The season that spans from All Saints Sunday (the first Sunday in November) through Christmas Eve has arrived. It is the season when many pastors forget about healthy meals, exercise, important birthdays, feeding their fish, walking the dog, watering the plants, taking days off, spending time with their loved ones, and occasionally shaving (men and women clergy both, I suspect). For years it was also the season when I began taking various prescription and OTC anti-acids and proton pump inhibitors (like Prilosec ™ and its ilk) and among the clergy I imagine this is not unusual. This is also for me the season when my nascent hiatal hernia often left me bending over the altar, grabbing the cross that hung around my neck, and crying tears that I am sure some folks viewed as holy. So did I, as in “holy sh*t, that hurts!”
Back then I would often add an awesome licensed therapist to the mix of stomach meds since a couple months worth of stress often did much more damage to my insides than say the time I tried Wasabi in copious amounts for the first (and only) time or tried this strange liquor that one parishioner insisted I share a sip of for good health and blessing for the New Year. Two sips would rob one of the ability to walk straight. Three might have caused my head to explode like from some old Warner Brothers cartoon featuring Wile E. Coyote, super genius. I never tried three. There was some part of my mind that refused to be lost.
After “The Season,” I would always be a short-tempered and anxious mess who also suffered from severe heartburn despite the stomach meds. This was back in my secret asshole days. The stress-induced eye-twitching days. Back in the sleepless nights days. Back in the stress-induced ED days. And I was always too busy to worry about the stress until after New Year’s since I was a martyr-in-training . For martyrs-in-training doing the job until it crushed one’s health is the only sure sign that one takes the job seriously, right? That one is giving it all for Christ. That one is going the extra mile. That one is living up to the calling. That one is picking up one’s cross and following Jesus. (And we know that seeking suffering is not what that means, but we pretend that it does). I have pastor friends who would never take a Sunday off just in case a visitor might show up. Might show up and be greeted by a supply pastor who wasn’t as flat-out amazing, engaging, and cool as them. And if they weren’t there that visitor might take their tender soul somewhere else. And their church wouldn’t grow. And they would feel like a failure. And pastors hate feeling like failures because most groove on positive affirmation, which is why so many end up on a therapist’s couch or should. Well, I probably never took all of my vacation days each year, but I took some, so how bad could my self-care be? Well, bad enough to earn me several endoscopies and a colonoscopy before 50, and a therapist for which I paid $75 out of pocket every other week for months at a time year after year.
And you know what? That wasn’t enough. It worked for a few years. It fixed me like wood glue does an heirloom picture frame that one’s cat uses to test the laws of gravity on a regular basis. At some point the cat and gravity inevitable declare victory; the stress gives way to depression and paralyzing anxiety and eventually, possibly, an auto-immune disorder (of which stress is one among a handful of factors). I was one of the lucky ones. I only waited six months (Note: one can cry an awful lots of tears in six months when one weeps several times a day) after completely breaking apart before making the phone call to a psychiatrist and working through the process of medications and dosages and ongoing therapy in which I sat but did not lay on a couch. I addition, if he was willing, each visit I could pet the psychiatrist’s cat who apparently did not get the memo about knocking down picture frames or the shrink bolted them to the wall. I’ll need to ask him about that next visit.
So why this journey down memory lane?
Because you pastor or rabbi or imam or spiritual guide or whatever is not as strong as you think they are especially this time of year. I wish that I could tell you that I am the only clergyperson who worked and worked until their body, mind and spirit broke. The true numbers would stagger you, trust me. So instead of being impressed by their dedication and sacrifice and thanking them for it, ask them point blank when was the last time they took a day off and did something that brings them joy. And if they declare that serving the Lord is their life and is all that they need, you have my permission to smack them upside the head suggest that the Lord made sabbath time for their rest, too. They need to set the example in this 24/7 hyper-connected world of the sacredness of self-care. And to practice humility. Far too many clergy will not take care of themselves – do not let yours get away with it. Confront them.
For months now, led by a member of my parish, a group of people all over the world have stopped at 5PM and prayed for me. I recently found this out, as it was done in secret. It humbled me to be loved and cared for in such a way, to know that friends and complete strangers were lifting me up and praying for my strength and healing. And I wonder, if the healing for which they pray comes through their very act of faith, God incarnate in some way in their hearts and hands and whispers.
There is truth: I am not alone in this work. No one is.