Sunday, October 30, 2005

Sources of Stress

"Fear seems to be the dominant mood of the moment. Hurricanes, tidal waves, floods, earthquakes and terrorism this year have all brought with them not only appalling scenes of devastation, death and suffering, but also outrage at the lack of preparations to avoid or cope with these disasters," begins one of the editorials in last week's Economist magazine. It then goes on to talk about avian flu. It was the first thing I had read in a while that really resonnated with me because it is how I have been feeling. The world around causes me great concern, and this triggers concern deep down inside.

It seems that there is a thicker than usual pall of anxiety and stress hanging over us. Disasters, coupled with fears about the economy, tied in with anxieties about the management of the nation and its business, and then the possibility of an influenza pandemic have people on edge. We have watched fuel prices skyrocket stretching family budgets, and folks like us lose everything because of gigantic storms. This is beside the fact that September and October can be brutally hard months in the schedules of those living in the northern hemisphere.

I sometimes wonder if we in the West aren't playing a constant game to test ourselves just to see how much stress we can take. Certainly, this is the way that it has been for me over the last few weeks, and now I am psychologically and emotionally paying the price. Over the years I have become attentive to making sure that I get my sabbath each week, but because of circumstances beyond my control for the best part of five weeks I have gone without days off.

An impossible schedule, plus unexpectedly painful stresses related to my parochial ministry, have created a situation so stressful that I have found myself a companion of anxiety and depression, conditions that Winston Churchill described as "Black Dog." This, Archibald Hart, in his groundbreaking work on depression among pastors and those in the helping professions, written twenty years ago, is the motif emotion of our age. Since Hart wrote, too, life has speeded up and become more complex, further adding to our sense of fragmentation and inability to cope.

During the last couple of weeks I have been having trouble sleeping, but I would hazard 6-10 people with whom I have had pastoral dealings have made the same complaint. I have spent time with a supermom who isn't feeling so super any more, an insurance agent who keeps having panic attacks, as well as speaking to several clergy who are at the end of their rope.

For these latter sufferers is the added pall hanging over so many of us in ECUSA who have been perilously wounded by the events that are shredding our denomination. Further salt is rubbed in our wounds when there are partings of friends, something that is happening to me almost every week as I see men and women who I have traveled and world alongside for so long saying that they are not prepared to take any more of the Episcopal Church's particular brand of fallenness.

Thus we find ourselves undone by levels of stress that cause us great discomfort, and then at the same time we are called to walk alongside others who battle depression and anxiety because of the strains that are endemic in our culture. If Alvin Toffler thought we were suffering the bumps and bruises of futureshock in the 1970s, in the 2000s there is little doubt that we are at the mercy of hyper-futureshock as tomorrow takes place yesterday, and life is so frenetic that we are unable to keep up with ourselves. And when we attempt to do so, we badly damage our souls and psyches.

This is the kind of world in which we are called to minister, and when we who are the pastors fail to take care of ourselves there are all sorts of negative consequences. Since late September this has been my lot. Because I have some knowledge of the way my own inner being works, I did not deliberately plan it this way, and looking back I can see no other way I could have done things, but now my priority is to recover equilibrium and rectify this situation.

During the days ahead I will be more careful about diet, exercise, and I will be trying to listen carefully to the promptings of my soul. In addition, I will be giving myself more space, as well as attempting to read, refersh my imagination, and sit silently in the presence of the One who has called us to himself. Ministry is a high stress business, and woe betide us if we fail to take that reality seriously.

I find that when I am stretched to the very limits I read more fiction than would otherwise be the case. This "cure" has usually begun to work itself out unnoticed long before I realize what I am up to. I think the reason for this is that my imagination and creativity are starved and need to be nourished. Another element of this is that I also find myself prone to write fiction, too, not caring whether anyone ever publishes it or not. Things deep down inside work themselves out when I do this.

But there is a stress we are facing that we seldom talk about. We are great at examining therapeutic categories, but we usually overlook the fact that today's world casts us as foreigner in what was once our own culture. I am utterly convinced that the speed with which secularism and paganism have been advancing in the West has accelerated by the speed of communications. We are in the middle of this huge culture war in which those of us who are seeking to cultivate a biblical worldview, and then live according to that worldview, are frequently losing ground.

You don't need to spend long poking around the Internet to discover this -- and I am not talking about the preponderance of pornography and kinkiness that is readilly available. Ideas and ethics are being accepted as normative that fly in the face of revealed values, so we constantly need to be on our guard to critique what we are reading and come to believe or think, to protect ourselves from the kind of syncretism that is in the process of doing such harm to the old line denominations.

And the old liners are not the only ones who are in trouble. I was looking at some supposedly evangelical stuff from a blue ribbon conservative source the other day to find notions being accepted as normative that when measured against the thrust of the biblical witness were highly questionable. Materialism and relativism run rampant, and so we have to dodge and weave, as well as needing to defend ourselves against those who believe that we should shut our mouths and disappear because we are dinosaurs from a frozen past.

I have been ordained for 60% of my earthly existence. Over the years ministry has gotten harder, and like so many of my peers I have the scars to prove it. Yet I believe that today it is even harder than it has ever been, and I don't see that forecast altering. We Christians are no longer spokespeople for any other cause than that of God's Kingdom, the challenge is going to be how to live, think, and act as Kingdom people.


Richard M. Wright said...

"ministry has gotten harder [over the years]"

Without disagreeing - how so? What do you think is making ministry "harder" as time progresses?

Richard Kew said...

Richard, thanks for asking that question. I think there is a succession of things that have made ministry more demanding. The first is that during my ordained years much of the respect that was once afforded pastors has evaporated. Then we live in a high stress culture and are ministering to people living with high stresses in their lives. Furthermore, this culture is increasingly hostile not only to the Christian faith but also to the Judeo-Christian undergirding of our culture that has been there for so long -- which means we function as foreigners in our own culture. There is more, but one that I would finally add is that given these realities we are involved in a spiritual conflict with principalities and powers: and this can stretch to the very limits. Hope that helps. Richard Kew