When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend: Reflections On Life And Ministry With Depression

Testimonies can be powerful, which is why they are something of a Christian ‘thing’. Especially amongst we who call ourselves (charismatic) evangelicals. You know the sort of thing – in a worship service or conference, a person will tell his or her story about dramatic change in their their life, attributed to God in some way. These are true and genuine – be they physical healing, emotional healing, general life change as a result of an encounter with God, or the like. There’s good reason to find these helpful – they remind us that God is living and active and able to actually do stuff here and now; that prayers get answered and change is possible. There is a caveat; like a diet that entirely consists of steak (only for example, nothing against steak), it’s good for a few meals, but if that’s all we eat we’re going to get into trouble. I mean to say this: that if the only stories we tell are stories of total transformation, healing, overcoming and victory then we’re only telling part of the truth. I’m not suggesting for a minute that these testimonies are untrue; it’s just that they’re not the whole truth.

This applies in any area of ministry and life in general; healing ministry, social justice, finances. It could be anything. We need to tell other stories alongside the stories of victory and change. As is often the case, a self-confessed addict can be helpful here; he will speak of himself (if he’s wise) as ‘a recovering addict’, not ‘a recovered one’. Healing and freedom for the recovering addict is a daily, ongoing, repeated journey. We all need to tell stories like this – of the processes and journeys, the struggles and failures and repeat visits in our lives. I come to this as a minister and church leader; there is a pressure and expectation to be strong; to be healed and from my own healing to heal others. Don’t have needs, I’m subtly told – or if I do, don’t express them. It’s been fed back to me on previous occasions that I must never respond to a congregant who asks the ‘How are you?’ question with anything less positive than ‘Ok’ or ‘fine’ so that people won’t be put off from telling me their stuff.

My therapist, who’s not a Christian, helped me see the absurdity of this. Is the leader really expected to have no wounds or problems? People know I sin, right? The thing is, I never have a day where I’m OK or fine; I have Ankylosing Spondylitis, which means that every single day for over 20 years I have had pain of a minimum of 3 out of 10 on the pain scale, along with other symptoms. I also live with ADD, chronic depression, anxiety, PTSD, dysgraphia and dyspraxia. I am never OK; essentially in being asked to say I’m OK when I never am is asking a minster to lie about how they’re doing in order to make things easier for the person they’re speaking to. We all know lying is sinful; so this represents a request to your minister to knowingly sin to make it easier on you.

Nonsense. Understandable nonsense, but nonsense all the same. Not being OK doesn’t mean I can’t hear your stuff; in fact (unless it’s a really bad day, which means I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed to see you in anyway), for the Christian my wounds and pain make me more able to understand your wounds; we are, after all, healed by, not in spite of, Christ’s wounds (as well as His perfection; His perfection means that your minister as well as you don’t have to be perfect). It’s what priest and author Henri Nouwen and others have called the ministry of the wounded healer.

 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

All of this is a very long way round to talk about Mark Meynell’s book ‘When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend’. He’s a relatively conservative theologian and minister from England, who for a long time now has lived with depression and PTSD. This book is his story; it’s subtitled ‘Reflections on Life and Ministry with Depression’. The Christian, and especially the evangelical, conversation about mental health has improved a great deal recently, but there is still a way to go. This book will be an important part of that, as much because of what it doesn’t do as well as because of what it does do. It tells the author’s own story, offering Biblical reflections along the way; it offers hints and tips and suggestions – but never solutions. It doesn’t suggest his experience is universal; quite the opposite. The author is wise enough to let his specific story be his and his alone – and to allow us to through that understand our own stories; to see where they connect and diverge from his. It’s not the story of victory; it’s the story of a still-ongoing night long wrestle with a being who may be an angel or may not – but God is there; it’s just that it’s hard to see in the dark cave of mental health pain (to use the author’s own image of the cave). When you’re in the cave you can’t tell if it’s night or day outside; let alone if the one you’re wrestling happens to be God. The author attaches no guilt to that; he simply gives some idea of what has helped him. Some sense of direction of where to look, which way to turn to find the light.

Mark Meynell is also a good theologian, with a teacher’s gift for making complex ideas accessible without ever simplifying them. His use of the Bible is nourishing, well-thought through and personal. His use of one psalm in particular bought me up short, in all the best and most healing ways. I rather think I share with him some taste in music (and films?); I reckon he’d be fascinating company over a beer.

This book will be a friend to many church leaders like me; it will be a challenge to many church members. Over the 8 plus years I’ve been at my current church, my congregation have grown more accustomed to my weaknesses and inadequacies; sometimes that has infuriated some people (including me); sometimes some of us have found it healing. That doesn’t mean I can’t be better or wiser at this, or that I don’t have anything to learn; it’s just that weakness seems to be something God works through, rather than in spite of. (That’s actually in the Bible, it turns out). As the prophet Michael Smith sang: “Wear your scars like medals”.

Will we tell better stories, then? As leaders, will we tell the stories of our struggles and pains? Will be OK with not being OK – and saying that; and through that allowing healing to come? Or will we play to the image of alpha male strength, people-pleasing by never walking with a limp despite the excruciating pain? Of course, if we try to not limp when the pain is too much, eventually we won’t be able to walk any more; and then people really will get hurt. But that doesn’t stop us defaulting to the presentation of health; to presenting the image of being the sort of fine that people think they need in us.

We’re not made to be idols of shiny OK-ness for the sake of the ease of conscience of people in our communities. We’re made to be fellow disciples; perhaps with a sense of where we’re going, trained and gifted and set aside to help point out some things that others may miss. Those things include our own inadequacies; as much for our own good as for the good of those we lead, let’s let go of pretence about ourselves towards God and others. It’s OK for a leader not to be OK, and to say that. Mark Meynell’s book will be a significant companion on that journey for church leaders and members alike.

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Glimpses Of The St Peter’s Story: Church In The Mess

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Pavlova was always one of my favourite deserts. It was a regular Sunday lunch pudding; my mother was a dab hand with meringue-making (which, it turns out, is not a common gift); the crispy-chewy product would then be slathered with cream and fruit of some description: berries, apples, bananas, oranges, kiwi … the list goes on. Simple, but memorable. All the better for it containing fruit, and therefore being healthy. It was something of a shock to discover that it’s not a dish of British origin – I just assumed it was, coming as it did for us after a traditional English Sunday roast. It turned out it was Australian; but my deep-seated desire to beat Australia in sports was nevertheless glad to acknowledge that this was a good desert anyway. Later, however, I discovered that the British had co-opted the pavlova, and put their own twist on it in the form of Eton Mess. Named after that most private of private schools, it’s all the elements of pavlova mashed up into a mess in one small pudding dish. I’m sure someone will try to tell me why it’s radically different; but it’s not. It’s just good old-fashioned English co-option of another culture. The same part of me prefers to it to pavlova as likes to take ice-cream and mash it up into a semi-solid state, all the better to mix with sauce. The mess just seems more tasty to me.

I find mess generally appealing. Not physical mess per se – I’m neither especially messy in my surroundings, nor especially tidy (maybe my family would disagree…). I don’t like dressing smartly; I feel most comfortable in jeans or shorts and a t-shirt. Ties annoy me; I don’t mind my Sunday-morning clerical collar, as long as I can carry it off in some slightly disordered way. I don’t think in a clean, ordered way – this is in part down to my ADD and my learning disabilities. I find it hard to plan a rigorous, logical train of thought. I can make associations between ideas; I then often find that I have to backtrack to enable anyone listening to me (and, often, myself) to see that there is a very good reason for what I said, it just wasn’t immediately obvious. I didn’t inherit my Dad’s mathematical bent in all sorts of ways; in particular, I can get very bored with ‘showing the working’, as teachers always insisted we do. I have to, often, however; in my preaching I’ll let ideas marinate in my head, then write down notes of a structure  – which gives a skeleton to my ideas, and makes it look much more ordered than it ever was in my head at the beginning of the week’s preparation.

The same is true of my leadership. I’m not a great planner; I’m not a systems person. It’s not that I think they’re bad – it’s just very hard for me to get into them. I’ve had much leadership training – most of it emerging from suburban, professional men who often lead suburban churches full of professionals. These programmes tell me the strategies and – yes – programmes that help to ensure healthy and numerically growing churches. I’ve learned much from these; but I’ve also learned it’s hard for me to lead and work that way.

So I lead in a kind of strategic mess. I have a fairly firm idea of the sort of place I want to get to; I’m not too sure of how we’re going to get there. I have a few people alongside me who are better at the structure than I am; they’re the sort of people who can help me see the route on the map that might be most helpful for the general sort of destination that I have in mind. The church I lead is in a messy kind of area. It’s predominantly urban; but there are aspects of suburbia to it also. There’s much poverty, and many on the cusp of poverty; there’s a good number in a quite high-powered jobs too. Then there are students, who are in their own special kind of category. Over the years we’ve been here, many programmes and courses have crossed our minds; few, if any, of them have been the right idea at the right time. We meet together three times a week – twice on a Sunday morning, once on a Thursday evening – much of the rest of time we leave people to do their own thing that God has called and shaped them for, and to ask for help if they need it.

This mess can be unnerving; unnerving for me, even if it feels more natural. The liturgical tradition of which we are a part helps gives some structure and safety, rounding off a few of the rough edges I may leave untended. The church order of Anglicanism can do that too – though we’re an odd church, in ‘association’ with Anglican structures, whilst not fully part of them. Maybe that’s why I can find myself a good fit with this particular church. It can be unnerving for members too; sometimes people will join a church because it offers something different. Our church does – but after some time, the seeming lack of structure, the mess can expose raw edges in us all and we can start to bump up against each other. That’s not always pretty – and sometimes people end up finding a different home. We could do better – and next time, we try to do so.

We also, though, need to be true to who God shapes us to be. When people find a home with us, they express that they like – or have learned to like  – the mess and informality. It seems to allow people a way to be themselves, to change at their own pace, and to discover who God has made them to be, rather than to be a cog in a church machine that seems to exist to keep itself going.

The fact is that too many of us – ministers and lay people alike – are hurt, burned out, worn down by church life. I’m as much to blame as anyone. We don’t seek to be a church for everyone – no one church is going to be home to everybody; but we do seek to be a church that errs on the side of space rather than structure, improvisation rather than planning, mobility rather than staticity. We are church in the mess, for the mess; serving a God whose Spirit hovered over the formless void and who specialises in bringing order of chaos. We may get more wrong than we get right; but in his mercy, God works for good. This may not be what every church is invited to be; but I wonder what would happen, what new things might emerge, if more of us church ministers made our home in the mess; seeking to control less, and see what might come as a result. As society urbanises at faster and faster rates, this mess will become the context of more and more ministry. Maybe there’s a call to freestyle, to improvise a little bit more in the future that’s arriving in our cities. Anyway; for better or worse, this is who we are and under God’s grace, who we seek to be.

 

Lessons On The Way 2: How to make sure your church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

A couple of weeks ago one article kept on popping up in my Facebook feed. It’s the sort of article which ordinarily I’d avoid, but the fact it kept on recurring, from people I know and respect, meant I eventually decided that resistance was futile and clicked the link. It’s a short article with an attention-grabbing idea: that certain professions attract a higher proportion of people with psychopathic tendencies, and the people who reach the top of these professions are reasonably likely to hold some of these tendencies. It’s not a long article, and you can read it by clicking here.

For the purposes of the research from which this article is taken, a psychopath isn’t necessarily a murderer (a relief to us all, I’m sure); rather that he or she is someone with an ‘anti-social’ personality, who exhibits three or more of the following tendencies: deceitfulness, impulsiveness, aggression, irritability, irresponsibility, a lack of remorse and a failure to respect lawful boundaries in the same way that others do. There’s an attraction to power as part of the equation too, a sense that power and success is given to these people, and they feel threatened by other people with power.

So what were those professions? Number 1 is a CEO, number 2 a lawyer, number 3 broadcast media … and number 8 a clergy person. Surely that can’t be right?

Of course it is. After 14 years working in churches and much of my life spent around them, I can recognise these things in myself and others all too easily. I can’t speak to the value or otherwise of this research; the article doesn’t really tell us much, to be honest. It’s more of a hook to reel you in to a website than anything else. However my experience doesn’t lead me to be too shocked that this is even a possibility. I’ve seen how my own heart and actions can all too easily go to darker places; I’ve seen first-hand church leaders bully and scare and abuse staff, church members and people from other agencies; we’ve all been aware of the child abuse scandals in some parts of the church; and many of us have our own horror stories to tell. I’m not a person who only wants to see negative in the church – I am, after all, working for the church and committed to it as an idea. I believe in church. I also believe in the damage it can do to those who are part of it, at all ‘levels’.

So on that basis, here’s an arbitrary, non-exhaustive, in no particular order, list of reasons why I think church leaders may exhibit these characteristics and/or some suggestions of things leaders and church members alike can do to prevent this from happening. This isn’t supposed to end a discussion, but maybe to start one; it is all based on my own experience as observed at first or second-hand … and no, I’m not going to tell tales.

1) The training of church leaders only goes so far

There’s a real variation of skills to church leadership, so training at a seminary and/or on the job tends towards either the spiritual ‘skills’ or practical ones. Whichever the training of a particular minister has tended towards it rarely, if ever, leaves any space for the clergy to work through their own emotional, spiritual and personal baggage. There’s simply too much to learn; and once you get on the job, there’s too much to do. So for many leaders, serious issues are left to bubble under the surface until they erupt at the wrong moment in the wrong way. Those who train clergy should be finding ways to enable us to be working through our stuff as well as learning; equally, church leaders should take responsibility for own growth and seek out counselling, support and spiritual direction.

2) The clergy life is a public one

Everyone tends to know what you’re paid, and the people you’re supposed to be leading have a significant say in various things like expenses, holiday and housing. When you bump into someone from church in the supermarket you don’t know if the encounter is, to the other person a pastoral, a social or a business one. You have to be willing to be ‘on’ all the time – and that can be wearing. If you’re not careful, this sense of living in a goldfish bowl can lead to over-defensiveness … which can look a lot like psychopathic behaviour to some. Allow clergy some private space.

3) Evangelical church culture celebrates ‘success’

Most of us want churches to grow in numbers, and they should do so. But there’s something dangerous in our evangelical sub-culture that elevates those who lead large churches. This can lead to an unhealthy self-regard in the leader of the larger church and a dangerous inadequacy and/or drive to grow at all costs in the leader of smaller churches. So the church can sub-consciously drift into a business mindset and the leader to a CEO role rather than pastor/teacher/priest.

4) Churches don’t do feedback well

My experience is that many church members are not so good at giving feedback to the leader. Most people aren’t able to really hear positive or negative feedback in the minutes after an event; if given in those first minutes it will either go in one ear and out the other, or meet an adrenalised and unhelpful response (read, psychopathic?). Most leaders would benefit from specific feedback in the days following. So, rather than “That was a good sermon”, say “Thanks for Sunday’s sermon. It really helped me think about this passage in a new way/hit the nail on the head with regard to an issue I have with my boss/comforted me because of this [named] situation in life”. Or if it’s negative, round it with positives, and then offer help. Example … “Thanks for all the work you put into Sunday’s services. They are worshipful and I do appreciate the preaching. But sometimes it can feel like it’s all about the services, and not about the people. Is there anything you think we could do as a church to boost the pastoral work of the church so that’s as good as the services are?” Rather than “You only care about Sundays. Please do something about the people in the church”. Don’t save all your positive or negative feedback for one occasion – that will destroy or puff-up a leader; tell her little bits over time. Then you’re saved that psychopathic blow-up or arrogance.

5) Leaders spend a lot of time working with volunteers

Leading volunteers can be really draining, and it’s very hard sometimes to shake the feeling that you are the only who’s really committed. So if you commit to a role, do it for a clearly defined period of time, and do what you’ve promised. That way your leader won’t be wanting to ‘drive’ people all the time, which is where many of us end up. Leaders, ensure people are fulfilling church roles on the basis of call, not drive. I once had a Sunday School leader tell me she had a big vision for how to take the kids work forward over the next year. She detailed to me what she was going to do; I was delighted. The next day she sent me an email to say she and her husband had been praying for some time and felt the time was right to leave and go to another church. If you commit to something, even as a volunteer, make it stick.

6) People often don’t stand up to church leaders

Because church members value church, they don’t want to rock the boat and tell a leader when she’s out-of-order. That’s admirable, but wrong. If a leader is doing something wrong or dangerous, tell them. If they don’t change, get help from the denominational structures. There’s no excuse for bullying in the church; if you see it happening, confront the bullying leader. You help no-one by not speaking up. I’ve seen bullying in churches first hand, and I know it happens often. It’s ugly, dangerous and abuse of authority and position.

7) Pray

Pray for your leader and pray for your church. Prayer does things, in you and in others.

8) Create space in job descriptions, appraisals and the like for the leader to take retreats and spiritual direction

Hold him accountable to this as part of the contract. It will deal with much of the stuff mentioned in point 1), and if you help your leader arrange cover for when he’s away that will ease the process.

9) Manage expectations

Do what you can to make sure the church members (you and your friends) have realistic expectations of a leader; and that she has realistic expectations of herself. If anyone wants to see your nice suburban church of 150 become a church of 1,000, mention that’s an admirable goal but maybe unobtainable in the short-term. To put it mildly.

10) Be kind to each other

Leaders and church members alike could always exhibit a little more intentional kindness to each other. Has a church member given quite a bit of time to the church recently? As a leader arrange for her to receive some flowers from the church to say thank you. As long as she likes flowers. Does your church leader like to eat out? If so, and if you can, take him out for dinner with no agenda other than to spend time together; or send him and his wife out for a nice meal on you. If it’s an Indian restaurant, do make sure they like curry first, though. Christians do sometimes seem to have this habit of giving gifts to people that they themselves would like or think the other person ‘needs’; find out what would be a real treat or injection of happiness and fun for the person and act on that.

So what do you think? What would you add to this? How can church leaders avoid becoming psychopaths? This list is no order and deliberately leaves things out to get you thinking. So get thinking!

Also in this series: Lessons On The Way 1: I don’t have to do it all

Preparation Time

Beware of what you promise. That’s a maxim which could easily apply to any area of life, but over recent weeks a variety of different promises I made as I stood in an ancient English cathedral less than 3 months before 9/11 have been re-echoing in my mind.

These are the promises made by those about to be ordained – set apart by the church for service in and to the church and the world. The one echoing loudest at the moment is a few simple words: ‘to prepare the dying for their death’.

A cursory reading of that, together with popular assumptions about the role of the vicar/priest/rector, may lead you to assume that the promise is about visiting, spending time with and praying with or for those who are facing death in an immediate sense. Of course that’s part of it – one of the indisputable privileges of my job is to be there in the big moments of life and death.

But there’s much more. One retired priest told me, just before I was ordained, that part of the role and calling of the priest is to ‘think the unthinkable and say the unsayable’. I don’t know if he was quoting someone else or if it was one of his own truisms, but it’s stayed with me. It’s become increasingly true for me in the 11 yeas since – there are times when we’re called to say things that people just don’t want to hear, compelled to speak when everyone else is wearing earphones. The unsayable I’m thinking of here is that ‘the dying’ of that ordination day promise is all of us, all of the time. We’re all dying. Scientists call it entropy – that all things tend towards decay and disorder; part of the calling of someone called by the church to the church and the world is to hold before a community and a people the fact that we’re all dying and the sooner we reconcile ourselves to that fact and live in the light of it, the better.

Of course, like everything, there all sorts of places we could make a serious mis-step here. We could become sour faced misery-peddlars who sneer at anything remotely fun with a ‘not of this world’ air; we could repeatedly scare people into salvation (finding out much later people saved thus often either fall back into old ways or become disturbingly hard-hearted); we could become so concerned with the after-life that we forget to do any good in this life.

All of those and more are dangers we need to constantly check ourselves against. An awareness of death, though, while being a consequence of our insistence on going our own way, can also be something of a gift to the perpetually busy and stressed. As the writer of Ecclesiastes said, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (Ecclesiastes 7:2, ESV). To live and love at least with that awareness, that life is a process of preparing to live eternally with the one in whose image we’re made and in whose creation we dwell, should for the Christian be an immensely joyful and liberating process. It should hone our sense of call – what is MY role in preparing all around me for death? How am I pointing people to a bigger, deeper reality? How do I live well in such a way that I will die well?

This doesn’t mean that we don’t cry at funerals or feel absence and loss keenly and deeply. Of course we do. We all do. Death is an enemy. It is horrible. It’s in the nature of God, though, to take that which may seem intended for evil and transfigured it into something deeper and better altogether. Death is horrible. Death is defeated. Death, then, because it is defeated, can help us live well. Now, and forever.