Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

4/2 2020

Clergy Self-care During a Pandemic

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clergy self-careA couple of weeks ago, I e-mailed my pastor to ask how he was doing. He wrote back, “I’m good – just trying to figure out the most effective way to ‘be church’ in the midst of this time.” My pastor’s words capture well what I’ve heard from so many clergy colleagues over the last few weeks: how do we do this sacred, embodied work when we can’t be together in the same room?

The fact that “normal ministry” can’t take place right now is difficult for many reasons, but it doesn’t mean that clergy suddenly have more time on their hands. In fact, planning worship may take additional time and energy because clergy must learn and deploy new technology for a dispersed congregation.  Ministers may also feel that they should be in more frequent contact with their parishioners; conversely, fearful and anxious parishioners may reach out to their spiritual leaders more often, seeking comfort and hope. In these circumstances, ministers could potentially work many hours every day and still feel that they are falling short.

 

In the midst of a crisis, it can be tempting for clergy to forego self-care practices because everything else feels like an emergency.

 

But right now, self-care for clergy is more important than ever because this crisis will last a long time—weeks or months, at least.

Intense work patterns simply will not be sustainable in the long term and will likely lead to burnout. So, what might good self-care for clergy look like in these very unusual times? Here are a few suggestions:

 

Don’t forget the basics.

These days, there are lots of tips on the Internet for practicing good self-care in the midst of a pandemic: Establish a routine. Limit your intake of news and social media. Eat well and exercise. Take time to play and create. This is all good advice, for everyone (not just clergy) – follow it, as much as you can.

 

Conserve energy for what is most important for you and your congregation right now.

In the early phase of this crisis, many pastoral leaders have (understandably) focused on figuring out how to facilitate remote worship and educational experiences. This is important work – but in the coming weeks, pastoral care demands will likely increase as more people in our communities contract the virus and fall ill. (Check out these guidelines about how to provide pastoral care during this crisis.)

This will mean that clergy will have even less energy to devote to the usual tasks of ministry. If you are feeling especially stretched by the pastoral care needs in your community, consider the following:

Don’t reinvent the wheel.

This may not be the time to produce an original set of daily devotions for your congregation when there are so many other resources available online. Consider sharing outside resources with your congregation rather than trying to create them all yourself.

Leverage partnerships to share the load.

If your community is experiencing increasingly intense pastoral care needs and you are feeling overwhelmed by trying to facilitate weekly worship or Bible study, consider partnering with a neighboring church to share leadership. This might also help your faith community to connect with another congregation in the neighborhood.

Ask, “What is most important right now for the people I am caring for?” and, “Am I the best person to provide that?”

Use the first question to help you discern where to focus your limited energy and time. Use the second question to help you figure out when to activate your network of resources, especially if referral is indicated (for serious mental health needs, for example).

 

Recognize that some boundaries may need to change for a while – but boundaries are still important.

Right now, you may feel it is important to be available to congregants via phone, e-mail, or text message more often than you typically would. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t set any boundaries at all. It’s OK to stop working at a certain time of day; after that time, only respond to communications if there is a true emergency. And taking regular time off will be even more important than usual to give yourself a break from the intensity of ministry during this period. Give yourself some time each week, even if it is only part of a day, to rest and renew yourself spiritually.

 

Practice self-compassion.

No one really knows how to do ministry well in these circumstances. We can certainly learn from those who have ministered in the midst of other communal traumas, but we are all trying to figure this out as we go. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself. Offer yourself the grace that you typically offer to others.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that what your congregation most needs from you right now is not a new virtual Bible study or seamless online worship—what they most need is you, as healthy and whole as you can be. Self-care practices are vital for keeping us all grounded during a very stressful time; ignoring self-care at a time like this will likely only hurt us and our ministries in the long run. As the Rev. Matthew Crebbin put it in a recent blog post about ministering during disasters, “Do not surrender to the temptation of believing that God needs your own personal destruction to save the world. It’s not only bad personal self-care, it is bad public theology.” Let’s resist that temptation, and instead remind ourselves and those we are in ministry with that each of us is a beloved child of God, worthy of respect and care.

 

A graduate of Vanderbilt University (Ph.D.), Vanderbilt Divinity School (M.Div.), and Furman University (B.A.), the Rev. Dr. Leanna Fuller is in her element when teaching about caring ministry. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, her most recent book is titled When Christ’s Body is Broken: Anxiety, Identity, and Conflict in Congregations (Wipf and Stock, 2016). Fuller has earned numerous fellowships, awards, and honors. She concerns herself with church conflict, and her book uses two case studies to examine the issue toward constructive outcomes. Fuller advises pastors to develop an intentional plan for dealing with congregational conflict—before the conflict arises! Some of the first steps, she says, include acknowledging that anxiety will be present in such circumstances and that the more serious the conflict the more time it will take to resolve it constructively.

 

 

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10/3 2018

INSIDE THE PTS CURRICULUM: Introduction to Caring Ministries

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The “Inside the PTS Curriculum” series gives you an inside look at what students are learning in their courses at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Each article focuses on one class, its subject matter, what students can expect to learn, the required texts, and the kinds of assignments students can expect. We’ll let you know whether the course is required or available for the Master of Divinity (MDiv), the Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies (MAPS), or Master of Theological Studies (MTS). Each article will include the professors’ bio.

This week’s course is: “Introduction to Caring Ministries”.

Leanna Fuller teaches pastoral care

Professor Leanna Fuller teaches MDiv, MA, and Doctor of Ministry students at Pittsburgh Seminary.

About Introduction to Caring Ministries

This term, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary students will be learning about a specific aspect of ministry with the Rev. Dr. Leanna Fuller in the class “Introduction to Caring Ministries.” This is a required course for second year students in the Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree program and can also satisfy a requirement for the Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies (MAPS) degree. Introduction to Caring Ministry is available to students in the Master of Theology (MTS) program as well.

In “Introduction to Caring Ministry,” Dr. Fuller introduces students to the theology and practice of caring ministry. The class also pays special attention to pastoral self-awareness and key relational skills. Students in the class will develop their capacity to understand and discern the needs of persons and communities and will also determine appropriate responses to those needs. The course provides a chance for students to explore the intersection of leadership and care through the study of organizational dynamics and group processes.

By the end of the class, students will have an enhanced understanding of pastoral theology and pastoral care and their relationship to one another. Students will also explore and reflect on their Christian identity as caregivers. Dr. Fuller teaches students basic principles, theologies, and theories that ground pastoral care and how to use them to guide and critique their own ministry. Through the process, participants begin developing a practical expertise in the art of pastoral care through skill-building and reflection.

As to required texts, Dr. Fuller uses Debora van Deusen Hunsinger’s Pray without Ceasing, Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrrok and Karen B. Montagno’s Injustice and the Care of Souls, Emmanuel Lartey’s In Living Color, Ronald W. Richardson’s Creating a Healthier Church, and John Savage’s Listening and Caring Skills. In addition to the textbooks, Dr. Fuller assigns pertinent articles from time to time. Coursework typically includes short reflection papers, case study responses, and a final paper.

 

About the Instructor

A graduate of Vanderbilt University (Ph.D.), Vanderbilt Divinity School (M.Div.), and Furman University (B.A.), the Rev. Dr. Leanna Fuller is in her element when teaching about caring ministry. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, her most recent book is titled When Christ’s Body is Broken: Anxiety, Identity, and Conflict in Congregations (Wipf and Stock, 2016). Fuller has earned numerous fellowships, awards, and honors. She concerns herself with church conflict, and her book uses two case studies to examine the issue toward constructive outcomes. Fuller advises pastors to develop an intentional plan for dealing with congregational conflict—before the conflict arises! Some of the first steps, she says, include acknowledging that anxiety will be present in such circumstances and that the more serious the conflict the more time it will take to resolve it constructively.

 

 

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8/30 2018

Praying with People Grieving Loss from Suicide

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praying death by suicide4I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;

I am like those who have no help,

5like those forsaken among the dead,

like the slain that lie in the grave,

like those whom you remember no more,

for they are cut off from your hand (Ps 88:4-5).

These poignant verses express some of the pathos both of persons contemplating suicide and people who have lost a loved one to suicide. It is important to recognize that praying with people contemplating suicide is a distinct topic from praying with people grieving loss from suicide. In the former situation, it is essential that the individual involved find help from a qualified and experienced counseling professional, as well as receive spiritual guidance and support. Since most of us are unqualified to assess whether someone is suicidal, it is crucial to learn what questions to ask and what to do if you are at all concerned about someone’s safety and need to guide him or her to appropriate assistance. (For help in doing so, see the organizations listed below.)

Praying with Individuals Grieving Loss from Suicide

Individuals grieving the loss of a loved one from suicide often need help from a qualified and experienced counseling professional, too. And they also need spiritual guidance and support. But the call to pray with someone who has suffered such a loss can be terrifying. What does it mean that a beloved friend or family member has seemingly made a choice against life, has taken action in a way that violates the basic human instinct in favor of self-preservation? A parent has died, rather than persevere to care for a child; a child has ended a life that his or her parents and grandparents cherish far more than their own; a sibling has communicated to brothers and sisters that their shared life experience is not worth sustaining. Those who die by suicide do terrible violence to their bodies; they often die alone and in deep psychic pain. The horror of the event is indescribable. The anguish and guilt experienced by those left behind render them inconsolable. How in the world can you pray with someone who feels, every day, that she has been rejected and forsaken by a loved one and, quite possibly, by God as well, or that he has been flung into the endless depths of a dark well of despair?

It can help to learn something about suicide loss before trying to pray with someone who has experienced it firsthand. It can help to know that experts estimate that 90 percent of deaths by suicide are a consequence of undiagnosed and/or untreated mental illness. Excepting those making considered decisions in response to life-diminishing illnesses, people do not “choose” to die, nor do they choose to hurt or damage those they love. They have not “committed” a crime. People who die by suicide are trying to end intolerable pain.

It can help to know that their loved ones, in addition to being left with the word “Why?” echoing throughout the remainder of their lives, will usually be devastated and immobilized by guilt and shame. They often wonder either why they didn’t do more to help the person they have lost, or how it can be that they didn’t even know the depth of their loved one’s pain, and they are horrified to realize that their loved one, the beneficiary of love and support from others, has “thrown it all away.”

It can help to realize that survivors will bump into the stigma of suicide where they least expect it—a refusal to conduct a funeral, avoidance by acquaintances in the street, intimations that they are to blame. It can help to know they are often angered and hurt by the responses of others.

What NOT to Say About Loss from Suicide

Praying with someone about loss from suicide is not the time for casual platitudes about God’s plan or God’s supposed need for another angel in heaven. It is most especially not a time to try to tell a survivor—someone who has lived through a loved one’s death by suicide—those often misquoted words, “God never gives us more than we can handle” (erroneously based on 1 Corinthians 10:13, which specifically addresses temptation to sin, not endurance of grief). To say in these circumstances that God is implicated in some sort of test of one’s capacity for managing traumatic experiences may result in the suicide survivor’s further dismay and alienation from God. Neither is it the time to say, “I know how you feel,” since (unless you yourself are a survivor) you do not know, nor to say, “I can’t imagine.” The latter comment establishes a barrier between you and someone who already feels isolated from others, and it conveys a sense that what has happened is so awful that you cannot bear to enter into the experience even as a companion.

What to Say About Loss from Suicide

Prayer with a person experiencing loss from suicide is a time to listen, to sit still, and to be present. It is a time to make space for expressions of rage, of agony, of astonishment, and of rejection of faith. It is a time to make it possible for stories to be told about loved ones now gone. “Tell me what your mother is like.” “What is one of your favorite memories?” You might ask someone how he or she imagines the moments after the loved one’s death. You do not have to find those ideas compatible with your own or give a lecture about Christian doctrine—your call is to offer the survivor the gift of attentive listening. It can be difficult to remember that companionship and prayer in silence can be much more effective than words, no matter how eloquent, when the unthinkable has happened. A willingness to stay with someone through the wilderness is of far more significance than the most profound speech made in an attempt to lead someone prematurely into a space of healing.

I have asked a number of suicide survivors what they have found most helpful in prayer. Many of them mention the Psalms, as well as fiction and poetry in which sorrow is articulated and assurances of God’s boundless love are found. For survivors who are tormented by questions of life after death, books containing reassuring depictions of heaven can be helpful. Psalm 88, the only one of the psalms of lament in which there is no articulation of a turning point toward gratitude and hope, can be deeply meaningful to people who wonder whether any passages in the Bible bear witness to their feelings. (It might be noted that, despite conveying despair, Psalm 88 is addressed to God and reflects a dark confidence that God will hear the psalmist’s angry and even sarcastic entreaties.)

Suicide survivors are living the consequences of a loved one’s having reached a point beyond what was tolerable, but the loved one’s arrival at that destination was not the work of God. The scriptural path for survivors of suicide leads, I think, toward Romans 8:38-39 and Revelation 21:4—passages well worth sharing with someone who has known this loss, though even these passages may be too much for a survivor to bear at first. When the immediate experience of catastrophe passes, those left behind encounter the crushing realization that their loved one died with a wearying and excruciating sense of emptiness and separation from God, from love—from however their loved one might have characterized the Holy in his or her life. Our hope can be that, someday, the survivor(s) of suicide with whom you are praying will gain confidence in the assurance that, appearances to the contrary, there can be no separation from the love of God—that there will, indeed, be a New Creation in which God will wipe away every tear, and “mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” We cannot force fractured spirits into such a conviction, but we can be present to them in the knowledge that our simple availability will be a prayer in itself.

A possible prayer using words might be as follows:

O God, from whom nothing can ever separate us, my dearest (name of suicide survivor) is in your hands. Surround him/her with the light of your love and with assurances of love and safety. Help him/her to find a way to live again and to know that, even in the most desperate of situations and most disastrous of events, you are there—unseen and unheard, perhaps, but nevertheless present and active in our broken and hurting lives. These requests I make in the name of the One who came that we might live anew. Amen.

Further Resources

Poetry Resources for Prayer

  • Mary Oliver, “Love Sorrow” (in Red Bird [Boston: Beacon, 2009]), and “Heavy” (in Thirst [Boston: Beacon, 2007])
  • Billy Collins, “The Wires of the Night” (in Questions about Angels [Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999])
  • Emily Dickinson, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—” (in The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, ed. Ralph W. Franklin, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998, 1999)

Organizations with help for those who are suicidal and for those who have experienced suicide loss:

The Rev. Mary Robin Craig ’10 earned her master of divinity degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She now serves as a pastor, spiritual director, and suicide prevention/mental health advocate.

This article also appears in Pittsburgh Theological Seminary complimentary downloadable resource “Praying with Others through the Challenges of Life.” This multi-part resource is written by faculty, program directors, and alums of Pittsburgh Seminary. Topics range from dying without knowing God to injustice to pregnancy issues, anger and violence, and anxiety. Download the prayer resource now.

 

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