Re-thinking the Strong, Black, Woman: Ministry and Mental Health

January 2014: Featured Post

lifeseek.org is be featuring a thought-provoking essay that is designed to stimulate healthy dialogue and a collective resolve to seek the face of God for answers of some of the most pressing issues of our age. Your participation and feedback is very important to us and we encourage you to leave your comments, facebook or tweet this post after reading.

Isaac Hunter

Isaac Hunter


Isaac Hunter, Teddy Parker, and Matthew Hunter these are three names that may be inconsequential to you. But to the friends, families, and churches that lost them to suicide in 2013 they will forever be remembered. Both Isaac and Teddy were husbands, fathers, and pastors and Matthew Hunter was the son of Pastor Rick Warren, the author of “Purpose Driven Life”. The suicide of these three men have sent shock waves throughout churches around the nation and has caused many church leaders and congregations to take a serious look at the issue of mental health and rethink if faith alone can cure all mental, physical or emotional ailments.

Teddy Parker

Teddy Parker

As an African American woman in ministry the news of the death of these three men have caused me to examine how I am caring for my own mental and emotional well-being. It also propelled me to identify the ways in which other clergy, African American women clergy in particular, may struggle to open up about personal mental health concerns or their emotional brokenness. They may also find it difficult to cultivate relationships where they can be transparent and process the stressors of life and ministry because others are looking up to them as that Strong Black Woman.

Stress

Stress

Being in ministry for the past 10 years I know firsthand the stressors of life in ministry: ministering to people when you yourself need encouragement, comforting strangers as they watch their love one pass away, explaining to young people how God could allow their youth leader to die, living up to seemingly impossible expectations of congregants, and the list goes on…I believe these stressors primarily stem from the misperception that men and women of the cloth are perfect and endowed with a unique ability to resist temptation or handle the inevitable struggles of life. There is also a false sense that clergy and Christians in general are somehow immune to suffering, as if once we decided to follow Christ our life would instantly become a bed of roses. However, if there is anything we can learn from the life of Christ and those who have followed Christ throughout the ages, is this walk is not without its challenges. There will be crosses we all must bear. Like the apostle Paul, we all live with some type of “thorn in our side”. The question becomes why do we find ourselves hiding behind our titles and even our religion instead of being open and honest about our thorns, our wounds and our struggles? If the church is seen as a “hospital” why don’t we allow people to be honest about their ailments?

I believe the answer to this question is complex and may differ depending on who you talk to but as I reflect on my own experiences and the image of African American women as Strong Black Women, it is no wonder African American women in ministry often have a hard time sharing their wounds with others. Chanequa Walker-Barnes in her article entitled “Burden of the Strong Black Woman” argues that this archetype which was developed during the Civil Rights era has both psychological and theological implications for the well-being of African American women. She believes that although this image was supposed to serve as an empowering counter-image of Black women as Mammies, Jezebels and Sapphires, there is a need for further exploration of the impact of this archetype on Black women.

michelle-obama-rosie-the-riveter

She describes the SBW as a Black woman who is expected to be independent, strong, and care-giving. Although this image served as a way to resist the racist treatment and stereotypical portrayals of Black women, living up to this image can often cause Black women to neglect caring for themselves or receiving care from others which can be seen in their mental and physical health. It is reported that African American women have a depression rate 50% higher than Caucasian women, yet seek treatment at lower rates. African American women also suffer from heart disease, diabetes, and obesity; with heart disease being the greatest killer among African American women.

Could it be the pressure of taking care of everyone and everything else is literally wearing down our hearts, our bodies, and our mind? For African American clergy women, this weight is even greater as parishioners look to them to be pillars of strength, and caregivers who are a part of the congregation yet set-apart. Unfortunately, there is the temptation to mistake being “set-apart” as having to be a lone ranger who must handle her problems by herself. The reality is there is a balance in ministry as well as in life between solitariness and community that must be managed. We all need a place where we can be alone with our own thoughts and feelings but we also need a place where we can be vulnerable in our frailties and have someone be a witness to it. This someone could be a close friend, family member or a trained professional. The bottom line is we all need a relationship where transparency (being open and honest about our frailties in all its complexities) leads to transformation on a personal and social level.

So, what would it look like to be a part of a community where transparency was valued? Where admitting our weaknesses and brokenness was welcomed rather than avoided? Where we can step out of our Strong Black Women garments or Superman complexes and receive the nurturance and self-care we so desperately need. It is my hope that in this New Year we, as communities of faith can begin to address and network with other organizations that could help us live a life that honors and helps us take care of our spiritual, physical, mental and emotional well-being.

Discussion: How is your church or faith group addressing the mental and emotional health concerns of its members? If you are a clergy man or woman how are you taking care of yourself? How are you modeling self-care in your ministry? What are some of the expectations or struggles you are facing in your ministry that impacts your mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health?

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