Transforming Engagement, the Podcast

Clergy Burnout with Dr. Jessica Young Brown | Podcast Season 02, Episode 02

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In this episode of our Clergy Burnout series, we’re joined by Dr. Jessica Young Brown, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, author, and consultant to churches and community organizations on mental health, trauma, race and racism, and organizational dynamics.

Co-hosted by Kate Rae Davis, MDiv, and Rose Madrid Swetman, DMin, this discussion centers around the warning signs of burnout and the potential impact that addressing burnout – or letting it go unnoticed – can have on pastors and their communities. We discuss practical ways that pastors can foster greater awareness and care for their own physical and mental health, and how congregants can also grow in awareness to step in and support their pastors.

We hope that this is a space where pastors and clergy will feel seen and known. For those of you who are not pastors but perhaps are part of a faith community or congregation, we hope these conversations will be enlightening and give you a greater understanding and empathy for the leaders in your community, and prompt questions as to how we can support these faithful leaders.

Each episode, we’re asking our guest to highlight an organization that is doing good work. This week, Dr. Jessica Young Brown is shining a light on Pathways 2 Promise, whose mission is to collaborate with faith, spiritual, and non-spiritual communities to share resources that assess, educate and effect change to welcome, support, engage and include persons with mental illnesses and those who care for them.

Supporting resources:

 

About our guest:

Dr. Jessica Young Brown is a licensed clinical psychologist who works as a clinician, educator, consultant, and speaker. Her research and clinical work focus on making mental health accessible and equitable for people in marginalized communities, and equipping mental health professionals to better serve these communities.

Dr. Brown’s areas of interest and expertise include the impact of racism and race-related stress on mental health, generational and cultural trauma, and the intersection of faith and mental health. In addition to various peer reviewed and popular media articles, Dr. Brown is the author of Making Space at the Well: Mental Health and the Church.

You can visit Dr. Brown’s website at https://drjessicabrown.com and follow her on Twitter @drjessicabrown 

Episode Transcript:

Kate: Welcome to Transforming Engagement, the Podcast where we hold conversations about changes and choices that serve the common good and a higher good. Today, Rose and I are talking with Dr. Jessica Young Brown, a clinical psychologist and consultant to churches on many topics that include trauma and mental health. Welcome, Dr. Brown.

Jessica: Thank you so much. I’m happy to be with you all.

Kate: We’re so happy to have you. I wanted to start with a broad question about the field of work that we are in. I know working at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology that for some people, that intersection of spirituality and mental health is surprising or confusing, and I wanted ask you to say a bit more about your work and how you understand those two forming one another.

Jessica: Sure. So I, you know, when I tell people who I am professionally, I always say I’m standing at the intersection of faith and mental health. And so for me, personally as well as professionally, those things are intrinsically connected. I am the daughter of two ministers, grew up the child of a pastor, and so faith has always been the foundation upon which my life was laid. The mental health piece for me really came about being the daughter of a clergy person. And so the conversation that we’re having today is so relevant because my father dealt with burnout that led to a major depressive episode when I was in high school. And I didn’t have that language for it until I was a freshman in college sitting in my Psych 101 class. And my professor was describing major depression. And I had this thought of–wait a minute– I know what that’s like.  My family… I mean, surely my parents talk to each other about it. And it’s interesting because my father’s deceased, but I’ve had this conversation with my mother in my adulthood, and I asked her, like, why didn’t y’all tell me what was happening? You know, like, I knew something was going on. I knew my father was really different, but they did not have the language to talk to me about it. And my parents are highly educated. My father’s best friend was a psychologist. So it wasn’t for lack of knowledge, but it really, I think, was about not knowing how to make sense of someone who was called to this profession and could still be so overwhelmed by it. And so my work for me really stems first from a heart for clergy, and then it really expanded to having language and strategies for how we talk about mental health in faith communities in a way that is affirming, and holistic, and from my perspective, consistent with God’s desires for us and the vision for how we should live.

Kate: Yeah, I’m so glad that you opened naming that dynamic because I think a lot of clergy have that experience of being overwhelmed or depressed or any number of things and unable to narrate it into where much of their lives live –  which is the congregation – because it feels like it feels like a type of failure. And I mean Rose I know that you have some experiences too, if you want to jump in.

Rose: Yeah. I especially appreciate the not having language to talk about it. Or even now I feel like we do have some language. It’s a little more known in some places in the church, but yet it is still, in your book, you talk about stigma. For clergy, it is a stigma to name. It feels like such a weakness, like a failure. But the fact that then it gets internalized, which I would love to hear your thoughts about– in my experience –watching pastors burnout, and usually the burnout can manifest in some kind of failure, a moral failure, financial, sexual, power. And in my experience, I’ve watched that go because they were caught feeling like a failure, feeling ashamed and not, and so it’s almost like that is anesthetizing what’s going on internally. I would love to hear you talk about that a little bit.

Jessica: I think that terminology “anesthetizing” is really great. In my experience, I think a lot of times the sort of professional landscape of clergy is really upward and outward. So I’m going to geek out for just a little bit. So in my doctoral dissertation, I did, my work was on basically how do you identify which clergy are best suited for which vocational roles within the dynamic of being a clergy person? Right. So the Department of Labor categorizes professions. If you look at all the things that we ask pastoral leaders, especially, to do, the low end estimation is that that’s about eight jobs. The high end estimation is that it’s about 20 jobs. So the way we set up pastoral ministry is actually a set up because it’s too many jobs for one person. Right. So that’s the first piece. The second piece is that there’s this spiritual and theological messaging that clergy get about the way they are supposed to show up. And in many of our denominational traditions, there is not a lot of space for human to be one of the ways that clergy show up. Right. So we start out with a job that is really 15 jobs and then we add to that an expectation that you do that job flawlessly. Right. If you’re thinking about clergy who are bi-vocational or who are pastoring small churches, and they are really the pastor, the church clerk, the janitor. Right. So there are all of these complications to the way we do ministry that, to your point, Rose, I think the way people survive is to ignore their internal experience because if they actually paid attention to their internal experience, they would be tired or they would get overwhelmed or they would be frustrated. And so the cost there, when we think about burnout, is we don’t attend to it until we are forced to attend to it. And by that time, to your point, people run into these sticky ethical situations. And that’s really about being out of touch with our anger in our home base because we’re in survival mode. So we make decisions that violate even our own sense of integrity because we’ve lost track of who we are in the process of trying to present a certain way.

Rose: It’s interesting because losing track of our own integrity– I don’t know if either one of you ever watch Breaking Bad but that’s the way I sort of define it. When I watch clergy start, they start Breaking Bad, when they start violating that internal thing a little bit, then it’s a little more. Then it’s a little easier until they’re full blown, you know, into this thing. It’s a coping mechanism because this is too painful: to every Monday morning feel like a failure, to not be able to know how to deal with the criticism. Instead, we take it in and it plays over in our heads. So I like that it starts with small ways that we’re violating even our internal values.

Jessica: And I think it’s compounded by the fact that many clergy really don’t feel like they have community. So they’re tackling all these things, but tackling them alone and feeling that if they were to share those struggles, there would be a consequence for doing so.

Kate: Yeah, we’re touching on the deep end of, you know, when the burnout signs are already very loud and present. And I so appreciate the level of compassion that you both have for these things that, you know, culturally we view as just failures. Moral failures and abuses of power to take a really compassionate look. What is the individual’s behavior saying and I’m wanting to pull us back to earlier in the burnout trajectory like, what are some warning signs? What are some early behaviors or red flags that a clergy person might notice in themselves or in a colleague or maybe a fellow, a family member of a clergyperson may be able to say like, oh, you’re on a burnout trajectory and let’s talk about this before, before it gets to that point.

Jessica: Sure. So if we’re talking about internal signs attending to ourselves, one of the things that I say so much in my clinical practice is that our bodies tell on us. And so often those physical signs are indicators that something could be going on. That could be anything from trouble sleeping to having a sense of restlessness or being keyed up or on edge, difficulty concentrating, stomach issues, gastrointestinal problems, digestion. Our bodies really do react to high levels of stress. And when we don’t have a way to combat that stress over time, it can wear down our bodies. So that’s one thing. And when we’re talking about, you know, ways we could see things in ourselves or maybe that other people notice, often those early signs of burnout are like gradual, subtle disengagement. Right? So not feeling as passionate, even feeling like your own spiritual life is not enriching. Right. There’s you know, people joked a couple of years ago that football player Marshawn Lynch who didn’t want to go to press conferences and he would get in the mic and say, I’m just here so I won’t get fined. Right. Clergy sort of show up like that when they’re experiencing burnout. Right. I’m just here so I won’t get fined. I’m here to collect my check. I’m going to do the bare minimum. I don’t have vision. I don’t have excitement. I don’t have compassion or real love for the people I’m in community with. I’m just putting up with them because this is a job and I need my job. Right. And so I think those points of disconnection, especially when we can notice a change in ourselves, can be indicators. If we think about those clergy who are called to preach, one of the unfortunate signs of burnout is that bleeds into our preaching. Right. And so there can be, you know, like this tinge of resentment or again, disconnection is the word that keeps coming up. Right. But other people can kind of see– this person doesn’t seem to be preaching with the same kind of fire that they typically do or they seem to be airing out complaints and calling it a homily, right? Those are signs. And they’re opportunities to really intervene earlier. Right. One of my commitments to my own pastor is–and I told him this – that I am committed to seeing him. So if he seems tired, it’s my responsibility as his parishioner to say to him, I see that you seem tired. Is there a way I can support you? Right. So for those of us who are the parishioners in this conversation, I challenge you to think about really seeing and supporting your pastor, because often they don’t know how to ask for help or don’t know if they will receive the help if they ask. And so we, those who are observing their behaviors, I think we can think about ways to say to people in love, hey, I actually don’t think you’re OK. And what are the ways that we as a community can gather to support you?

Kate: That’s lovely. Your pastor is so lucky to have you.

Rose: Yes, yes, yes.

Jessica: Yes. I think because of the family I grew up in, I deeply respect how challenging it is to be in that role. And there’s a gift and a grace that God provides to be in this vocation and do this work. And it’s also really hard and can be really isolating. So I do bring respect to that role. And I think it’s all of our responsibility as Christian community to support the people that God has called to lead.

Rose: I think in the same way, I love that you are that congregant, parishioner, that, but also as colleagues, because in my role as overseeing churches, I mean, now when I look in hindsight, oh, the red flags: he always showed up late to the meeting, he always left early. Like there was this avoidance to your point, disconnected, disengaged, like what is going on? They’re so disengaged. They’re so disconnected. Even those little red flags you can see in your colleagues.

Jessica: Yeah, I think that’s a great point.

Kate: You’ve touched on your experience in high school, watching your dad go through his depression and burnout experience and I’m, I think about, I think about saying to like my pastor saying, hey, I’m noticing you’re tired or I’m noticing this coming out in your sermons –and how uncomfortable that can be. You know, you want to have that relationship developed before you get to the point you might say that sentence –and saying that sentence, even in a friendly relationship, can be really vulnerable. And you can hit some, like, really strong defenses really quickly. And it’s helpful to put that in the frame of what’s the, what’s the possible future you’re trying to prevent? So like what’s the impact of burnout for that clergyperson, for the congregation, for that clergy’s family? What is the thing that makes it worth it to say it? Because otherwise this is where we end up.

Jessica: Yeah, I think there’s, so I teach a class called Self-care as a Spiritual Practice and one of the scriptures that we use in that class is the Jeremiah 20 text where Jeremiah is talking to God. And he’s like, you’ve deceived me. Basically, I don’t want to preach. I’m tired of these people, but your word is like a fire shut up in my bones. Right? And so we talk about burnout as the literal going out of the fire. And that frame is really helpful to me because I think passion and excitement is something that as human beings, we are naturally attracted to. Right. And the possible end that we’re trying to avoid is apathy. We don’t want people for themselves or for communities in leadership when they don’t care anymore about what they’re called to do. It’s not just that it hurts our communities, but it also hurts our relationship with God to not be passionate in the areas where we have been called. And it also hurts our relationships with ourselves. To not be able to operate in ways that give us joy and bring us closer to that source. And so I think it’s important to your point to really frame it as: “I love you. I see that you are called. I value what you offer this community and I want to partner with you to be the best version of that, that you can be.” It’s not that we don’t have off days because we all do, right? But how can we conceptualize that in the context of a life that overall is thriving and abundant? Right. We can plan for those off days or days when we feel overwhelmed and when we know that we are in safe community, we can acknowledge when we have those bad days, and it doesn’t have to be a mark against our call. Right. So it goes back to your point. I think about relationship really being primary to the way we support each other.

Kate: That Jeremiah passage is like a revelation for me right now and the way we talk about burnout is usually like toasted, crispy, like the fire has totally consumed you and there’s this charred-out shell of a person. But in the context of like actually some fire is good. Yeah. It’s when that flame goes out, like you might not be charred, you might just be an unlit coal, which is a very different image of burnout than I think is popularly talked about.

Jessica: Yeah, that image is helpful to me because I think and I think this comes from, you know, doing a lot of burnout recovery coaching. I think sometimes we mistakenly believe the remedy to burnout is to, like, keep a safe distance and to show up and do the things you’re supposed to be, but just not be as invested so you won’t get hurt, right? That’s a self-protective process, which I really respect but you’re still operating in burnout, right? It’s just the safer burnout than the one where you feel overwhelmed and completely depleted. And so for me, if we really want to kind of ponder God’s desires and intentions for us, I think passion and fire have got to be a part of that frame, right? Jesus said I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly right that they might have it to the full. And so I think full life requires some fire. Not that overwhelms, right? Not that chars us to toast, but a fire that keeps us going and fuels our activity. There’s a reason that when we talk about Pentecost, the imagery is a flame, right? Because the Spirit is that activating process in each of us and our connection with the Spirit is what helps us to keep that passion.

Rose: Dr. Brown, how would you describe the difference between – because I think when I hear you talk about this, I think about– probably most clergy go into that vocation full of fire and passion. Like they want to do good. They feel empowered and invited and called by God to do, to partner with the Spirit, to do this renewal work. So how would you maybe describe for a clergy person listening: Am I just tired or am I in burnout? Like, how could you tell the difference? Has the fire really just gone out? Or am I just really needing to blow on the flame and let it come back?

Jessica: Sure. So I think the big question is how long and because of what? Right? So all of us get tired. It is the way we as human beings are set up that our systems are homeostatic systems, right? We need sort of the ebb and flow. So I eat, but then after a while I get hungry again. But if I eat, I’m not hungry for that period of time. I sleep and then I feel energy and then I need to sleep again. Right? So if it feels like a homeostatic process where there’s a natural ebb and flow, I think that’s really about attending to your humanness, right? You’re probably tired because you’re tired but if the natural ebb and flow doesn’t kick in so that the fatigue goes away, right? So when I sleep and I wake up and I’m still tired and then I sleep again and I wake up and I’m still tired, right? That’s a sign that we might be moving into a place of burnout because our natural recovery activities aren’t doing their jobs. And so that goes for our physiological needs. Like I’m using the examples of sleep and food, but also think about our spiritual activities, right? Even the ebb and flow of the church calendar, right? There was a Barna study, I think that came out last year or the year before that said that the optimal number of sermons a pastor should preach in a year is forty.

Kate: I can tell you for me, it’s four.

Jessica: Forty. So that means when you do the math, that’s one Sunday off a month, right? Yeah. So again, if I have that one Sunday off a month, my ebb and flow balances this homeostatic system. But if I preach for 50 Sundays in a row, sure I’m tired on Sunday, 51, right? And so really the question is: what’s my recovery time like? And what does it take for me to get to a point where I’m recovered, right? So if I go on vacation, but I come back and I’m still dreading going back to the office right? Maybe that’s not homeostasis. Maybe I really am burning out. There’s also some self-exploration we can all do around just our natural rhythms to help support our wisdom around that process. So it can be little things like just understanding how – what are your sort of most active parts of the day, and what are the days when you tend to have a lull and honoring those when you make your schedule right? Most of us have, you know, when we think about clergy, have some liberty in terms of how we organize our schedule, right? And so we can take agency there. The other thing I encourage people to think about is identifying activities as drains or wells. So a well is something that energizes you, excites you, restores you, and a drain is something that’s kind of an energy suck, right? And usually when I present that metaphor, people are like, Oh yeah, I know, right? I can easily identify those things. So when we identify, drains and wells though, we can strategically organize drains and wells to support what we know about our homeostatic systems. Right? So if I schedule drain, drain, drain by the end of the day I’m depleted and it takes a lot more for me to recover. But if I strategically plant wells around my drains, I actually don’t ever have to get empty, right? I can pour in as I’m pouring out and so there are some strategic ways we can really honor what we know about ourselves to support that burnout prevention process.

Kate: One of the things that you’ve written about, I think I read this on Faith & Leadership’s site is the importance for clergy to have relationships and connection spaces that are safe enough for them. Your phrase is “to cry, scream, and lament.” Yeah, and I think that it resonates as very true. And I think it’s a little bit counterintuitive that being with people to cry, scream, lament, and not just people who are warm, fuzzy, supportive, encouraging cheerleaders. I mean, those are important roles in our life, too. But I wanted you to speak to that, the cry, scream, lament part, particularly – what’s important about that for clergy.

Jessica: Sure, so one of my former doctoral students did her doctoral work on grief in the church and her basic argument is that we really don’t know how to grieve. Right. We, we sort of run to “joy comes in the morning” and “God will never put more you than you can bear.” Right. And if we’re talking about a person dying, “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” right? And we do that in ways that send the implicit message– sometimes an explicit message– “stop all your crying and gasping. Let’s get to the joy part,” right? Yep. But human beings aren’t actually organized that way. And so my doctoral student did her work using a model that in many West African countries, when someone in the community dies, there is a group of women who go to a central place in the community and wail. They hold the grief for the community and they make it visible and tangible in a way that everybody can access. And we know as clergy, we are often taking in all of everybody’s problems and grief and everything. And just like those wailing women, we need an opportunity to release that and to name it, not just for ourselves, but also for our communities. Right. The challenge for clergy, right, is that we do need to do that in a space where people can see us wailing literally or figuratively, and know us and the process well enough to not make that about who we are or some commentary on who God is. Right? Yeah, there’s I mean, there are all these Old Testament passages where people in their grieving will go out in public in sackcloth and ashes and rip their clothes right? There’s something really holy about the grieving process. If nothing else, but to make ourselves vulnerable before the Lord and to say, I need you to enter in this space that is wounded, right and so, of course, I’m going to say people should go to therapy, right? That’s the lowest hanging fruit. But even outside of that, in addition to therapy, I think it’s crucial to have community, whatever that looks like, sometimes as clergy colleagues, sometimes with your neighbor that you can sit on the porch with and have a cup of coffee, to just become undone if you need to. And my conception of God is that, that is not contrary to being called. In fact, there are so many people in the Bible who came to God in moments of great distress. And there wasn’t a rush to joy the way we do in churches now. I mean, half the Psalms are David saying, Lord, why have you forsaken me? My enemies are rising. All right. So there’s a model for people saying, look, God, I am not okay, here I am. I need you to do something with this. And I think that that’s just a holy process that helps us to one honor the cost to our bodies that comes with grief and all the stress that we’re managing, but also to very literally give it over to God so that we’re not carrying it alone.

Rose: Would you say for clergy listening that resonate, like I would love a place to cry and scream and lament, but I do not feel safe to do that in my congregation. Like, there is not the safety for me to be that human. So what would you recommend?

Jessica: So I want to be clear that it actually doesn’t have to be in your congregation at all. Right. In fact, for many of us, that might not be the best place to do it, right? You come back to the congregation and say, Here’s a process I’ve been going through, but the wailing might happen somewhere else, right? It could be with a friend. It could be, you know, one of the – I hesitate to say it this way, right– but one of the gifts we’ve gotten from this COVID era is that we now recognize all the ways we can connect digitally. Right? So maybe it’s somebody you went to seminary with who lives three states over from you. But every other week or once a month, you can get on a Zoom call and just complain and can spend the whole hour for things not to be okay right? And sometimes it’s just about having a container for that experience. If you really don’t have any people in your life who you think could fill that role, a journal or going out into the woods and speaking to the trees. Right. If God is omnipresent, then God is there, too. Right? So it’s really about the the physical and emotional process of expressing those things as a way to work through them.

Kate: It’s and I feel that the way congregants in their expectations sometimes that the pastor be holy, holier than they are means that the pastor can’t be human with them and then some so they’re more than human size in a congregation often, and then with peers there can often be a professional identity that also gets in the way of that human lamenting because, depending on the denominational structure, but maybe someday you’ll be going for the same job as this person or they might hire you or you might hire them. So you don’t want to wail with someone who has that kind of professional competition or power with you. And so that the recommendation for someone who’s three states over or, you know, the person you went to seminary with who’s now in a different denomination, there’s so much more safety there because it removes those other identities and allows you to really be human.

Rose: I want to do a shout out real quick to, like, spiritual directors and therapists, if only because when ten years ago my husband and I lost a son and from diagnosis to death, it was seven months and two therapists in the Seattle area that barely knew me – they just kind of saw me on social media, what was happening–sent me a private message and said, We see that you’re carrying a lot of water. We would like to share that load with you. We want to invite you every Friday to come to our, one of their houses for lunch for seven months. Every Friday I went to one of their homes for lunch. We have a gigantic family. And what they said is, you can wail, you can scream, you can cry, you can swear. We are just going to hold space for you. So that is something that therapists and spiritual directors, if they see someone in their orbit that feels safe enough to reach out to that, I would highly recommend they do that to clergy.

Jessica: Absolutely. I think, Kate, the article that you were reading from before, that article really stemmed from a colleague, a clergy colleague of mine called me, like, to ask me for something. And I just asked him this basic question of how are you? And it took him so long to answer that, you know, that was my clue. Like something is going on here right? And I think that for me, the great tragedy would be that we could all be in community and not really see each other. You know, I just mean, that’s so far from God’s design for us. And I think it’s important that we really nurture those relationships. And if we are people who feel like we can hold space to offer that space and to be really clear about “here’s the way I would like to support you”.

Kate: Speaking of things you’ve written, it might have been that same piece, that you wrote about crisis specific skills and really calling on seminaries to teach more of those skills so that there are skills that already exist in a person before they get to the crisis in which they need them. And we do some of that in our programs. But we’re usually working with people who, they’ve already hit that crisis and are now trying to find their way through it. And I wanted to learn from what you see as the skills that clergy most need in this post-COVID, very difficult congregational-gathering-reality that we’re in now.

Jessica: Sure. So I have lots of thoughts about this, so I’ll try to tamp down my soapbox. The first thought I have is I think the vast majority of Masters of Divinity programs do not provide enough training in pastoral care and counseling, you know, occupational hazard, take it with a grain of salt because of my profession. But that’s what I think. 

Kate: We are a school that has a theology and psychology in the name for exactly the reason of we think these two need to be held together more often. So I’m like, Yeah, no, we’re with you.

Jessica: Yes. Yes. So in my masters thesis, I surveyed clergy about the mental health needs in their congregations, and they said, like, 65 or 70% of their pastoral time was spent in pastoral care and counseling. Most of them had maybe one pastoral care class, sometimes two. It’s just not enough. Right. And I’m not saying, you know, you need to be able to exegete the text, right? You need to understand the church administration, right? But churches are groups of people and people need care, right? So I think we need more pastoral care training. The second piece is: a lot of those crisis skills are really self-assessment skills. It’s about knowing what are the early signs that would let me know that I’m being overwhelmed by stress, or how do I develop the emotional intelligence to actually predict when a conflict might occur in the church and plan for it right? There’s some, this myth that some people hold on to that the absence of conflict is the sign of a healthy church. That is not the way people work, right? I would be more concerned about a church that didn’t have conflict than I would be about a church that was in active conflict, right? Yes. But we also often can’t resolve most of the conflict that we face in our churches. It’s about managing conflict as an ever-present part of what it means to be in relationship. And so that takes different skills than, oh, people had a big fight at a church meeting, so now we have to figure out what to do. When really this conflict has actually been brewing for the past two years, and we all saw it coming and now the train is finally wrecked. Right? So building those conflict management skills, emotional intelligence, to help validate people’s experiences and hear from them, I think are crisis skills. Then there’s also kind of the tangible crisis skills around recognizing when you or someone else in your congregation is getting to a breaking point and really talking about how do we have the resources on call, how do we have a plan in place with the hope that we never have to use it, but what do we do if there’s a domestic violence situation? What do we do if a family gets reported to Child Protective Services? What do we do if someone comes to church and they’re intoxicated? Right. When we can plan for those things ahead of time and there’s the liability perspective that people might know more about. But then there’s also the piece around what does it mean to care for people when they’re behaving badly? And I think when we can nurture those skills as a part of what it means to be in pastoral ministry, then when the crisis comes, we’re prepared.

Kate: And I think there is so much emotional aversion to having those plans in place because, like, if I have a plan for that, it means I think someone in my congregation is in one of those situations –

Jessica: And they are. Right. The truth is they are. Yeah.

Kate: Yeah. Statistically like they are, they’re going to be. And even if there’s not currently, those are the types of things that send people to church, and those are the types of personal crises that I’m like, Oh, maybe I do need God now. I was talking to a chaplain recently and he said part of the chaplain’s job is to process the crisis before it’s happened so that you can handle it when you know people come into hospital doors. And I thought that was so impossible. But also just so true about the work of the pastor, I mean, none of us could have prepared for a pandemic and to prepare for how do I handle being on my own? How do I give myself ways of connection? Who is my community I can call on, on a phone kind of way. There are some skills in there that I think, to your point, really could be stronger for any kind of crisis that might come up, even in the surprise of not knowing the specifics of what’s coming.

Jessica: Sure. And I think a piece of that, too, is recognizing what our own trigger points are, you know, based on our personal history, whether it’s our family history, whether it’s our history with the church, some of us might have some situations that if we get into that situation, an alarm goes off for us. And we’re completely bowled over, just because of our own experiences. Right. And so even being able to acknowledge: what are those situations for me? How can I do the work I need to do? But also, and this goes back to the vulnerability piece that we’ve been playing around with, how can I identify situations where in order to really do what is best for this community, I need to ask for help?

Kate: And having that prebuilt referral list, which is for mental health professionals, spiritual directors, whoever has the skill set that as a pastor who’s running a whole congregation with the 15 jobs that you’re doing and knowing the people who you can hand off to, and know that’s not a failure. It’s using the communal resources that are available.

Rose: Right. I just want to reiterate what you just said, because I think it is so counterculture to most clergy that I know, and that is knowing when I need to ask for help and then actually asking for help because sometimes I might get to the point where I know I do, but I’m paralyzed because I’m just so not used, as a clergy person, to receive help. So I just think that I want to underscore, I hope as clergy are listening that they will really know that it is okay. And if it’s not safe to do it in your congregation, there’s outside people to go to. So I think it’s so important.

Jessica: I agree and I think so much and for me at least so much of that role is about modeling. Right? We know people are watching us. I mean, I even experienced that as the daughter of a pastor, I knew people were watching me. Right? The gift there is that when we’re engaging in healthy behaviors, people are watching us, too. Right? And so we have the opportunity to model what it means to ask for help, to leverage your resources, to tell the truth about what you’re experiencing. Right. And by ripple effect, we create healthier communities when we ourselves are healthy. And that’s the gift of really attending to and preventing burnout is– you’re also not burning out your congregation and trying to ask them to do a superhuman feat to catch up with you. Right. Everybody gets better.

Kate: Which is, yeah, that modeling such an opportunity to reduce stigma around things, especially like going to a therapist or in some communities having a boundary. It doesn’t have to necessarily be like the big stigma to choose for your community what would be one step closer to health for all of us and kind of take that one step first and have other people join me there before starting to model the next step. I want to ask, I mean, perhaps this is similar to the answer you just gave the things just listed. What is, you talk about, choices, choices for wellness. Which I appreciate that frame that it’s an option that’s available and it’s also not always the option that we have to choose. That there are moments where we need to cope, where we need to just survive a moment. But choices for wellness. If there was one choice for wellness that you would want clergy to consider as an option that they could choose for themselves more often, what would you say is the one choice that has the most ripple effects or greatest benefit into more positive choices?

Jessica: Oh, this is a tough one. I’ll say the first thing that came to mind, which is take care of your body. So I’ve been a psychologist a little over a decade now, and one of the things that I continue to kind of run into and learn more about is the ways our bodies hold and respond to the lives we’re living. The impact of chronic stress is astronomical. It really, really is. And when we care for our bodies, we’re better positioned to do all of the things that we feel called to do. My encouragement though, is that you do that in a way that feels authentically right for you. So it’s not like a one size fits all kind of approach, but it really is more about attention to the body. And to do that in a way that intersects with your spiritual practices. So for instance, I do a lot of guided meditation in my therapy practice, and one of the ways I like to start breathing meditations in particular is with a reminder that breath was the first gift from God, right? So like even the way our bodies are organized and the fact that our breath is the great regulator of our nervous systems is a reminder that God intends for us to be in this homeostatic process and that God has provided us already at the very beginning with what we need to regulate. Right? So it’s not just caring for the body, but it’s caring for the body with intention and attention to the way that God organized our bodies to help us to live out our call. And so I think that one decision can have so many ripple effects because when you care for your body, you sleep better and your energy’s better and your mood is better, and you can attend more so that your spiritual life can be richer. Right. There’s so many opportunities that really stem from that one choice.

Kate: And such that, even as you’re speaking to the meditation of breath being a gift from God and you know, you can do that work with breath and spirit. Breath is all over scripture, it’s such a very present piece of our faith tradition and one that’s been so overshadowed by this dualism of you know, pretend you don’t have a body, just be holy and spiritual and have no earthly desires. And it’s just that, how, what a form of cultural resistance it is to say, I’m going to care for my body now, either by being obsessed and always on a diet or trying to live into a false ideal of what a body should look like. And also not by trying to ignore my body entirely, but by being present to it and really forming a new – it’s not just intersection with spirituality– I think it really is forming a different Christian spirituality in our era that we’ve really neglected to develop in some, in some communities, in some recent decades.

Jessica: Right. And I mean, I think there’s a reason that many of the contemplative spiritual practices involve this navigation of the body, right? Whether it’s silence, whether it’s breath, whether it’s a prayer labyrinth, right? I mean, there is this wisdom somewhere in our collective awareness that our bodies are one of the ways we navigate to God. Right. And so in some ways, I really see it as a reminder, a reminder to return to that, right? If I am, if God made me and I am made in God’s image, then the inner workings of my body and the way it looks are all God’s design and all connect me with who God is. So we can celebrate that by really attending to our bodies in meaningful ways.

Rose: It makes me think of so many clergy that have obsessive thinking about their bodies. Right? Like and so it makes me wonder, like, if we could flip the script and instead of cursing and obsessively being negative about our bodies, if we could flip that script and start touching ourselves to bless our bodies, even if we’re not satisfied with where our bodies, how they look or feel. But then, but to begin to be generous towards our bodies and start blessing those parts of us that we normally would find ourselves cursing. So, yeah, yeah, it’s good.

Kate: Well, I want to respect your time and time boundaries so we can go take care of our bodies in this age of all the online calls and we’re just so grateful for the time that you’re spending with us and want to end with giving you some space to give a shout out to an organization that you see as doing really good work. And we’ll make a donation to that organization and also are encouraging all our listeners to do so as well.

Jessica: Sure. So the organization that I wanted to highlight is called Pathways to Promise. It’s a nonprofit organization that essentially helps churches and community organizations to have more meaningful discussions about mental health. And so they provide resources, they provide training, they support faith leaders, lay people, congregants who might be experiencing mental illness. They do everything from mental health first aid training to providing particular support for leaders. So they are a great organization, really working to build awareness about mental health and faith communities and combat stigma. And so you all should definitely check them out.

Kate: So good, such necessary work. Pathways to Promise?

Jessica: Pathways to Promise. Yes.

Kate: Great. And we will look them up later and see what they’re up to. Also, is there if someone wants to reach out to you and hear more about the services that you offer and the consulting you do, what are some ways to track what you’re up to?

Jessica: Sure. So my website is drjessicabrown.com, and I’m, I would say, moderately active on social media, @drjessicabrown on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. So I’m pretty easy to find perfect.

Kate: Very consistent. Dr. Jessica Brown.

Jessica: Make it easy.

Kate: Well, thank you so much for spending time with us today, I feel like I have learned enough to fill my well for some of the draining things that might also happen during the day. So thank you for being a source of that well for us.

Jessica: I’m grateful. I enjoyed the conversation.

Rose: Thank you.