Wellbeing in ministry: finding the right balance
I once heard a news report that compared workplaces in terms of their degree of safety. According to the research, the pulpit was the safest of all!
Some may then consider it unwise of preachers to forsake the pulpit for the lectern, thus sacrificing the physical barrier, the elevation and the distance that makes the pulpit such a safe place. Some even wander recklessly among the congregation asking questions!
Is ministry a risky business? If so, how can the church be a relatively safe and healthy place for these leaders?
As I reflect on three decades of ministry in congregations, also observing colleagues along the way, it occurs to me that being responsible for leadership in the church during a period of general decline in numbers in mainline denominations has exposed leaders to particular risks to health and wellbeing. Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising that some have become dispirited and negative, even reaching the point of giving up and ‘burnout’.
The stress causes some to work harder and harder, exacerbating the risk of ill health. Others may look to short-term panaceas, often with the same result. The suffering can be well hidden due to the pressure to perform or to set a good example, so even very caring and attentive congregations can be caught by surprise when a minister comes to grief.
Again, ministry in this new era of less structure and more flexibility can itself be a significant stressor if ‘frontier’ leaders are not appropriately prepared and supported.
Other factors contribute to the problem. The disbanding of parishes has denied some ministers the support or accountability of colleagues. This is exacerbated by a widespread tendency towards individualism, a temptation from which ministers are not immune. Selection processes can sometimes miss potential difficulties, while an inflexible placement process or inexperienced Joint Nominating Committees can contribute to mismatches and dashed hopes.
This is not to apportion blame, but to try and understand the issues. More importantly, what can be done to improve the situation?
I am convinced that leadership is the number one issue for the Uniting Church as it seeks to meet the challenges of a new era. In order to respond to the needs of the church, the community and the ministry agents themselves, it is imperative that we revisit and pay close attention to the recruitment, selection, training, placement, mentoring, professional supervision and continuing education of ministry agents. Our dispute resolution processes could also benefit from an overhaul so as to reduce the amount of time, energy and heartache currently required in attending to these matters.
The world’s leading school education systems have much to teach us about ministry training and development, especially in their close and demanding attention to the process of mentoring of teachers in the early part of their careers. This may seem to place even more demands on already stretched people. In fact, strong supervision and support must surely work to the advantage of suitably gifted and trained ministry agents as they respond to the need to be flexible and creative leaders in this new era of church.
When ministry requires us to take new and risky paths, close attention to the health and wellbeing of ministry agents is an imperative we neglect at their peril.