There is a reason so many people are talking about mental health in the middle of the current pandemic. This pandemic is taking a toll on us. The exact toll can be difficult to gauge. On the one hand, we are facing a daily dose of bad news and anxiety-producing headlines. It comes as no surprise that depression, anxiety, and addiction are on the rise.
On the other hand, many of our personal and collective freedoms are being curtailed. No surprise that anger, resentment, and rage are in full bloom as well. Every day is full of tiny losses and indignities. Keep your distance. Sanitize before or after touching things others have touched. Wear a mask. You can alternate between feeling like a leper and being surrounded by them all on the same trip to the grocery store. Unlike many other situations, the results of your actions are almost entirely unmoored from reality. If you have followed the public health directives, you will never know how many lives you have saved. If you have shirked them, you will never know or be held accountable for how many you have negatively impacted. If we succeed at keeping infection rates and death rates low, some will say that this proves that the virus wasn’t serious in the first place, and everyone overreacted. If we push beyond the limits of prudence and good judgment and allow ourselves to experience the worst this virus has to throw at us, we will be drowning in suffering. It’s a crazy-making business these pandemics.
It’s not hard to see why our neighbours are talking about mental health a lot these days. Most Canadians are sick and tired of being sick and tired. But why are Free Methodists talking about mental health in this issue of the MOSAIC? Well, we thought it might be a good idea to take a moment to consider the unique ways that Christians in general, and Free Methodists specifically, interact with the mental health implications of this current pandemic. For instance, there are unique pressures on leaders and Christians during lockdowns that are worth considering. People doing ministry in the local church, both lay and clergy, are experiencing a kind of stress that is unique to Christian communities. Secondly, there are persistent and widespread theological visions of how to respond to mental health in a pandemic that is making matters much worse for the suffering among us. Finally, we thought it would be worth considering what gifts our particular expression of the Christian faith offers us as we move through this together.
It is worth noting that the problems of the pandemic are not all “out there” somewhere. As a leader in the denomination, I have noticed several issues that are cause for concern. For churches that were in poor health before the pandemic began, the current situation is making the matter much worse. The future of a handful of our churches is in doubt. This concerns me greatly. I am also hearing from some of our pastors and ministry leaders who are feeling demoralized. There is a peculiar restlessness in the hearts of our leaders. Some are frustrated by the prolonged uncertainty of it all. Some are worn out from the never-ending logistical challenges caused by oscillating between meeting in-person and then online and then back again. Some are playing referee in fights around board tables and in pews over the “proper” response to provincial health measures: to follow or make a show of resistance. Some feel they are failing to properly care for people or lead them on mission while meeting in-person is not possible. For some, it’s the everyday grind of uncertainty about the status of people or the health of the local church. We are asking our leaders to go easily and gently in the current time period. We are asking people to show grace to each other and to themselves if things just don’t seem to be working out the way we hoped. If you are showing signs of stress in your ministry, we encourage you to slow down, to rest and reset with your Creator, and find someone to talk to. We want our leaders to feel free to take the time to work things through with trusted friends, a spiritual director, or a therapist. These kinds of people are God’s grace to us. Take the help they offer as God’s gift to you. We also encourage you to take the time you need and to simply allow things to “be what they are” for the time being. Jesus promises to walk with us in our suffering. He promises to be found by the people that search for Him. He promises to lift up the weary and heavy-laden and to give them rest. These are things we encourage at the Ministry Centre. We offer them to you because they have been helping us manage our own unique pandemic challenges.
We have also noted the problem of toxic theology in some of our churches. Christian traditions that draw from the well of the prosperity gospel and those that nurture a culture of authoritarianism are causing real damage and strife in the church. As Free Methodists, we don’t hold to such beliefs, but some people who join our churches, having been discipled by these traditions, often do. These views can be especially toxic when it comes to addressing widespread mental health challenges as is the case during this pandemic. There is a distinct lack of room in such ideologies for human experiences outside of constant victory and domination. There is no room for weakness and uncertainty. This is problematic at the best of times, but in moments where both weakness and uncertainty are in abundant supply they can be downright dangerous. Apart from encouraging a dangerously narrow vision of what it means to be human, these toxic theologies are prone to attack vulnerable and suffering people. Foolishly believing there is no room for weakness in the Christian faith, they seek to root it out of themselves and everyone around them. This thoroughly unbiblical ideal ignores the suffering and vulnerability that Jesus himself demonstrated in his own life. The effect in our churches is wounded Christians ignoring their wounds or hoping they can simply overcome them through some “name it a claim it” incantation. Free Methodists have to talk about mental health in more holistic terms. We have to create space to acknowledge weakness, frailty, uncertainty, fear, grief, and wounds in times like these. It is our task as disciple-makers to lead our people, both the suffering Jobs and their incredibly unhelpful friends, into acknowledging our experiences and then allowing God’s transformative and healing power to flow.
We also wanted to take time to draw your attention to the gifts that our particular expression of the Christian faith offers us as we move through this together. The Methodist tradition is spacious. It has room for the spiritual, relational, emotional, attitudinal, intellectual, physiological, behavioural, and systemic dimensions of mental health. Our spiritual heritage can be a powerful tool as we address the challenges of this pandemic. It can free our hands to tend to the whole person. As Methodists, we should be willing to discuss all dimensions of human life. It’s all on the table because it all matters to God. And by extension, all of the things that matter to God should matter to us. As a people, we need to encourage each other in our jointly held confidence in God’s transforming power. God created this world for our good. God is restoring and reconciling the world for our good. Our role is to join Him in that work. As a people, we need to encourage each other to consider how Jesus is present in our suffering and what it is that God wants to do in the middle of it.
by Jared Siebert
Director of Church Planting