Here are three immediate suggestions:
- Have three current suicide hotlines memorized or available to distribute at a moment’s notice. Check these hotlines every three months to make sure they are working.
- Refer your congregant to a licensed psychologist or counselor. To do this, it can be helpful to build community relationships and partnerships with professionals in these fields.
- Call 911. In many states, a pastor, religious leader, or minister is a mandatory reporter. This means that you may be required by law to file a report to a professional agency if you become aware that someone is a threat to themselves and/or others, or if you suspect child and/or elder abuse.
When it comes to depression, we may feel ill-equipped, discouraged, and even avoidant. Often times when people do not know how to help, or when they feel overwhelmed by a problem, they may avoid the issue all together. What are manageable steps we can take can take to offer care for congregants who may be suffering?
I’ll turn to the narrative of a good friend I lost in high school, and one recommendation he shared. Alex is his name; he died by suicide the summer after our high school graduation. He was a close friend and all-around great person. We worked together, played varsity golf throughout high school together, and went through a lot of hardship together. High school was not easy for us. Two friends committed suicide, our coach died of a heart attack on the practice field, our math teacher died of cancer, and another close friend died of cancer. Many students struggled, and Alex and I were no exception.
I was intentional to reach out. I knew he was depressed, but I was 17 at the time and didn’t know what to do. I would try to talk to him, ask him questions, and see if there were places or activities that would help him to feel better, searching for anything that could help.
One night, we were working at the golf course, and I was reflecting on the difficulties we were facing. I said, “I feel like I’ve run out of things to say or do or try. Nothing works, and there’s nothing that can make any of this better.” Alex turned to me and said, “You’re genuine. That’s what matters. You actually care about people. You can’t fix me or solve my problems, but you being you makes a difference. Keep being that person, and don’t let the world change you.”
Pain, anger, violence, despair, and ministry can change us. It can transform us into a shell of a human being. Yet there is a tough call in the midst of it all, to continue to be who we are and to resist the inclination to conform to the pain, anger, despair, or violence in our world. Instead, I believe we can seek to transform it if we stay focused on being who we are and keep moving forward.
Here is the most important thing Alex taught me that you can do for yourself to become equipped and empowered to care for the suffering of others:
- Become the best version of yourself possible
Here are five suggestions to get there...
- We cannot care for others if we are not caring for ourselves. Suffering has a way of creating more suffering. A well -ntentioned caregiver may begin to share, versus care for, their suffering with care seekers if they are not actively engaged in self-care practices. Healing practices are done from a healed or healing heart. It is because one is actively being cared for that one is able to care for others.
- Take 10-minutes to create a self-care plan. Target areas can include: sleep, eating, exercise, personal time, social time, family time, and recreation time.
- Leadership development is self-development. Congregational care is done from a place of personal formation. We cannot serve beyond the person we are. Therefore, self-development invites leaders to expand their capacities, including both their strengths and weaknesses, to become more equipped for practices of are. There are many modes of self-development. This could be a spiritual retreat, taking a course at a local university, or purchasing a few books.
- Pursue healing
- I would argue that ministry is traumatic. Pastors, religious leaders, and ministers are exposed to so much pain, hardship, and suffering. This can lead to vicarious trauma. Therefore, ongoing healing is an aspect of self-care that helps leaders to care for their wounds. Healing is powerful for three reasons. First, it restores wholeness to the caregiver. Second, it creates sacred spaces for the caregiver to resolve suffering and experience liberation and spiritual growth. Third, it restores the leader so that are equipped to continue to go out and care for the pain and suffering of others.
- Develop, memorize, and meditate on your mission statement
- Our aims and values form an orienting system. They influence what we pursue, what we ignore/avoid, and tell us why we are doing what we are doing. It is easy to forget the mission. Pain, anger, violence, or despair can be discouraging and distract us from our mission. If you have not developed a mission statement, spend a week developing one. Being able to remember and meditate on a mission statement can refresh, rejuvenate, and re-center our passion to the mission.
- Stay focused and pursue progress towards this mission every day
- Discouragement and distraction may take many forms. The goal of focus is a right attitude. Pressing forward is about progress, not perfection. Let your goal be, in every moment, and in every day, to try to become just a little bit better in all that you pursue.
- Focus is difficult and it is easy to lose. If you have a crisis and become frustrated, lost, or forget why you’re in ministry, re-goal. Take a 30-minute break and write down your goals for ministry. Reflect on the basics. Why did you want to become a faith leader? What strengths, tools, and resources do you have that can enable you to make a difference? What obstacles are you facing right now and what do you need to overcome these obstacles? What do you need to get back on track and to pursue the mission that brought you into ministry?
A closing blessing
May you be richly blessed so that whatever your eyes see, hands touch, and feet pursue might be richly blessed.
The easiest distraction to long-term care is our own discouragement, feeling like we don’t make a difference, or perhaps that our life doesn’t matter. In ministry, the time, effort, and energy you put into service isn’t always acknowledged and doesn’t always make its way back to you in the form of appreciation. And yes, the saying is true, “People who feel appreciated always do more than expected.” Yet, pastors, religious leaders, and ministers are often unappreciated for the work and effort they put into ministry. If you’re feeling unappreciated or burned out, take a 30-minute recharge. Get a sheet of paper and write down your mission statement. What first brought you into ministry? What do you love most about loving and caring for people? Rekindle the heart that kindles the passion for ministry. You matter and you are who makes the difference.