Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Facing The Facts: Ill health, ministry and living well

‘There’s no beginning or end, is there? That’s the problem.’

I couldn’t have agreed more, but that didn’t make her words any easier to hear. Indeed, I just wanted to tell her to go and leave me alone. I didn’t need her to point out a truth I already knew. I just wanted to turn my attention away from it. For a person committed to keeping themselves face-to-face with reality no matter how unpleasant I was doing a pretty bad job.

Occupational Health Nurses are not supposed to tell people what they want to hear. Their job is to point out the uncomfortable truths. And that was what I got. I’d agreed to see an OH nurse in order to help me find a healthier, more balanced approach to work and ministry. She was lovely and kind, but (forgive the pun) she didn’t sweeten the pill. Despite her acknowledgement that the nature of parish and priestly ministry is not a straightforward 9-5 job with two days off, she refused to avoid the essential conclusion: that if I don’t slow down, my body is going to make the decision for me.

I often wonder if I have a pathological relationship with ‘work’. I’m conscious that I can go for weeks without a proper day off. Indeed between February and mid-April I don’t think I took a full day off. I both know that such behaviour is idiotic and yet because of various things that were going on at the time it felt necessary too. Indeed, in the run up to Easter and our church’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar it even felt like a lot of fun. (I suspect that when work feels like fun it’s often at its most dangerous. For then it is likely to turn into an idol.)

I know I have to change, but I’m not sure how. For the past ten days – at the suggestion of the nurse – I’ve been keeping a daily log of my activities. It’s been a sobering experience. It’s revealed another previously half-acknowledged truth: Even if I’m not on the go constantly I really find it hard to discern where ‘work’ begins or ends. And even if one moves beyond the ‘loggable stuff’ – the objectively measurable activity – one comes to the qualitative stuff. What I mean are those situations where concern or worry for the parish, for example, just pops up unawares. So, I’ve been ‘chilling out’ having a bath and suddenly caught myself worrying about this or that pastoral situation. Sometimes when it rains heavily at night I can’t sleep for worrying about the rain leaking into the church building.

My nurse pointed out that even when I’m ‘well’, as a chronically ill person I can’t pretend to have the energy and stamina of someone operating at 100%. I’ve known that for years, but I’ve relied on my own drivenness to see me through. She startled me further by pointing out that, given the level of drug therapy I’m on, it would be absurd to see myself as a ‘well’ (i.e. stable) chronically ill person. Indeed, her view seemed to be that I should be taking time just to recover from the poisonous side-effects of the drugs. Obviously I haven’t been doing this.

One way of dealing with a life without ready edges is to put up some rigid non-negotiable fences. I’ve heard of clergy who say to funeral directors, ‘Well, Friday is my day off, so sorry, I won’t do a funeral on that day.’ I’ve known clergy who treat their ministry as a straightforward job. They do ‘x’ number of hours and then stop. Seemingly no matter what. There is part of me which envies them. A greater part of me cannot comprehend them. For the sake of my health and sanity I know I have to let go of the mirage of ‘endless availability and engagement’ but I don’t want to do it by simply being ruthless.

I am conscious that Christ was pretty good at being radically unavailable. Impressively, he wasn’t constantly on tap for those who wanted him during his ministry. Equally, he wasn’t a parish priest with a leaking building or pressure from a diocese to focus ever more frantically on paying the share or on leadership or getting bums on seats or whatever else was the mood of the day. He was not part of a macho clergy culture or a cog in the heritage industry and so on. Yet, nonetheless, there is a deep call to grow into Christ’s likeness.

Guilt is overrated. I constantly try to guard against adding another layer of self-punishment to my already unhealthy ways of going on. It is so easy to feel one is letting God or others or oneself down. To put it another way, it’s easy for me to turn into an ‘inflatable vicar’ (‘You’ve let yourself down, you’ve let the church down...’ etc.) Yet, Christ does set a serious challenge. The second part of Christ’s summary of The Law, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ is both dazzlingly simple and yet staggeringly challenging. Why? Well, for me, because it calls one to actually love oneself.

Ironically, in our self-obsessed age, some might say that ‘self-love’ is precisely the easy bit. Everyone seems to be in love with themselves. But I’m not talking about showing off or ‘honouring oneself’ at the narcissists’ ball; I’m talking about taking time to care for oneself and one’s significant relationships. I know from conversations I’ve had with many clerics over the years how hard it can be to do that in ministry. But when I and others fail in this horizon of love we are not truly living. I, like many clerics, genuinely love seeking to serve our neighbour, but are surely only half alive because we fail to love ourselves.

I am trying to listen to God and others and, when I can, to the better part of myself. As I write this I’m lying in bed, in pain, having suffered a nasty flare-up with my Crohn’s. I think I’m writing this as a kind of distraction from the codeine-induced wooziness and the boredom of doing nothing. Maybe that’s the real problem – I’ve forgotten how to ‘be’, or ‘just do nothing’. But that’s sooo bloody hard when your body is hurting most of the time.


  1. You have been (and are) so strong, both for yourself and your parishioners, it seems to me. To undertake your work and give as much as you, whilst suffering ill-health is too much for anyone to ask! From experience, I think it takes a great deal of strength just to 'give it up' even in a small way - can you harness the goodwill of parishioners (or anyone!)to help with with, maybe, just some small things to begin with? You may find people jump at the chance to be of help. Baby steps, as they say. I wish you all love in your mission. Go gently.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Book yourself in for a retreat or a 12,000 mile service at Sheldon. They really do know their stuff - supporting clergy. Good on taking stock and practical suggestions. Absolute confidentiality. Can highly recommend.

  4. It is very difficult to know when "work" begins and ends, and it does spill over into other parts of life.
    And "loving yourself" is such a very difficult thing to do...
    Thank you for writing this.

  5. very thought-provoking. Hope you're feeling better by today. Just want to add that it's not just clergy who suffer from this problem with boundaries. As a self-employed lay person with heavy pastoral commitments to certain individuals and a chornically ill husband the concept of a "day off" sounds like an impossible dream. when you solve the conundrum do please share - it might help others of us who share your struggle.