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Mental health panel discussion leads pastors to reveal the stress of their pandemic losses

Self-care and restoration are major topics during webinar

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Bertram Johnson

LOUISVILLE — During a Pastors and Church Leaders Mental Health panel discussion held this week, four church leaders discussed ways that stress has manifested itself in their lives — and in the lives of those they serve.

The Rev. Bertram Johnson spoke about his work at Union Theological Seminary in New York City,  where he offers spiritual health care support for students.

In the midst of the environmental crisis, along with racial, economic, social and gender justice crises, Johnson said seminarians wonder what the church has to offer to people facing existential questions like, “How will I or my family survive this?”

Acknowledging there are many challenges, Johnson remembered how distressed students were during the pandemic. The only sound you could hear when the city was shut down was sirens, Johnson said.

“It felt like too big of a burden for them to bear, so I encouraged them to pray whenever they heard the siren,” Johnson said, “to pray that God’s Spirit was with the person needing and now getting help, to move from it from a place of despair to a sense of hope.”

the Rev. Amantha Barbee

The Rev. Amantha Barbee of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia, talked about her personal losses. Her mom died in July 2019. Then during the pandemic she lost 18 people close to her. Finally, she heard voice in her head saying, “Amantha! Who do you think you are? Stop.”

For the first time since she was 16, Barbee took a month off. She went with her sister to the Dominican Republic. The first day together, they kept picking up their phones.

“The fact that it was hard to stop was very telling,” she said. “We kept picking them up and then looking each other, saying, ‘Stop.’”

Barbee feels like she now has strength to go back to whatever the new normal is. She looks at self-care through a different lens now, wondering what harm she might cause if she doesn’t take care of herself.

“We have to have self-care or we will perish,” she said. “Yet we often don’t take time to do it, because we need to be needed.”

Dr. Jason Whitehead

Dr. Jason Whitehead, a therapist in private practice in Denver, started a new worshiping community, Reframe, in March 2020, right when the pandemic started. During that time, he said he would sometimes just stare at the screen wondering what to do.

“If I can’t go out for coffee to find out what is meaningful in people’s lives, or how I can be supportive, well, I just felt paralyzed,” he said. “My community was now on a monitor.”

As an introvert it didn’t bother him that much to be on the screen. He didn’t miss all those meetings. What he did miss was the chance to connect — and the ability to make the choice to reach out and connect.

Instead of connecting through mentoring and coaching, which helped him make connections to what was happening his life, he withdrew, turning inward rather than toward community.

“The stress, even if it’s good, like a prophetic word or a hard conversation, pushes me away from those that it would be good to connect with, to be in healthy relationship,” he said. “I call it disconnection, which then limits our holy imaginations.”

the Rev. Dr. Pablo Rivera

The Rev. Dr. Pablo Rivera, a 1001 NWC and Vital Congregations coach and a consulting trainer on suicide prevention skills certified by Life Works, is president and founder of Life Assisting Fellowship Corporation.

Working with pastors and church leaders to increase awareness and skills to prevent suicidal behavior, he said it is impossible to be a church leader and meet the expectations of church members today.

Citing research from a 2016 report, he said more than 50% of pastors say they work at least 65 hours a week. Thirty-five percent reported being depressed.

“They have no time to read their Bible, except when they’re preparing a sermon,” he said. “But they’re so burned out they don’t take time to think about what is happening.”

Whitehead believes we think about self-care through the American concept of individualism, “where it’s only about me,” he said. “But I’m always thinking about relationships, because to me our care is an ‘our’ thing, not a ‘my’ thing.  For Jesus it [self-care] was about conversation with God.”

Johnson pointed out that extroverts in the community where he worships also feel disconnected from the people they’re trying to serve. This can cause depression and isolation.

“The goal of self-care is healing, people restored to community,” he said. “When Jesus healed people, they went and told other people. When you find what is working for you around self-care, tell someone. I encourage you to share it with others, saying, ‘This is working for me, you might want to try it.’”

Watch the entire conversation of “Pastors and Church Leaders Mental Health: Empowering Servant Leadership” here on the Vital Congregations Facebook page.

 Sponsored by Vital Congregations in partnership with 1001 New Worshiping Communities, these panel discussions — Vital Conversations on the 7 Marks of Vital Congregations (see section 2) — occur every Wednesday at 2 p.m. Eastern Time.  Next week the conversation will focus on evangelism.

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