Caring for the carers
Posted: Tue, 05 Jan 2021 08:45
Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB urges us to look after our pastoral leaders and ministers who are stretching themselves to their limits to care for us.
Many years ago I was leading a residential in-service course for primary school leaders. As now, these good people were at the sharp end of education, wanting the very best for their students and their parishes—the fact that they gave up their weekend to discuss the essentials of Catholic education spoke volumes about their dedication and care. I offered a session on the Saturday afternoon called 'Caring for the Carers'; it was so simple: I loaded them all into a minibus and drove through the beautiful Peak District to Buxton. After free time for shopping, we gathered in a typical Victorian-style tea shop for a traditional Derbyshire Afternoon Tea. I really did not care that the session would not be deemed as an 'educational experience' by an Inspector. These hard working individuals needed to be spoilt: how do you really care for the carers in your community?
For all of us involved in ministry, this past year has been more than challenging. We have been expected to go way beyond the proverbial mile in our efforts to support each other. In the best of times, ministry will always been a pressure cooker; add a global crisis, rapid change and constant uncertainty into the mix, and what was barely sustainable before has become almost untenable to thousands of pastoral leaders.
In my experience, those tasked to care for others find it hard to take care of themselves: they are so caught up in trying to please and support others, that they can easily forget themselves. This era of pandemic has highlighted our need to ensure wellbeing and good mental health—it is not about being selfish, but essential self-care. We are naturally sympathetic and supportive of our parish priest when we see him in a wheelchair or in a hospital bed; but the symptoms of burnout are not always so easy to spot.
We can be critical of things in the parish that are not going the way that we want—pastoral leaders soon learn that it is impossible to please all of the people all of the time. Ministry is never a popularity contest, it is more about plate spinning! Ministers trained to preach the Word, celebrate the Eucharist and bring pastoral support to parishioners, very often discover that they need skills in boiler maintenance and the upkeep of Victorian guttering. The pandemic will eventually resolve, but the chronic pressures of ministry will not unless we change the expectations we have around our pastors and ministry.
We only need to place God on pedestal, not our priests—they are not miracle workers, they merely work for Him. Christians need to come to terms with the fact that the heroes in the scripture were flawed people. Peter barely got it right. Paul had his critics. Noah was a flawed leader. So was Moses. Reading their stories gives me hope for my story. In turn, this gives me hope for your story and for the church. God does not use perfect people; rather his grace flows best through broken people. As Henri Nouwen wisely points out:
Thus, nothing can be written about ministry without a deeper understanding of the ways in which ministers can make their own wounds available as a source of healing.
Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer
Nouwen uses the analogy of children inside a burning house: the rescuer has to risk being burnt in their effort to save the children. Jesus choose to enter into the waters of the Jordan to meet John the Baptist just like everyone else. His birth and the reality of the Incarnation, demand that Jesus is not a mere onlooker.
True pastoral care demands that we do not stand on the sidelines either, thought it can exhaust us. We can, of course, choose to remain aloof and refuse to commit; it is like watching the world go by from under the safety of a tree. Zacchaeus hid in the Jericho sycamore so that he could just observe Jesus. When we make a commitment to serve and to love, we can become vulnerable and certainly do more than just observe. C S Lewis reminds us that pastoral ministry involves taking risks:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.
CS Lewis, The Four Loves
Please ensure that your pastoral leaders get the rest and free time that they need for effective service to the parish. I would ask you never to place your priest on a pedestal—it is all too lonely up there, as they are expected to be totally perfect.
Pastors need sound mentoring and supervision, as well solid spiritual direction. One can so easily burn out in ministry as you try to keep pouring from a cup that is empty. You cannot give what you do not have, while it is all too easy to get sucked into a vortex of toxic relationships that only serve to make you weaker and unable to serve. While we need professional support, even proper counselling at times, we need solid and supportive friends—those who do not drain you, but who offer that 'Bethany' experience. In Celtic spirituality, these true friends were the 'anam Cara' who would both challenge and support.
In these times when we have come to realise the strength of social media and its ability to bring us closer together as a Eucharistic people, we have also witnessed the negativity. Our ministry can never be reduced to a Twitter or Facebook feed; there is a danger that pastoral outreach can be reduced to how many people have viewed our page and signalled their 'like' or 'dislike'. When work becomes your idol, success can easily go to your head and failure to your heart. In the internet revolution, online ministry must always be at the service of the mission—it can never become the central and only way to do ministry. I honestly feel that the future of our ministry in this country will lie in a judicious combination of both in-person and online ministry—so proper investment has to be made now.
It is very hard to fully appreciate the call of Paul to be all things to everyone (1 Cor 9: 22). Many congregations define the success of their leader according to how available, likeable and friendly their pastor is. It is as though churches want a puppy, not a pastor! Good and solid leadership requires that, at times, you need to do what is best, not what people want. If a church is going to grow, congregations have to let go of the expectation that their priests will be available for every medical emergency, every twist and turn in their lives, every family celebration and every crisis. This is a tough sell for many congregations, but if the Church is going to grow, it has to happen. The pastoral leader who attempts to do everything will often become a leader incapable of doing anything—burnout will do that to you.
2021 can be the year that sees your priest, your parish and your local community grow with a new and exciting vision. If we take seriously the analogy of the body used by Paul, then we see that the Body of Christ can build us up. We recognise both our strengths and our vulnerability; we can become more accepting of each other and ensure that our friends do not burn out. We are all in this together and we are committed to seeing this through together, thus deepening our sense of community. Our personal issues, hurts and problems can be, as Nouwen remind us, sources of hope and salvation:
When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.
The Wounded Healer