Another Sunday and I am not at church again.
That's hardly unusual for most Canadians. But for me it's different. I am a United Church minister.
It's been almost 30 years since I was ordained in one of the most sacred of all Canadian places - a hockey arena. The group in charge of the service chose it because the local church was not big enough. From that day forward my whole life (and the life of my wife and two children) was driven by the needs and wants of the church.
My agenda was full. Sometimes I would have up to four services to conduct on a Sunday. During the week there were the many pastoral, administrative, social-action and educational duties to perform. I experienced many blessings in my ministry.
But now things are different. A series of deaths in the family and upheavals in my church was too much for my serotonin-deficient brain to handle no matter how often I counted my blessings. I am off on medical leave with clinical depression. I am not well enough to lead Sunday services, and many days I am not well enough simply to attend and sit in the pew.
I am not alone in my struggle with this misunderstood ailment that Winston Churchill once labelled "the black dog." Two of the top three drugs prescribed for clergy under our medical plan are antidepressants. Even some of the greatest heroes of the Bible experienced it. At one difficult point during his ministry, the prophet Elijah became so overwhelmed with irrational feelings of isolation and defeat that he sat under a broom tree wanting to die.
When I do feel up to going to church I usually go to a friend's service and sit near the back. She's an excellent minister and her congregation is understanding. But often when I am there I realize how much I miss being a congregational minister. I miss the weekly spiritual growth I received through sermon writing, the aroma of the bread and wine on the altar, the opportunities I had to connect with parishioners in deep and meaningful ways, and the great privilege of having a front-row seat to the ways God is at work in our community.
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There are things I don't miss. I thank God for my freedom from the morass of church politics, the endless meetings devoted more to the care of the institution than mission, and especially dealing with the damage done by people who, even after years of sitting in the pew, still don't "get it."
One particularly hurtful group is what we call "clergy killers" (from Dr. G. Lloyd Rediger's book of the same name). These congregants take advantage of the church to work out feelings of impotence and low self-esteem. Subconsciously they believe if they put down the minister in the eyes of the congregation they can raise their own standing. So they spread rumours about the minister's private life, make false accusations about his or her professional conduct, get elected to committees to block the minister's initiatives and often work behind the scenes to get the minister fired.
Frequently they make the minister's job so difficult the minister moves to another church. I still remember the day I realized I would have to move from a church before my work was done despite the best efforts of so many parishioners to set things right. I felt sad, but also set free.
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My therapist says facing such stressors is not good for me. So I will need to give up full-time congregational ministry.
He has said this several times, and each time part of me has understood and part of me has resisted. How could I give up being a minister? How could I walk away from the vocation to which I have devoted the majority of my life?
These questions have been my daily companions for several months. But as time has gone by and I have begun re-engaging with people, I have discovered another companionship. The old urgency in my interactions has disappeared. Now that I don't have to rush to a presbytery meeting or hide in my office to write a sermon, I can take time to talk with people I happen to meet during the day.
I find they are willing to open up to me even though I rarely tell them about my connection to the church. Is it a response to my unhurried presence? Is it my tone of voice, body language and shocking comfort with asking personal questions? Often these attributes can subconsciously reveal a pastor's identity as clearly as the old clergy "dog collar." Or is there Something Else at work here - even though Churchill's other dog still has me in its grip?
Once a bus driver became so animated explaining to me what gave his life meaning that he drove right by one of his stops (much to the disgust of the young woman waiting to get off). A luthier was overflowing with excitement as he explained how he crafted the neck of a jet-black acoustic guitar with innovative fan frets. We talked about how the more you create, the closer you feel to your Creator. A Canadian soldier saw me alone in a restaurant and shared how he felt about being in Afghanistan. Many of these issues are spiritual, although few people use religious language to describe them.
These encounters only take a few minutes. Yet in the middle of the ordinary routine of life, two people have had a chance to pause and consider what is truly important to them. I feel as though I am on Holy Ground.
I guess I am still in ministry after all.
Warren R. Hudson lives in London, Ont.
Illustration by Paddy Molloy.
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