In the next chapter of “…and thus thy life shall serve as a cautionary tale for others,” I happened to pass out after worship a few weeks ago. In the receiving line. In front of everyone. I tried to explain to the doctor that I had been slain in the Spirit, but she ended up concluding that I was exhausted.
I could have told her that without a medical school degree.
And so it is that I am trying to rest and relax and be kind to myself and all of the things that people tell you to do that only stress you out further because they sound like another thing on the list of all the things to do. But I’ve always been bad at this; when my colleagues post Facebook updates about spending the morning looking out the window and thinking about how amazing God is, I am the one posting pictures of the scented candle I lit that caught the throw blanket on the couch on fire. Overall, I am generally very poor at resting and relaxing and being kind to myself.
Alas, while solving the conundrum of my own stress seems all-consuming to me most days, I was talking with some colleagues last week who were sharing similar struggles as they work to carry it all and step up as a spiritual leader in these moments.
Let’s be honest: the work of spiritual leadership has always been hard; encountering people in their most difficult and pain-filled moments and holding out a message of hope – it can wear on you. But what about when you find yourself spending your days encountering ALL the people in their most difficult and pain-filled moments and holding out a message of hope?
“Pastoral caregivers in this moment are experiencing an exceptionally heavy burden, and that’s just the truth.”
This country is in a state of division unlike any since perhaps the Civil War. That may be a bit of hyperbole, but certainly it’s true that this is a corporate crisis the likes of which I have not seen in my lifetime of half a century. It’s clear that many, many people are deeply afraid and sharply divided right now. This state of affairs causes people to behave badly, and that inevitably comes out in communities like the church.
As a religious leader these days you’re either trying to walk a constantly moving line very carefully so that you keep your job while at the same time preaching the gospel, or you’re trying to keep your people from panicking and turning our ecclesiological expression into one big political rally protesting the government every week. (If you’re not in either of these camps – that is, if you don’t care or if you think God has ordained what is going on in the White House – this does not apply to you.)
It doesn’t matter where you fall on the political spectrum or even how your congregation shakes out politically. If you’re leading a group of people these days, you are feeling the added stress of this moment in our corporate life. People are looking to you for a word of hope, the assurance that everything is going to be okay, an antidote to our deep, shared fear of the future.
What is it they taught us in seminary? Be a non-anxious presence?
Pastoral leaders need the “constant reminder that this moment in which we are living is just one small chapter in the sweeping story of God’s redemption of the world.”
Yes, that’s our role in this moment, but it’s an especially difficult role to play when we are struggling ourselves with the heavy burden of fear. Carrying all of this can lead to panic; it can lead to exhaustion; it can even lead to passing out in the receiving line at church.
What is the solution? I am not sure; I didn’t sit down to write about this because I know the answer. I sat down to write about this because I felt like this current state of affairs needs to be named. Pastoral caregivers in this moment are experiencing an exceptionally heavy burden, and that’s just the truth. I’m sure part of the solution has to do with resting and drinking enough water and getting more sleep.
But part of it must also be the constant reminder that this moment in which we are living is just one small chapter in the sweeping story of God’s redemption of the world. We are not called to make everything perfect so people can go back to a time when their biggest problem was where to eat for dinner. We are called to love fiercely and speak truthfully and remember that God is bigger and stronger than the worst evil we encounter.
And then, we are called to rest.
And try not to set things on fire.