Tuesday, March 22, 2011

When Church Makes You Crazy, Part 3

I expected to finish this list last week but my life just isn't going as I'd planned lately. The most recent mishap was a wood splinter that pushed itself under my fingernail. On the index finger of my dominant hand. I thought I pulled it out but now that the finger is swollen and complaining, I think I missed a piece. Going to the doctor tomorrow for what may be a very unpleasant repair job.

Anyway - here's the conclusion of my strategies for coping with a church that makes you crazy.

Coping Strategy #4: Get Professional Help. By the time we moved away, I had the support of a psychiatrist, a therapist and a pastor. I needed all of them. Most of our life is connected to church so a stressful church setting means a stressful life. I desperately needed the relief and perspective that these people gave me.

My pastor gave me two essential things: the words of Jesus applied directly to my life and the words of an experienced churchman. I never imagined that church could be threatening. He understood how betrayed I felt and helped me hold on to the hope of Christ even when the church made me want to throw up my hands and give up.

I needed the psychiatrist because I needed medication for my depression. I've been told that constant stress can lead to depression. Other occupations have the benefit of divisions between home and work that cushion exposure to stress. I don't think we're the only clergy family that finds it difficult to maintain those boundaries, so stress oozed all over our lives.

Seeing a therapist helped me get some perspective on my situation. I had a hard time seeing my life with any objectivity and she offered different ways of thinking about what was happening in my life and how I could respond to it. I also needed the safety of the therapist's office, where I could say anything that was on my heart. Every other part of my life seemed fragile but her office was a sturdy place to tend my bruised heart.

Coping Strategy #5: Expect Blessing. I had a friend who kept saying that to me and I often thought she was being kind of a ninny. Do you not see what is happening to me and to my family? Don't you see that God is letting us wither here?

Later I began to replay the phrase and consider that possibility that God would bless us. It is hard to be hopeful when everything looks bleak, but because of Christ we always have reason to hope. Like the woman who touched the hem of Jesus' robe, trusting that He could heal her even though she'd been suffering for years. She expected blessing.

A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”

“You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’

But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5:25-34)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

When Church Makes You Crazy, Part 2

Coping Strategy #2: Find a Lighthouse Friend. One of the tragedies of being the center of conflict in our church was that I was terrified of everyone - not because I thought everyone was out to get me, but because I had no idea who I could trust.

The church leaders who had interviewed my husband and called him to be their pastor turned so quickly when they disagreed with him that I feared everyone in the church would feel likewise if they knew me. I tried to be bland and agreeable but after a while I felt like I was disappearing. I needed the freedom to express my thoughts honestly.

I decided it would help to find one person with whom I could be honest. I was acquainted with a woman who seemed trustworthy, mature in her faith and sophisticated enough about church to handle my church politics saga. I asked her to be my lighthouse friend: to let me tell her all that was happening so that when I saw her on Sunday morning I would not feel alone.

Most Sunday mornings we did not speak beyond a pleasant greeting but seeing her and knowing she understood how hard it was for me to be at church was a light in the fog of my fear and anxiety.

Coping Strategy #3: Avoid the Building. APart form Sunday morning I completely avoided church. I didn't stop by to see my husband. I didn't drive by on my way to the grocery store. I changed my routes so I never saw the church building except on Sunday morning.

All my associations with the building were negative and it was draining for me to see it and arouse all those feelings.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

When Church Makes You Crazy: 5 Strategies

We spent a couple of years at a church that literally made me crazy. The church leaders abused my husband and I felt scared every time I went in the building. The stress of that situation caused an episode of clinical depression that persisted until we moved away.

While we were there, I found a few strategies to help me cope with the situation. Mostly I wanted to never go to or think about that church, but I felt that I had a few obligations as the pastor's wife:
  1. Attend worship most weeks.
  2. Bring my children to Sunday school. (This one had more to do with stability for my children than obligations to the church.)
  3. Speak kindly always. Speak of church politics as little as possible.
Given those parameters, I found about five things I could do that helped. I'll tell you about one of them today and describe the others during the rest of the week.

Coping Strategy #1: Worship Elsewhere. I went to our church on Sunday mornings because I believe it can be confusing and discouraging for the congregation if the pastor's wife never attends. I barely considered it "worship" in the true sense. I didn't hear the senior pastor's sermons as messages from God but as reminders of his duplicity. Every hymn and prayer was clouded by my stress and anxiety.

I visited other churches as I was able, usually on a weeknight. It was such a relief to sit in the pew and feel like I had some privacy with God. Even in a happy church I feel self-conscious about being the woman everyone can identify.

Eventually I built a relationship with a nearby church (I'll call it "Bridge Church") where I attended a weekday Bible study and made a few friends. During the months after my husband had left our last church and before he took the call to our current church, we attended Bridge Church. In retrospect, I would say that was an important part of my re-learning how to feel safe at church. I think most of our friends at Bridge Church knew something had gone terribly wrong for us. I never felt judged, no one ever pried into details. We were welcomed, hugged, made to feel loved and valued.

The pastor at Bridge Church advised me to "do nothing." He told me we needed time to heal and to receive love and care with no obligations. He was right about that and it was a precious gift.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Church Secretary

It's starting to sound like a little theme - budgets, secretaries.... what's next on the list?

I had an odd conversation with the church secretary this week. Since we live in a parsonage next door to church, our mailbox is next to the church mailbox. I go to church at midday to pick my kids up from preschool and so I usually take the mail to the secretary. She is pleasant but not chatty, so it's nice to have a reason to say hello every day.

Last week I brought her the mail and stood over the recycling bin sorting our personal mail. I tossed in a few women's clothing catalogs that don't interest me.

I went down the hall to get my kids and when I walked past her office again she said, "Haven't you heard the rule? When you get fun catalogs you bring them over here so we can look through them!" She was flipping through the catalogs I'd recycled. "I always liked picking up mail for [the previous pastor's wife] because she got the best catalogs!"

I found this awkward. I don't care if she likes looking at catalogs, but it wasn't a collegial "Ooh! don't you love looking at this stuff even when you're not going to buy it?" The implication seemed to be that we have money to buy more expensive clothes than she can afford. It could be true; I'd have no idea. But it was weird.

I think I'll sort my mail at home from now on.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Church Budgets

There were a couple of meetings at church last night about budget problems. I know, crazy! A church with financial challenges! I don't know the ins and outs of it, but judging by the number of church members who are out of work or who have moved away in the last several months because they found work elsewhere, I suspect the difference between income and expenses is significant.

My husband tries to keep his hands off the money situation but it's hard to stay uninvolved when hard choices will need to be made. We were both braced for bad news last night.

But then he came home early from the meeting. And he was smiling. It was a very strange experience.

The church council has a plan and is still trusting God to make up the shortfall. To me, the most important part of their plan was: Pastor, don't worry about this. We want you to teach us and care for our spiritual needs. We are responsible for figuring out the budget.

I love these people.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Travel with Kids

I have hardly gone anywhere (apart from moving) for the last year because of surgery and chemotherapy. I suppose my travel before that was kind of limited because depression sapped my energy. Anyway, it's been a while since I took the kids to visit either set of grandparents.

This weekend, we went. It was just me and all three kiddos on a 6-hour drive. I used to think that was manageable. I think I used to be crazy.

They are pretty good travelers but they are young and sitting for several hours is boring. We stopped for running around, we rotated their seats around the van, we had books and toys for entertainment. But still there is so much coaching and negotiating and I-can't-pick-that-up-I'm-driving!

I wonder if it's me. I did not feel creative about playing I Spy in the car or planning helpful stops en route. I just wanted them to leave me alone so I could drive in peace. How do other people travel with kids? Lots of pastors' families drive long distances to visit relatives. There must be a reasonable way to do it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Reminders of Grace

I think that Christians who appreciate the gift of grace, no matter what denomination, are always glad for reminders of it. Lutherans see God's grace in baptism. When we remember that we are baptized we are reminded that God has come to us in spite of ourselves.

I happened on an odd little way to remember my baptism recently. My online checking account uses a picture that is associated with my account as a security measure. I see it every time I log on. I had to choose a picture from the credit union's photo library and happened on one of water droplets. I labeled it "baptism".

Now whenever I go to pay bills I am reminded of God's grace. I love it. I don't normally think about God's generosity when I'm paying bills. God has a delightful way of turning things upside down.