A Place to Not Be Okay
Acting Head of Staff
A Place to Not Be Okay
I need to start with an acknowledgment: this article is written specifically for our clergy members and other church staff. This isn’t my norm. Usually, I am intentional about recognizing the broad audience to whom our weekly newsletter goes. While I believe what I will share does apply to all of us, this piece is specific in its audience.
Many of you will have seen Alex Lang’s article “Departure: Why I Left the Church.” While I have many thoughts that I won’t share here, reading his reflections reminded me of a piece of advice I received very early in my ministry career: You need a place where you can not be okay so that in the places you need to be okay, you can be okay. The advice was given to me a few years into my first call, and it’s been invaluable.
I was, at the time, struggling. A little more than two years in, I was trying to balance the roles of pastor, husband, and father, and I was finding it a bit much. Mind you, I wasn’t facing anything out of the ordinary or traumatic. Just garden-variety challenges that come with having multiple roles in life that intersect and overlap. For example, it is my theory that Pastor’s kids are uniquely gifted to only start getting sick on Saturday night at 10 p.m. And, in a cruel twist of fate, whenever our oldest would get sick, my anxiety would spike like nothing I had ever experienced. But, come Sunday morning, I had to be ready to step into my role as pastor. Clergy marriages, like all marriages, go through their challenges as well, and we were still figuring out what marriage looked like, especially with a kid and another on the way. But no matter how things were at home, come Sunday morning, I had to be ready to step into my role as pastor. As time went on, and my stress level continued to increase, I began to seriously wonder if I could keep going, because come Sunday morning, no matter what, I had to be ready to step into my role as Pastor.
Let me also add one point of clarification before I go any further: The church I was privileged to serve was nothing but amazing in its support of me and my family. They loved our family, and they really loved our kids. This wasn’t a church problem; this was a me problem. This wasn’t a church with inappropriate expectations for me; this was me not knowing how to deal with my stuff.
For those of you who know me, you’ll know that emotions aren’t my strong point (and I’ve got data to prove it – seriously). It’s not that I don’t have emotions, but sometimes I’m not aware of them, and even once I’m aware of them, I don’t always know what to do with them. Suppressing them is a skill I’ve honed over the years, which serves me well in some settings but is a huge detriment in others. But in that season, I discovered that I needed a place where I could just be me. To tell the truth, unfiltered at that, about what I was experiencing. To say out loud what I was carrying and what I was facing. And to have people listen and just say, “Yes, we hear you and we care.” I didn’t need people to fix it, and I didn’t even always need or want advice; I just needed people to care about me. I needed a place not to be okay, to process my emotions so that come Sunday morning, I could step into my role as Pastor.
Over the years, I found these spaces in several places, varying by season. They’ve come in informal ways – lunches with colleagues and utterly ridiculous text threads, and in more formal ways – in a therapist’s office and across the table from a 1:1 coach. They’ve come in the form of cohort groups and retreats. They’ve come in the way of continuing education events that my wife and I chose to attend together when we were both serving churches. They’ve come as unfiltered e-mails I could send to friends without concern. But the common thread in all these spaces is the same: I could not be okay, which enabled me to be okay in the spaces and places I needed to be okay.
There has been a recent push for clergy to be more authentic and honest with their congregations, and on the one hand, I appreciate that and think it’s healthy. But there’s a difference between being open and honest with our people and asking them to carry our burdens. The first is essential; the second is detrimental. An example might explain this difference.
A few years back, our oldest ended up in the hospital (on a Saturday, of course!) a few weeks before youth group kicked off. Remember how I mentioned my anxiety levels when they would get sick? Well, this time, it was justified. In all my trips to the ER, and we’ve had a couple, I’ve never seen a medical team move a kid so fast from triage to the high-priority section of the ER. They were concerned, I was terrified. He was experiencing neurological symptoms, which meant they were testing for tumors, bleeding, and a possible stroke. Yeah, it was scary. In the end, it was actually a viral thing that had gotten into the fluids around the brain, and the symptoms resolved within 24 hours. Still, it was super scary. In the moment, I was a rockstar dad, staying focused on the decisions that had to be made. But, the next morning, ironically, after the symptoms were well on their way to resolving, I walked into the hospital room, looked at him sitting in the hospital bed, and simply went to pieces. The suppressed emotion of the previous day came pouring out, and I sat on the couch at Children’s Hospital and sobbed.
I was very open about what was going on. I posted it to Instagram/Facebook and sent an e-mail on the church’s prayer chain asking everyone to pray for us. And, to the church’s credit (and the rest of the staff), they told me I was not to come to worship on Sunday or the office that week – which I was incredibly grateful for.
In the weeks after, I intentionally shared with a few trusted people what had happened with full, unfiltered honesty. But, they weren’t members of my congregation or the kids in my youth group. And, on the first night of youth group, I chose to talk about one of the lessons I had learned through the whole experience. This lesson was, for some of my youth group kids, the most memorable lesson I ever taught (the short version: while sobbing on that stupid couch in the hospital, I “heard” the words “I’ve got him”). In hindsight, it was probably still too soon to use my experience as an object lesson. Still, I can say without question that if I hadn’t been intentional about talking about my experience, about finding those places not to be okay beforehand, the lesson would have, instead, resulted in me asking a group of middle and high school students to bear my burdens and not about God’s faithfulness in a time of struggle.
I recently preached a sermon based on Matthew 14. While it wasn’t the focus of that sermon, verse 13 really stuck out to me: “When Jesus heard about John, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Upon hearing the news of his cousin and colleague’s passing, Jesus, the Son of God himself, needed a place not to be okay. If Jesus needed a place not to be okay sometimes, then we all need a place not to be okay.
Friends, please find places where you can not be okay, so that come Sunday, you can be okay in the places you have to be okay. You need it, your people need you to have it, and gosh darn it all, you deserve those places. And, I’ll make an offer: if you ever need a place not to be okay, my office is specifically designed as a place for people not to be okay, complete with a tissue box pre-positioned on the table. Or, contact one of the other members of the Presbytery staff or join the Monday Morning “Coffee with Clergy” group that Ralph hosts (Mondays @ 10am – Zoom Link). Maybe it’s something else entirely, but please, please find a place where you can not be okay so you can be okay in the places you need to be okay. You need it, your people need you to have it, and you deserve it.