yet the barriers to getting that care – language, money, time, counseling expertise – are daunting.
The community of faith at Crescent Hill Baptist Church has gathered around and with the Karen people resettling in Louisville to imagine and embody both care and a new kind of shared community. Community goes beyond simple acts of care or responses to crisis. Faith communities can become the antithesis of stress. They can become networks of ongoing care, worship, shared meals, communal learning, and mutual blessing.
A major part of pastoral care for the stressed is making space for conversation, like Chaplain Ann did for me so many years ago, like Crescent Hill does with the Karen people. There are many other acts of care for the stressed, but spacious and emotionally supportive conversation makes a way to sort through many situations and feelings. Open conversation with an emphasis on deep listening grounds good pastoral care. Often within the space between people in a caring conversation, God’s gracious and loving presence comes forth and offers sustenance and blessing.
The gifts of conversation for the stressed do not, however, end with talk about the personal effects of stress. Communities of faith can also engage in ongoing conversations over time that take a prophetic view of the sources of stress in the surrounding culture. My grandmother’s early death was directly tied to a lifetime of smoking and poor diet. The stress of the Karen refugees is inseparable from geopolitical conflict and global economic crises.
Without prophetic conversation about major health issues, economic and social systems, political movements, and environmental crises, churches simply participate obliviously in the very social situations that multiply human stress. The best pastoral-prophetic conversations help faith communities to organize themselves as the people of God who resist dehumanizing and unjust systems that harm people. Out of confrontation with these stress-inducing systems may come a more lasting and genuine blessing through the church for all people.