Monday, 11 March 2013

Lent for Extroverts 23: Stressing about stress

I've been thinking about stress lately, reading books about stress and assessing what makes me stressed. As part of my ongoing Curate's training, I was asked to read a long report on clergy stress, written ten years ago by The Society of Mary and Martha, a retreat House who deal in giving stressed clergy a break when they are undergoing times of upheval or burnout.

I was slightly stressed about having to read about clergy stress, along the lines of the self fulfilling prophecy: even if I'm not too stressed right now, I might well become more stressed if I imagine half the things in the report happening to me at some point in the future (overwork; burnout; marital breakdown). A couple of years ago I read Yvonne Warren's The Cracked Pot (also 2002), about how Anglican clergy were (or, crucially, were not) coping with stress. It's either an unfortunate or a very accurate title, but reading it a few weeks before my Ordination, I ended up feeling like a bit of a crackpot myself.

There were a number of 'Epiphany' moments during three years training at Theological College (like, 'oh, gin is quite nice; why have I never drunk this before?' Answer: wrong churchmanship; and 'actually, perhaps it's true that all people who get ordained are looking for ways to heal unresolved issues in their lives, i.e. we're all mad'...oooh, too deep; moving swiftly on...) 

...But one Epiphany moment that really sticks in the mind is a question that we were asked during a lecture on self care and finding suitable support in a job that lacks boundaries and which by its very nature, involves dealing with people at life's breaking points. After outlining all the ways self care should be attended to - observe your day off; find ways to recuperate and refresh; see a spiritual director; put time into friendships outside the parish; find a work coach or counsellor if need be - the lecturer asked this: 'And guess who it is who is responsible for finding all this support? You.'

That was the crucial thing. If you're already overworked and under supported, it is unlikely you will have the reserves to do all or any of the above. Finding a spiritual director who suits is not always straightforward; you will have to find a list; look up various phone numbers and contact them; drive somewhere and it all takes energy. Which you don't have if you're stressed and overworked. 

Which is why there seems to be an observed disconnect between the apparent emphasis on care in the Ordained Ministry; the lack of self care that some clergy practice, and the fact that not caring for oneself, and long term ill health due to stress can go for so long without anyone in a senior 'caring' position being aware of it, till it's too late. 

There are such things as 'accountable friendships', but it takes a lot of courage to ask your friend and fellow clergy person 'How are you doing spiritually?' and not come across as patronising. And clergy competitiveness (what? yes, competitiveness), English reserve and being too busy even to get together with such a friend mean that it really does seem as though the responsibility for not getting long term ill through unregulated stressed, as per the hapless clergy in The Cracked Pot rests

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