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  • Writer's pictureIan Ferguson

Leave Your Mask Here

(This is a long read, just to warn you!!)

‘Struggle? Oh no! You’re a priest!”. This was the response I received from a fellow clergyman at a meeting in the Diocese where I had served for 38 years. I had asked a simple but honest question “How do you cope when you are struggling?” I had been in the Diocese for just over a year. I was struggling. At that time, I didn’t know that part of my struggle was with depression, and poor mental health. I thought that these guys, who had been in the ministry much longer than me, might shed some light or give a young priest some helpful guidance and encouragement. I had arrived in the parish as a young enthusiastic minister committed to sharing the Good News and to seeing this very tiny congregation grow. Things however for this bachelor boy proved to be challenging in many different ways.

So, we were gathered, some 20 of us for the clergy meeting that happened the night before our Diocesan Synod. I was trying to be open and honest. I was highly self-critical and intolerant of making any mistakes. I tended to take every criticism to heart and turn it into a personal affront. I would beat myself up for never being good enough despite doing my best, even to the point of physical and mental exhaustion. Even at that young age I would find it hard to take praise for anything I did that was good. If only I knew then what I know now, then maybe my journey with depression and poor mental health would have been different.

So, I asked my fellow ministers “How do you cope when you struggle?”

I shared what was on my heart which is never an easy thing to do in that kind of gathering. Serving God as a priest/minister was my greatest joy. I had seen so many blessings. People had come to faith, the church was starting to grow, the church finances were getting better, and people were being released to use their gifts in serving God.

Despite all those blessings, I was struggling! I genuinely wanted to know if any of them struggled in the way I was struggling. I was looking for help and encouragement.

Needless to say, I left the meeting somewhat downcast. None of my fellow priests seem to struggle, or at least none of them admitted it at the time. I learned in the years ahead that many of those people in that room not only struggled in the ministry, but some had become so discouraged that they eventually quit or moved on to new pastures in the hope that things would get better for them.

I remember reading about a Pastor who held a Bible Study Home Group in his Rectory.

The sign above the coat rail at the front door read- “Please leave your masks here’. It was his way of saying, “Let’s be real and honest with one another. Here is a place where you can share freely without being judged”

I decided to take off the mask hiding behind the dog collar and admit to my fellow priests that I was struggling. The looks on their faces said it all. I felt embarrassed and awkward. I thought to myself “I won’t be doing that again”.

During those 38 years I faced some serious health issues. My mental health was often poor.

I found myself feeling isolated and alone. The reason? I decided to live with the mask that said ‘I’m ok” when I wasn’t. Sadly, my mental health deteriorated to the point where I needed to take time out. On the advice of my GP and Psychiatrist and the support of my Bishop I stepped back for a few months. I had a few of those periods when I had to step back from ministry.

My conversations with other church leaders changed.

A lot of church leaders don’t want to talk about their struggles. I know why they do that because that is exactly what I did until I could hide no longer. One day I said ‘Ian you have clinical depression. Despite all your prayers for healing God has not granted you that blessing. However, he has enabled you to minister in your weakness and God has been honoured” Did I say that or was that something God said to me? I really don’t know but it doesn’t matter because it was true.

I know how hard it is to open up and admit that, despite your faith, and your love for the Lord, life stinks. Yes, every week you are counselling people who are in pain or distress. You are encouraging others to spend more time with the Lord in prayer and bible study but you yourself are struggling to open your bible let alone study it.

Shocking, isn’t it?

It is a disgrace that there is so little help for those in church leadership who struggle with poor mental health. In my former denomination there was an exception. If you had a good Bishop, someone who was not just your line manager but your friend. Someone who encouraged you and prayed for you. Someone you could share your struggles with and not be condemned or judged as to your future competence as a minister- If you had one of those who truly functioned as a godly, loving bishop then there was hope.

I survived!! I had two such bishops who were there during my darkest moments and whose love and prayers enabled me to move ahead.

I am glad to say that also had a few close friends who stood with me, listened to my struggles, and prayed for me. I can never thank God enough for them.

There is however one person who is often forgotten by church. They don’t get paid yet they serve with incredible energy, love, and giftedness. Our spouses often pay a heavy price that few realise. Our children also pay a heavy price when their dad or Mum is struggling with poor mental health.

I have been incredibly blessed by having a family who have walked this road with me and whose love and encouragement throughout my ministry enabled me to continue and to some extent prosper.

The psalms have been a great source of encouragement to me. King David shared so many experiences. Some had to do with the mountain top experiences, and there were many. Other had to do with the times when he was in the deep dark valley of life. He experienced God in both and everything in between.

The Christian life is not and never was meant to be a life of mountain top experiences where everything goes wonderfully well, and all is calm. Yes, I too the hills will lift my eyes. But even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.

The point is that God is with whatever situation we find ourselves in.

He is the God of the mountains and God of the valleys.

God will never leave you. Jesus knows every single event in your life, and he loves you. Yes, we mess up, yes, we make bad choices, yes we don’t get it right all the time, but Jesus knows and loves us despite everything.

So, if things are rough for you right now is there for you, is praying for you. Triumph? Yes, indeed and it is a triumph through the cross, through the suffering Christ endured and the glorious resurrection.

Psalm 82

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.

Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty; listen to me, God of Jacob. Look on our shield, O God; look with favour on your anointed one.

Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favour and honour; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless.

Lord Almighty, blessed is the one who trusts in you.

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