Disappointed with my pastor...

A friend with mental health problems sat in my office this week explaining to me how my inaccessibility was a painful and rejecting experience for her. Feeling slightly defensive I identified how much investment she has received from me and I relayed the breadth of my roles as church leader, Mind and Soul Director, father, husband etc.

How was it possible for me to be 'more available’?

She helpfully reflected back an acknowledgment of how extended I was, but she also needed me to see how, from my perspective, she was just one of many 'needy' people to 'deal with', but from her perspective, I was just one person from whom she looked for support. She related how common this experience was in secular services where a Psychiatrist may have 1000 patients but every patient had just 1 Psychiatrist.

I have been thinking about this incredible mismatch of relational expectation ever since. I sensed that whilst within the NHS there may be a limited expectation of the contact time available with a Psychiatrist, the church offers no such perimeters to those seeking help from the clergy.

As both a priest and someone with 'expertise' in the area of emotional health I realised how I could be a double disappointment: I could not be excused as being ‘ignorant about mental health’, or even disinterested in it, yet I am still not available enough to the people who need my time.

Reflecting upon both my own feelings and those of my friend, I wondered if we hadn’t struck upon something really significant in terms of mental health and the church. I sensed within my own defensiveness the voice of many other overextended priests who already feel overwhelmed by the gigantic workloads and responsibilities they carry. When I talk to other leaders about the need to address the emotional issues in their congregations, I can sense them shifting uneasily on their seats and thinking, “Really? And when do you think I am going to fit that in, and if I do, won’t I be inundated with people who have big needs and poor boundaries?”

Equally, I realise that we are fuelling our own downfall because we are so unwilling to actually clarify and frame the expectations of those who are seeking our support. We make grand statements like, “Don’t worry, we are here for you. If things get really bad, then give me a call.” We don’t realise if you suffer from a chronic and severe mental health problem more days than not are ‘really bad’. Is it any wonder that we are disappointing?

My friend pointed out that she never expected me to offer her unlimited support, nor would I have the competence or qualification to! Bubble burst. She just wanted some time to talk. Are our own grandiose ideas about being the ‘complete healing package’ also stealing our real place in this healing matrix?

What expectations should we really have of our leaders when it comes to our mental health in church and what should leaders expect of those who have mental health issues in their congregations? I am thinking that unless we clarify what we should expect in this relationship there is going to be a whole lot more disappointment and defensiveness.

So this is where I need your help....are you a leader or a Christian with mental health issues? What should you be able to expect in your church and from your leader, or what should be expected of you? Give me your feedback and I will turn this is to a 'Charter for promoting positive mental health in churches'. Leave your feedback below.
Will Van Der Hart, 23/05/2013
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