Saturday, July 08, 2006

Long Time no blog

It's more than two and a half months since my last posting, unintentionally.

One day I started having tingling and numbness in my left shoulder. My dear wife Clare insisted I should get a doctor's checkout, and I complied. It was, he said, a matter of a trapped nerve in m neck. However, my blood pressure was worryingly high, and I should be taking medication as a matter of course. This put the wind up me, and I went home in shock having argued that it was likely to be caused by the stress I have been recently subjected to with the waning fortunes of my bid to rescue St James' church from closure.

I asked for a delay in taking up the pills to get some time out, lose weight, get back to regular exercise etc, on the grounds that my diet was OK and my general health otherwise not a problem. Blood tests showed cholesterol was not a problem, liver function OK. So, I went out jogging, tried to relax and rest more, and work more normal hours, but there was little impact on my blood pressure.

During my month's period of 'grace' my only colleague was asked to take on a new job this autumn - a well deserved move indeed, but the timing was unexpected, and as I was unable to contact anyone responsible to find out if she'd be replaced sooner or later, I was left wondering what sort of work future I would have, recognising that I wasn't just tired, but feeling rotten, physically ill, and honestly, pretty anxious. I spent rather a lot of time feeling angry, self-pitying and resentful that two years of on-off crisis management had left me in this state with no support other than my wise, kind and long suffering wife.

Thankfully, a fortnight's planned holiday in Corfu intervened. I acquiesced and took with me the first pack of pills to try out on holiday. We had a secluded self catering apartment in an olive grove. Peaceful, beautiful, no phone, no computer, no radio or TV, no car. Lots of pure silence warm late spring weather, excellent food and walking. It wasn't a cure all by any means, more of a retreat. Time for lots of prayer and meditation, exercise, and just sitting together with sheer natural beauty and simple country wine. Really I could have done with a month.

I kept my health concerns mainly to myself at the outset, but slowly it leaked out when I realised that my reactions to yet more stress inducing experiences in daily work had turned from my habitual fight into flight. I had such a surprise to discover how many people, both older and younger than myself are also on medication for high blood pressure, and living contentedly with it, as if it were of little concern, as it holds out the promise of less risk of stroke or heart attack. But what sort of world are we living in that generates in normal healthy-ish people such levels of stress that produce this 'silent killer' ailment? I am still not content with having to dose myself daily. If I gave up public ministry and lived permanently in retreat (happy thought), would the change of lifestyle reduce my blood pressure? It it too late? Is it just a matter of ageing that I am no longer able to deny? Questions to live with, not over-react to.

When I went for a review with my doctor, two weeks after returning to work, my blood pressure was still too high, requiring an adjustment in dosage and monitoring side effects. We spoke about work and he asked if the pressures on me had reduced, and how I was feeling. I had to say 'no', and explained what I was facing with the loss of a colleague, at least for half a year. "In my profession", he said "Doctors carrying double patient load get to suffer from real burn-out." I told him I had two books on clergy burn-out and how to avoid it. He'd never heard of clergy burn-out. Maybe I'm his only ordained client. OK, so am I a burn-out case or a survivor of burn-out? Or what?

There was an article on research into clergy burn-out in this week's "Western Mail", saying how widespread it had become with decline in numbers of working ministers. I didn't recognise the role portrayed by the report given on the research, which made ministry today sound as if it was just about rushing around taking lots of extra services, and carrying an even larger pastoral case load. What a delight that would be compared to the reality. More and more paperwork, negotiation, fundraising, publicising, event co-ordination, caretaking buildings, coping with crisis in organisations fending off collapse and dysfunction. These are the matters that drain life from a pastor trained to be people centred. This produces the stress edging ministers toward burnout, or coronaries, cancer, mental or marital breakdown, even suicide. In a few words, ministers are taking on many tasks for which are they untrained and ill-equipped, simply because there are no longer sufficiently skilled lay church members to take them on. They feel duty bound to do something to try and stop the collapse of all they have cherished and worked for. It's so hard to let it all die, especially when it's been the source of your revenue as well as your way of life and your identity.

It's taken me a while to come back and record all this. Shame is a great inhibitor. Knowing how many sufferers there may be. Not wanting to whinge about how tough it is. Because at some levels it's so rewarding, such an adventure to be where I am in ministry at this time of life, seeing God at work in people's lives in the heart of the city. It makes me want to fight on and not throw in the towel - to 'give and not to count the cost', as that beloved prayer says. Except there comes a time when giving to the limits does nobody much good. Nobody can run on empty. Many things about the church will have to fail and die, since so many people no longer want to support the way it is or used to be. Living with all that heart-break, suffering powerlessness, weakness and limitation, is what all of us in the church must learn to live with or be broken by. A bit like taking up the cross and following Jesus. I'm not so sure how good we are are going that any more.

Nevertheless, a month before my colleague intimated her likley departure, the Archbishop asked if I'd like to help train a deacon who would work as an unpaid volunteer in the Parish. So it was that on St John the Baptist's day, 24th June, Christine Colton was ordained in Llandaff Cathedral and started next day with us. She's a mother of two grown up sons, married to a priest working in the Parish of Whitchurch, a few miles away across town. Moreover, as well as her pastoral and lay training interests, she is taken with the idea of learning her way into city centre ministry. For me this is a great delight. Now I have voluntary lay and ordained partners to take an interest in the world of everyday business, commerce, hospitality and tourism, and make the Church's interest in normal life known by their presence and their attention.

In this opening few weeks I am acquainting her with the routine life of St John's, taking her around to introduce her to people, 'walking the talk', as the saying goes. Amazingly it's a great comfort to have a companion who is interested in seeing the city differently, seeing it as a pastor does. For once I felt a kinship with the police who patrol the streets in pairs. It's encouraging to see the odd glance of recognition, the smile, the greeting from strangers as we pass.

We were entering the churchyard one day this week, and a woman accosted me. "Don't you work here?" she said. I confessed jokily. "Sometimes." "Yes, you're the one I spoke to six months ago. The first time I came in here to pray. The first day I joined AA. I've just been in to say 'thank you' to God. I'm getting my own flat again next week. I'm sober, and wouldn't be if it wasn't for Him above. I've got my life back again, thanks to Him." It was so good to share that moment of blessing with a colleague. The church building ministers to people when its pastors are elsewhere, strugging to cope with the demands of the bureaucracy from hell which is the diocesan and provincial administration of the Church in Wales.

Nothing personal, bosses. You suffer from this organisational dinosaur as much if not more than the rest of us. I just hope you too have moments like this to keep you coping.

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