The importance of rest

Attorney and church mediator Blake Coffee (great name) recently blogged

“Nobody wants a surgeon operating on them when that surgeon is in a state of exhaustion.  Nobody wants a pilot flying their airplane when that pilot is sleep deprived.  Nobody wants truck drivers operating 18-wheelers on our highways when they are falling asleep at the wheel.  When none of us in our right minds would trust our physical well-being to an exhausted person, why do we trust our Spiritual well-being in the hands of an exhausted minister?  More importantly, why, when we are the minister, would we think we can minister effectively when we are at the end of our rope physically?”

He advises that we listen to the words of Jesus to the disciples to come away and rest and warns against the dangers of not doing it. Obviously I was stupid enough not to heed the words of Jesus because I overworked, burned myself and others, developed severe depression and anxiety and finally as I became suicidal stepped down to seek treatment. Knowing that R&R is important isn’t enough. As I responded to Blake, there are some really good reasons why we don’t rest and they run very deep.

Part of it is due to the our “philosophy of ministry” and part of it is to do with the kinds of churches we run, some is due to congregations expectations and some is what we put on ourselves.

For example, we demand extremely high volunteer commitment and attendance levels, so some pastor’s I know of, continued to attend their church even while they were on leave. Stupid I know – but we’ve got to walk the talk right?

Others take little of their leave because they feel like God is promising them a “breakthrough” and that they’re in a season of sowing etc. and to take a break would somehow be unfaithful, or faithless and result in not getting the “miracle” they’re expecting. In other words they “spiritualize” their over-work and thus deceive themselves. Self deception is really difficult to self diagnose!!

Our business-styled contemporary churches run off the CEO charismatic pastor model. The senior pastor is the Steve Jobs of his little patch. Everything revolves around him. He is the vision caster, the primary voice – the lynch pin if you like. We don’t like to admit it but it’s true (we like to teach that Jesus is the center). But when the pastor’s out of the picture the church is just in a holding pattern. No-one likes to work hard to build, then take time off and see things possibly decline. It’s a function of the model we’ve chosen.

Another reason I didn’t take enough time out was because I knew work would be piled up when I got back. There are just some things you can’t delegate. Things were piled up enough as it was so my mindset was one of “work hard to get the monkey off my back then rest”. Unfortunately, I never cleared my inbox before becoming too ill to do it despite some nights sleeping under my desk.

So I guess I’m saying, it’s good to know that we need time off, but there are very deep reasons why pastor’s are expiring at a rate of 1500 each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure according to New York Times (August 2010) and it’s not for a lack of knowledge about rest.

Parenting with a mental illness

I’ve been invited to work with a national group called Children of Parents with Mental Illness to develop a new website for dads who have a mental illness. I’ve attended a panel interstate and am contributing to a wiki which will then be morphed into the website. Next month, they’re flying down to film my story for the website.

In the course of disgorging what I’ve learned about parenting with mental illness it struck me (eventually) that parents with mental illness who are in recovery can actually make better parents! It was one of those light bulb moments for me because I realised that I’d been teaching my kids emotional and coping skills that were never taught to me.

One thing that mental illness has taught me is an emotional vocabulary. Before my mental illness, I was an emotional neanderthal. Most men are. If you ask Average Man how he’s feeling, you’ll get grunts to the effect of “not bad”, “fine”, “stoked”, “dunno”, and “alright I s’pose”. None of which are really feelings, and none are very nuanced. In fact he may not even know how he’s feeling. (Yes girls, it’s shocking!) That’s what it was like for me.

I’m still learning to be able to know and describe my feelings, but I’m on the way. Mindfulness is helping me observe my emotions impartially and notice where they are in my body and their intensity. Yes I know it’s all a bit girly by normal standards, but normal standards aren’t helpful. What I’ve found is that to be in touch with one’s emotions is to be fully human.

So these are the things I’m teaching my kids. To notice their emotions and to be able to describe them honestly and without judgement. To accept them, and yet to not feel compelled to do anything about them. Emotions are the like the car on the road outside our house. They come, and they go. We don’t jump out of our chair and race to the door and feel like we have to do something about them (unless you’re a dog). We can acknowledge emotions, experience them, and be kind to ourselves about what we’re experiencing but we don’t have to be ruled by them or carried away by them.

It’s a great way to approach difficult emotions such as pain, suffering, grief, anger, frustration, hatred, rage, jealousy, and rejection to name a few. These are really uncomfortable and hard to process for all of us, so giving kids tools to do it sets them up for life.

The cockroach that killed a Giant

This isn’t quite the story with the good ending, but it must have happened in my loungeroom for a reason! In Aesop’s Fables, the mouse chews through the hunters’ net and lets the lion go. In this case, the smaller somehow managed to kill the larger.

I have an aquarium at home which I love (although the live amazon sword plant is a bit irritating because it won’t grow). In the four foot tank swim danio’s, flying foxes, neon tetras and a beautiful blue lone Siamese Fighter (note to self – get some girls for him).  Being a fly fisherman, I love seeing fish hit insects on the surface, particularly if that insect is an imitation I’ve tied and it’s on the end of my line. In between fishing however, I’ve taken to swatting house flies and dropping them in the tank. Generally one particularly aggressive Giant Danio motors up and snaffles it, chewing hard as it swims off. The smaller fish usually don’t get a look in, unless the Giant is off his game, or two are dropped in at once (he only has one mouth).

The house flies were fine, until we started dropping in small cockroaches. These would get picked at until they fell apart and were digestible by the fish. It’s all a bit of fun of course…. and the giant danio just keeps getting bigger. In fact, he’s the biggest fish in the tank, and spends most of his time motoring from one end to the other chasing all the other fish around. We also suspect that he personally accounted for around sixteen of the neon’s. Poor things.

A couple of days ago, one of the kids noticed the Giant floating motionless upside down – dead. Upon inspection, the killer was located. It was a small cockroach, jammed down his throat. He’d literally bitten off more than he could chew. It’s crazy I know. Why would a fish eat something that is so big, they can’t swallow? Surely something in nature would program into its brain some kind of ability to estimate size? And that’s when I realised – It was a metaphor for my ministry career.

I think in most churches, the pastor is the biggest fish in a small pond. It’s only stepping outside the church that I realised how small a pond it was that I was tearing around in. I mean it seemed large because the workload was overwhelming, because we were dealing with hundreds of people, volunteers and staff, but really it was small. And like the Giant, I was rushing from one end of it to the other, chasing all the other fish around.

By the time we went multisite, I had that much on my plate from God to governance, and management to ministry that it was like biting off more than I could chew. I was the giant that swallowed the cockroach. I was chewing as hard as I could and working so many hours and weekends, but still couldn’t manage, until I burned out. That bad-ass cockroach strangled me and left me floating upside down in my little pond.

In the end, my emotions and mental wherewithall gave out. I guess in life, we can only have so much on our plate. We can only bite off what we can chew. Any more than that, and we’re liable to do ourselves an injury.

On the upside, the Giant annoyed us. He would literally herd the other fish and chase them due to his size advantage. He’s gone now, and so has my career and ministry. But the upside for me, is I’m discovering how to live, how to slow down and pace myself. And I think I’m a better person for it all.

Ruminating like a cow. Why I may have four stomachs.

I’ve realised as part of my recovery and ongoing wellness, that I need to have time alone. Being an introvert, this is just the way I’m wired. I must say also, that I believe even extroverts need time alone, but are even less likely to get it or plan for it.

So I structured time alone – often at home. I’d get the kids off to school, and pretty much have my housechores done (the bare minimum usually) and then slum around. I get on the net, check emails, fart about on Facebook, blog a bit, read forums (freshwater and fly fishing of course), look up interesting things like how to repair the fins on my Hobie kayak and how to build my own custom fly rod.

I’d make cups of tea, drink a couple of beers, rarely check the TV unless I’d recorded a program, but even then, rarely watch it. And of course I’d warily watch the time….. knowing that at 3.45 pm hordes would descend on the house, crash through the door and pillage our family home leaving carnage and crumbs everywhere.

But most of all, I noticed that I experienced a low mood on these days. I think I have been ruminating – like a cow. Cows have four stomachs you know. And they chew over things, again, and again, and again. I do that. I ruminate over things, again and again. But not very helpful things. So they don’t really get digested. And they probably should be expelled. I saw a cartoon recently that said “don’t hold your farts in. They travel up your spine and into your brain and this is where shitty ideas come from”. I probably have that going on.

So it’s a dilemma. I know I need time alone to rejuvenate, but it can’t be unstructured, aimless, pointless time alone. I need to have something to do. And this is why it’s a dilemma. I’m a recovering Type A, performance driven, alpha male. I’ve realised how I ended up burned out and it’s because I’ve lived as a human doing for too long, instead of a human being. I don’t want to be like the masses who are so busy with their lives that they don’t have time to just ….. be! But on the other hand, if I’m not doing something, I ruminate – and research has shown that people who tend to brood, have higher rates of depression.

So after much thought (I do sometimes ruminate on useful things), I’ve decided that it’s not so much having something to do. It’s having something to focus on or aim towards. There’s a subtle difference. I might focus on repairing something, or tying up some flies, or reading a book, or writing stuff, but it’s a focus. It’s like having a game plan for the day – a road map if you like. But I try not to let achievement and performance dictate the focus – because I don’t want to end up where I’ve already been. That would make burnout pointless, and I can’t afford for it to be pointless.

It’s a fairly subtle change in approach to my cave time, but I think it’s going to work out a little better. I also know that this approach also helps depressed people in their recovery from the great darkness that it is. For really unwell people, having a list (below) can be quite a powerful aid to recovery, without which, they may never even venture out from under the blankets.

  • get out of bed
  • have a shower
  • have breakfast
  • go for a walk
  • read a book

So who’s looking after the ones who look after sufferers of depression?

It can be a confusing nightmare caring for a loved one suffering depression. I mentioned in a previous post, what might have been if only my wife had picked up on the warning signs early, but the fact that she didn’t is unsurprisingly common. This week I attended the Partners in Depression training for facilitators who will run six week support groups for carers of depression sufferers and I learned a lot about helping carers and their experiences.

The research conducted indicated five common themes for carers, that these new support groups are seeking to address;

1. Carers felt socially isolated. They felt that support from other family and friends was lacking and in the wider community due to stigma. This was made worse by the fact that they had turned down social invitations because they were in that caring role and these eventually dried up.

they didn’t come near me because they didn’t know what to say…..” “She didn’t want to go out, so we didn’t go out. We’d knock back invitations… then they stopped coming”

2. Carers felt a lack of engagement with healthcare providers. They were often excluded from the treatment and management of the illness, and due to confidentiality found it frustrating trying to get information and understanding as to how best to support their loved one.

we didn’t know, we weren’t told… it’s almost as if we are irrelevant and a nuisance…”

3. Carers stressed the importance of support groups or agencies. Organisations such as the one I work for have been able to let them know they’re not alone and assist with sharing information and offering useful strategies and even respite for those who qualify.

I needed the help as a carer, not anything to do with my husband…. it was just that I needed somewhere to go for support for me.”

4. The illness had a direct impact on the carers. They were often unprepared for the relentless nature of the caring role and rated high on anxiety scores, and ended up at higher risk of depression themselves.

You can only keep propping the person up for so long… and then you start feeling down.”

5. Carers intimate relationships had declined. There were intense feelings of sadness and grief over losing the person that was, to depression. This added further to the sense of isolation.

This is not the person I married four years ago…. he is just a shadow of who he was, and that is sad.”

It seems that carers are the forgotten ones who are shouldering a heavy load all alone. The keys to alleviating the carers stress revolved around education and self care.

If you’re a sufferer, do those caring for you have enough support for themselves in place and have a strategy for self-care? Do they have an understanding of what you’re experiencing and how best to care for you? How are they managing the challenge?

Emotional Language

I’ve noticed that my nine year old son often gets negative and frustrated. He regularly comes home from school irritated and saying things like “I hate school, I have no friends, the teacher is unfair” and other broad sweeping generalizations. Some days he tells me he doesn’t want to go to school, and once he told me he’d like to die. He can also get quite angry with his little brother and sister at times too. Sometimes he seems to have so much pent-up emotion that it’s obvious, he really has no idea what to do with it. He’s feeling it, but it’s overwhelming him.

There are two scary things about his moods and mindset when things don’t go the way he expects. The first is that he seems to be very much like me when he’s frustrated. I guess that’s understandable. We inevitably reproduce who we are in our kids – good and bad. When he’s looking like mini-me, you’ve no idea how much that presses the buttons of his mother. The second, is that I think he, being the eldest has been exposed to the conflict in our marriage the most in terms of his awareness of what’s going on. The venom, the arguments, the freeze-outs and stonewalling, the simmering tension, I think, has taken its toll on him.

It’s obvious that he, like me, doesn’t seem to know how to handle his emotions. It’s really only in the last few years, I’ve been coming to grips with my emotions, so I’m trying to pass this on to him, so he doesn’t end up like me.

An emotional language, is the ability to identify and describe your feelings. Women are naturally good at this. Their ability to describe how they’re feeling is much more nuanced than men, because they’ve had more practice for a lot longer. Ask a man how he feels about something, he might say “I feel good about it” or “I don’t feel too good about that”. Hardly specific or useful.

Last night, I helped my son journal his emotions. He’d had a bad day at school. I asked, how did you feel? Angry, irritated, frustrated, sad, annoyed, disappointed? I’m trying to give him an ability to accurately name his emotions. Then I asked what he was thinking when he had those feelings. “It’s not fair, we weren’t told about the changes, I wanted to do something different”. I’m trying to help him see the connection between thoughts and feelings, so that eventually he’ll learn to challenge his thoughts, to try and lift negative emotions. I asked him what were some alternative thoughts and we brainstormed together.

I asked him how long those negative feelings lasted and what changed them. I’m hoping to teach him mindfulness, where he’s aware of his feelings in the moment, and he’s grounded and is aware when negative emotions are fading. I want him to get to know the things that lift his emotions so he can be more strategic about using those things.

Finally I want him to understand that emotions rise and fall over the course of a day, or a week. We have low emotions and high emotions all the time. I helped him to see that his mood was good around tea time and afterward – so he doesn’t globalise and say “the whole day was bad because of what the teacher did this morning”.

Emotions go up and down depending on how we view the events of the day as they unfold. Being grounded and aware of them and being able to name them is the art of mindfulness. Challenging our views and thoughts about certain events can help manage our emotions. Knowing those things that can boost or lift our emotions is important, and you can only discover them by being mindful. Also realizing that emotions come and go and that experiencing a full range of emotions is part of the richness of the human experience keeps what we’re experiencing in the moment in perspective. Our current mood won’t last.

I hope that by teaching him a nuanced emotional language, that it will become part of a toolbox that strengthens his resilience and well being. The alternative to having a good emotional language, is denial and suppression and those tricks failed me miserably. I hope he can avoid the mental illness that I’ve experienced.

Clergy Burnout

The New York Times report that “findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.” The full article is here.

Pastors have a lot going for them. In general because we live and work in a highly relational environment, we have the opportunity to build good supportive relationships with others. Furthermore, we have a faith that sustains us in difficult times and beliefs which help us understand our “tribulations” in a bigger context. We also pray. All these elements have been proven to increase one’s resilience and wellbeing.

But the results are contradicting what one would intuitively think. There are complications;

Pastors aren’t equipped to self-care or monitor their own mental wellbeing. Pastor’s overwork and don’t take sufficient time off (as pointed out in the above article). Often pastors are isolated and unable to develop transparent supportive relationships with congregants. We tend to have triumphalist theologies of overcoming, abundant life, standing firm, believing in the face of opposition, and simplistic ideas that prayer, faith, reading God’s word and serving Him faithfully will result is us gaining victory over such temporal issues such as stress, anxiety and the odd inconsequential feelings of depression. After all we walk by faith not by feeling – which generally means we can become unfeeling through supression and denial.

Pastors don’t debrief with a professional. We often deal with extremely difficult people who are often experiencing extreme difficulty in their lives, yet we don’t have the level of training to be able to manage the drain on our personal resources. Pastors are spread too thinly, expectations are inflated, vision can border on magical thinking. We can even tend to buy into our own charisma and the cult of personality.

And we’re probably the least likely to get help, because that would show just how weak and ineligible we are to lead God’s people. We lead by example after all, and if we are offering life and life more abundantly, but can’t demonstrate it, then we’re a sham. So we fake it til we make it until in my case, I got too sick to even fake it.

Here’s a really practical thought. Maybe all pastors should attend a mental health first aid course. This would help destigmatize mental illness, educate on warning signs and hopefully help get early diagnosis and treatment for those who are already suffering. And all the congregants who have a mental illness all said – Amen!