Sharon Ramsay is a registered marriage and family therapist in Toronto. She works with individuals, couples and families – including spiritual leaders – and focuses on how context influences our ability to survive and thrive through the expected and surprising rhythms of life. She spoke with Faith Today about how we can all care for ourselves, and particularly spiritual leaders.
Faith Today: What does "surviving and thriving through the surprising rhythms of life" actually mean?
Sharon Ramsay: It seems to me from my clinical work that there is a presumption things should be easy. And naturally when things go according to plan and we’re all excited, we somehow manage to get on the other side and it’s not a problem. It’s a breeze. However, not all the rhythms of life are easily navigated, and sometimes we can be really thrown for a loop by what is going on in our lives.
Click below to listen to the extended Faith Today interview with Sharon Ramsay.
So in my work what I try to do is not just get someone to the other side, but to learn through each experience, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. What did they learn about their own selves in terms of resilience? In terms of reaching out for support? In terms of their ability to just put their head down and go for it, or the times when they have to just take a break?
Being able to pay attention to these rhythms – our own capacity for change and adaptation – is important to allow us to make the best of the moments we do have in our lives.
FT: "The surprising rhythms of life." Does that mean a big change, a tragedy? Or the small, ordinary things?
SR: Both. We can anticipate the death of someone we love, we can anticipate a move or a job change, and then there are the other things that are surprising. We don’t anticipate a marital breakdown, a child who is really struggling in school quite beyond an inability to wake up in the morning. We may find ourselves in a really difficult period of employment, and the usual things that we would do don’t work. So then what do you do? These rhythms of life aren’t unusual things, but we usually don’t anticipate them.
FT: Because we may think we are more together or stronger, that we can weather anything without help?
SR: Sure, or that certain things may only happen to certain people. And that is not always true.
FT: Maybe a Christian could be especially vulnerable to the idea certain things will not happen in their lives, like a marital breakdown, for example.
SR: Absolutely. Or a mental illness. When I think about my own upbringing, you think that if you do all the right things, you should have the good life. But I’m just not certain that the promise of Scripture is that if you do all the right things, you won’t face adversity. Sometimes adversity crawls up on us and we think, "Okay, I’ve got this." And there can be, to quote the book, "a series of unfortunate events" that can actually be quite taxing on us. So how do you manage when you feel quite depleted and defeated?
FT: You spoke recently at a Canadian Church Press conference, and you said self care was not about getting ready for the next task. Can you explain what you are talking about?
SR: It seems to me, to use a cliché, that we are human beings, but often we respond to life as human doings. Just a series of tasks. Do this, do that, do the other. Self care for me is not just about getting ready for "I have a sermon to preach, a class to teach, a kid to pick up." Self care is about how do I prepare, maybe on a daily basis, moment by moment, week by week, to live life well?
I remember in university I could pull an all-nighter and be just fine. I realize now if I don’t get sufficient sleep as the norm, I don’t function well. I don’t think well. When I say that self care is not just about getting ready for a task, I think it is an ongoing discipline of attention, and addressing issues, and trying it out that enables us to face life – whatever the day brings, the week brings, the month brings – as well as we can.
FT: So, self care is long-term, not episodic.
SR: Absolutely. It’s an ongoing thing. If you think about brushing your teeth, you wouldn’t just brush your teeth the night before you go to the dentist and expect things to be all well. The same is true for self care. Now sometimes we have moments where we are extremely resilient and we don’t really pay attention to it. But when you get stopped in your tracks by fatigue or you name it, all of a sudden you start to look at, "How did I get here?" And then, "Oh, maybe I was cutting corners and I’m going through a rough patch, and there was a time I could have rolled with it, but right now I’m too crispy, too brittle."
FT: Depleted is the word that comes to my mind.
FT: Let’s talk about spiritual leaders specifically, and how they can keep themselves emotionally and spiritually healthy. When we are talking about pastors and church leaders, it feels like that is a special category.
SR: There are some special things about being a pastor or different kind of spiritual leader in that people look to you. And there are expectations of you because you hold that position of authority within your small group, within the Sunday school, within the Church, within the denomination.
And I think that being called, if there’s a sense of calling to spiritual leadership, there can be an assumption that while it is true the Lord does do things to help us manage, and be, and fulfill what He has called us to, there are also some disciplines that we need to keep in our own lives as reflection of that calling.
I have certainly encountered Christian folks who do not attend to their own self care, whether that is tend to their marriages, their families, their health because they believe that if God has called me, I don’t have to do any of that. So I can have 24 appointments in a 24-hour day, I can run here and there and everywhere, and there’s no impact on me.
I don’t think that is the model we have in Jesus who, being God, fully human and fully divine, did take time away. So I think that for spiritual leaders there is something about looking at that model of Jesus and really trying to replicate, to emulate His example, as we try to be faithful in the relationships and tasks He has set before us.
FT: That sounds easier said than done. If you, Sharon, get someone in your office at the end of their rope, how do you start dialling that back?
SR: I have to show myself to be someone who is trustworthy and loyal to listen.
There is a deep need to listen to our leaders, because where do leaders go when they are struggling? And on the other hand, is it okay to struggle as a leader? Or is the struggle a sign of somehow not being fully committed or perfect? Again, I don’t think the call to leadership is about those who are perfect. I think it is the call of those who are willing.
And then how do we, as the body of faith around those leaders, actually encourage them to take breaks? How do we, with the Apostles, also take up the waiting on of tables so we can free them up to do the things to which they have been called? The belief that we, by virtue of our calling, can be all things to the folks to whom we are called is wrong. Dare I say it, wrong.
How do leaders and those who are led get into a rhythm where we each take on our appropriate responsibilities, we are each involved in mutual encouragement, exhortation, even challenge, and that we work through the things that befall us all because we are human?
FT: How do all these factors, thinking that our pastors may have it all together, add to the higher rate of pastors and their wives having higher rates of depression?
SR: I will say this first – depression can befall us all. There’s nothing special. Lawyers can get depressed, doctors can get depressed. We all experience sunshine and rain. What might make it difficult for spiritual leaders, for clergy in particular, is this idea that because they wear the collar, they somehow have a cloak of infallibility or impenetrability about them. And that is not true.
Some of us have had very different upbringings. Some of us come into the world maybe a little bit more prone to melancholy. Others of us have never really been able to trust that someone else is there for us. Any kind of mental health challenge is hard when there is this idea that because you are a person of faith you are therefore impervious to it, or it shouldn’t throw you off your game as much, or somehow you can just bounce back. It makes it more difficult for folks to actually talk about feeling a little blue, to be heard, to receive support. And not to be seen as less than.
Then on the other side, depending upon your circles, we often have a story of victory we like to tell one another, but we don’t talk about the story of endurance. And it seems to me that more of us have a story of endurance than we do a suitcase of stories of victories.
FT: If the spiritual leader is experiencing mental health challenges, maybe depression specifically, if they are vulnerable about that, can it actually help people in their congregation?
SR: Absolutely. Because again, we all experience sunshine and rain. And so I think there is something about this, what it is to be a human being in the world. We experience all kinds of things. Another example might be that some of us have to wear glasses – others don’t. But does wearing glasses mean that somehow somebody is spiritually impoverished or not living the faith? Or would you go to the eye doctor, get that sorted, get some glasses and off you go?
Similarly, I would say with mental health issues we can all fall susceptible. Yes, there are things we can do to ensure we are healthy, but sometimes we have these experiences and so for a pastor to be able to come clean and say, "This is what I’ve been dealing with," can also encourage, and might actually also encourage people in the congregation to acknowledge with close friends, with elders, whoever, that they are struggling and actually seek help. That is not to exclude prayer, not to exclude maybe having accountability groups, whatever, but it is to say that these things do happen, but there is a way through.
FT: How do we know when we need to take that extra step and go see someone like you, Sharon?
SR: One of the first signs might be when the things we would normally do don’t seem to work. If, for example, someone is really good at going to the gym and that is part of their routine, or someone is very good about how they eat, the rhythm of their day. And they find themselves saying, "I don’t actually want to go to the gym." "Food has no taste for me anymore." "I’m not enjoying the things I would usually enjoy. I’ve made some attempts. I’ve tried to go here and there and nothing is working." That might be a sign that you might need a little additional observation or input from somebody else about what is going on for you.
There is both an internal radar, "I’m not really feeling myself anymore," and then a reach for help. Sometimes that reach for help could be a trusted friend who is not afraid to tell you straight up that you’ve been off a bit. "What’s going on?" It might involve your physician, your pastor, your spiritual director, it might also involve speaking to a mental health professional. These are all the resources we have at our disposal. It may be nothing. Or it might be the sign of something greater. Wouldn’t it be lovely to address those things as you come across them rather than leaving them and not paying attention?
FT: Thank you, Sharon.