Daniel Whitehead interviewing Alastair Sterne on Zoom

Mental Health, Faith & COVID-19 With Alastair Sterne

Alastair SternePodcast, Podcast COVID

Mental Health, Faith, and COVID-19: Interview with Alastair Sterne from Sanctuary Mental Health on Vimeo.

Episode Description:

Alastair Sterne, founding and lead pastor of St. Peter’s Fireside and canon of church planting for the Anglican Network in Canada, shares openly about caring for his own mental health, making meaning, and finding joy amid the challenges of pastoring and parenting during COVID-19. He discusses the role of the Church in supporting mental health now and in the coming months and years.

Running time: 30:31

Release date: May 15, 2020

Update on The Sanctuary Podcast:

During these extraordinary times, while we can’t be with each other physically, we can reach out through screens and over phones, and we can share our stories with each other. Join Sanctuary’s CEO, Daniel Whitehead, as he interviews pastors, front line workers, ministry leaders, and friends about their experience of the pandemic and where they are making meaning and finding hope in the ups and downs of this season.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Between Heaven and Mirth, James Martin

Gordon Neufeld Youtube Video: “Parenting Through the Pandemic”

Alastair’s Instagram

St. Peter’s Fireside

St. Peter’s Fireside Blog

Mental Health First Aid

The Sanctuary Course: Alastair is featured throughout the series

Faith, Grief, and COVID-19

Crisis Resources:

For your quick reference, here are nationwide emergency numbers and crisis lines:

  • Canada: 911, Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566
  • British Columbia: 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)
  • United States: 911, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • United Kingdom: 999/112, Samaritans: 116 123
  • New Zealand: 111, 1737, Lifeline Aotearoa: 0800-543-354
  • Australia: 000, Lifeline: 13 11 14 

Daniel Whitehead: Welcome to the Sanctuary podcast, my name is Daniel Whitehead, I am the CEO of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, and during COVID-19 I’m also the host of our podcast. We’re doing something a bit different with our podcasts in this season, and basically we’re talking to friends of ours, people we know from around the world, that are going to talk about how they’re doing in the midst of COVID-19. Today we’re joined by a good friend of mine, someone who actually features in The Sanctuary Course, a pastor here in Vancouver, Canada, Alastair Sterne. Alastair it’s good to see you, thanks for joining us.

Alastair Sterne: Good to see you Daniel, glad to be here, thanks for the invitation to join the conversation.

Daniel Whitehead: Oh yeah no it’s great, it’s great to have you with us, and it’s great that we have a Canon in our midst, Canon Alastair.

Alastair Sterne: We’re going to have to delete that, just leave the mystery, Canon.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah I know you love it when people refer to you as a Canon, which is true. Alastair is a, as well as being a spiritual leader in the city of Vancouver, and a friend of Sanctuary’s, he’s a friend of mine and there’s a lot of nice things I could say about Alastair, but I know he would squirm if I did, so I’ll resist saying that, but just say that we’re delighted to have him with us. So Alastair how are you doing, how are you doing personally at the moment in the midst of these, these really strange and difficult times?

Alastair Sterne: I’ve found that question has almost become absurd in some way, like when people ask it I don’t even know, how to answer, there was a while, I think around the four week point, where I just didn’t know, I didn’t know how to answer, and it wasn’t that I was numb, I was still feeling things, highs and lows but it’s just so, strange to answer and, I’m at the point now where I can say I’m doing as well as you could expect, during a global pandemic, that’s kind of my go to response, and when I think about the privileges and the, the resources that my wife and I have as a family, we’re doing very well, we both are still working, we have food on the table, we have a roof over our head, we’re able to wash our hands, you know we’re able to social distance safely, so I try in that sense to count my blessings and yet, you know as a pastor I often talk about, we’re made in the image of the social God, the triune God—we’re made for relationships, and then that gets changed on you, and you realize just how deeply you’re made for relationships. Because I look at my life and I think you know my day to day hasn’t changed that much—I mean it’s changed, but you know I still get, have breakfast, do my work, I can still go to the grocery store, I can still go to some places to get space outside, and it’s not like I had the most active social life as a pastor beyond this, so you know the—and yet I can go through my day and think about all of the little social interactions, that are now gone, and how insignificant they seemed, in a given day you just take them for granted, and now how deeply significant you realize they are, and so in that sense I’m really, I think like many people starting to feel the effects of that. Most days I either wake up feeling okay, and go to bed not feeling okay, or I wake up not feeling okay, and go to bed feeling okay. I don’t, I don’t think there’s been many days where I’ve gone through it and been like, hey that felt normal, I felt okay, and so to use more specific language, you know I still have moments of deep joy and gratitude, and happiness in a given day, but I can also feel a bit of despair and dread. I wouldn’t go as far as saying I’ve fallen into depression, although I can be prone to that—and I’m grateful for that—but I do, I would describe it as—you kind of start feeling like you’re crawling in your skin. I feel a little claustrophobic during this time and, and just feel even if I go outside and, and take all the precautions to do that, it doesn’t help me escape that feeling, like that feeling follows me, because you go outside and everyone’s looking at each other a little differently, everyone’s interacting a little differently, and so the prolonged nature of these measures, yeah, takes a toll on anyone’s mental health. It takes a toll on mine, and I’ve just had to press into my regular rhythms, exercising, I downloaded this like seven minute exercise app, because that’s about all I can handle, you know gratitude journal, journaling in general, my daily prayers, reaching out to friends who I can talk with. And the one thing that, was kind of an “aha moment” for my wife and I was, we’re both getting exhausted from Zoom meetings or whatever video conferencing software you use, my wife’s a mental health counsellor so she’s, you know on a given day doing five back to back counselling sessions through video, and I’m doing all these meetings through video, and you just start to feel taxed, and we have a group of friends we meet with on Friday nights, for our Sabbath dinner, and we’ve kept doing that through video conference and, a couple of weeks ago one of our friends initiated a games night through that, and it was the first time on Zoom where, we realized wow the reason part of why this is taxing, for a variety of reasons of course, but one reason, is because you’re always just talking about such intense stuff, and such intentional stuff, it’s always so focused that you lose that kind of organic, play, levity, and so just playing these games that our friend found that worked over Zoom, I suddenly felt human again in a different way, and so now I’m learning how to balance that, and that’s actually been really critical for my mental health at this time. So there’s a bit of a snapshot of my life.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow, that’s, that’s really good to hear, that honesty. That thing about play is really interesting, I was, I think Annie, my wife—I say Annie because Alastair knows Annie—but I think Annie was watching a video series that Gordon Neufeld has released, for parents in the midst of COVID-19, and excellent stuff, Gordon Neufeld being a Vancouver based therapist, but family systems therapist, and he emphasizes the importance of play, saying you know play is kind of one of the main things that, or creating a space in which our children can play, will keep them healthy, keep them well so it’s like the arts, it’s music, it’s you know play can be anything, and I would say it’s like that soul restoring stuff. And of course the irony is we talk about our children, our children need all these things to be healthy, we need them, like we need to be laughing and playing, and it’s an essential part of our wellness, our wellbeing that we, we can do that so I just think it’s great that you, that’s a real gift that you’ve given us in, in emphasizing the importance of play, for you and your family.

Alastair Sterne: Yeah fortunately our condo tower downtown, the ninth floor is an outdoor kind of garden picnic area, no one’s using it so every day I take the girls up there for gym, and they’ve invented a game called “Chase Daddy,” which turns into my cardio so like because they, I don’t know what it is about kids under ten, but they just have endless energy for running, and you know I’m coming close to forty and that’s not the case, and so you know fifteen to twenty minutes of me not stop running as they chase me, and try to catch and, and you know it has multiple benefits: the play, the laughter, like that’s for the soul, but you’re also getting exercise. And so, yeah it is those little things where you’re like, oh yeah this is why life is good, and this is why these measures are important, is that we want to preserve this quality of life for people who are at risk, and we want to preserve these moments of goodness, because they really matter, and I think again we take them for granted when we don’t have a crisis around us and so, it helps. I can’t remember who wrote the article, you know I’m working on a doctorate and my research is into joy, and someone was talking about during this time don’t pursue happiness pursue meaning, and that’s been huge for me, so I’m being more purposeful in the actions I take so, some friends of ours they had a baby during this time, and all of their family is out of town, and can’t come visit them, so every Friday we’re doing this collaborative dinner, where I cook the main food and then I go to a friends and drop it off, and they cooked another part, and then I bring all those ingredients to our friend, you know. And they’re just so grateful, and we’re grateful and it’s those little meaning making moments that, suddenly infuse this time with significance, rather than a confusion or you know, the thing that I loathe the most of, somehow having to make the most of this, this epidemic or pandemic.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah.

Alastair Sterne: So meaning making has been another thing for me of, oh yeah that helps preserve my mental health even if I’m feeling low on a given moment.

Daniel Whitehead: It’s so interesting, one of the threads I think in, in these interviews I’m doing, is the rediscovery of things which are patently obvious on paper, but in experience, in the experience of what we’re going through, as a human race, we’re rediscovering stuff almost like in technicolour we’re going, like before we’re talking about rest, how like intentional rest, the discipline of rest and we’re kind of going, yeah I think I’m realizing that regular intentional rest is important. It’s like this eureka moment, of course it’s like yeah Sabbath, like is obvious and similarly play, like yesterday I was running with my kids, we just were trying to get them running around right so we were, we did this thing where me and my wife and each of our children, my four year old son and my seven year old girl, were sprinting across this fifty yard area, and we were just timing each other, and then adding up our time, doing a bit of math you see, teaching them math while doing PE—clever—seeing who was fastest, and so of course I go last and I’m there, and I’m like just bombing it across this field, but it suddenly dawns on me there’s people watching, and I think at any other time in history, there might be a few people going why is that guy doing that now, but in the context of this story it makes sense, it makes sense that a family would go outside and run around, and be making each other laugh, and have this time of levity. Until I nearly pulled my hamstring sprinting, so that’s what getting close to forty does for you as well, so yeah I just think it’s, it’s yeah I’m always loathe to say that there is, this time of being a, a time of blessing, it’s not, this is a horrendous time, and for most people in the world, it is an unbelievably horrendous time, people can’t afford to put food on the table at the moment, but there are strangely these moments of clarity, that have come I think because we’re being forced into this place, where we suddenly can say, or I found myself saying, “Wow God, thank you for teaching me that, that’s, I really, I don’t want to forget this,” and I think our children are one of the, for me they’re one of the key teachers for me, in my life and I take the time to listen to them.

Alastair Sterne: Yeah and as people of faith I think, we’re somewhat prone to cast God in very serious terms. Theology is serious business and yet, at least the canon of Scripture gives this picture of a joyful God who delights in creation. I love the Psalm that says he plays with leviathan, you know God at play, God sharing joy, if someone wants to explore that a bit there’s a Jesuit priest named James Martin, great writer, he’s humorous and he wrote a book called Between Heaven and Mirth, and it’s just an exploration of joy, and humour and laughter and its role in spirituality. And I think there are actually, I would say, characters of resilience within humanity, too—that we actually need those things because we can’t handle the seriousness of this pandemic, like we literally can only think about it so long before, however we’re wired you know, whether it’s from our social circumstances or biology, like we just stop thinking about it, and it’s a self-protective measure, and so levity, laughter, humour are necessary during this time, and ways that we can care for one another, and balancing that with also compassion for those who are deeply suffering, it’s actually having that resilience that will allow us then, to enter into that space of care, which again we forget means to cry out .You can only cry out so much before the tears stop flowing, and our hearts harden, and so we need to balance those things out, at a time like this and any time really.

Daniel Whitehead: Very good, so Alastair you already mentioned some of your parenting skills at this time, that you’re honing, how is your various vocations, I’m thinking your vocation as a parent, as a husband, as a spiritual leader, just maybe explore some of those strands for a moment?

Alastair Sterne: Yeah it’s, it was really a time of upheaval initially, I feel like I’ve settled into a rhythm at this point but, as I mentioned my wife’s a mental health counsellor, and at first we weren’t sure, you know would we see a drop in clients, would she just need to be home with the kids once the school closed, since there wouldn’t be clients anyways, but if anything we’ve seen an increase of work for he. And so we were in a situation where my wife Julia takes clients in Mondays and Tuesdays during the day, and usually the girls are in school, now they’re home and so I decided to be home with the girls Monday and Tuesday, which is a reduction of about 20% of my work, and because I’m committed to rest, I wasn’t willing to just say oh I’ll just do that as my days off, it’s like no those are a different kind of work, and I used to, as a husband pay lip service to that, be like oh yeah like that’s a different kind of work. Now I have a more honest acknowledgement of, first off my ignorance and now the, the true amount of work that is for a mother, or a teacher and so you know I’m doing a different kind of work Monday, Tuesday with the girls, you know Ansley’s six, Maggie’s four and so they have very different needs, and that’s very hard for, especially our four year old who doesn’t want two to three hours of structured learning in a day, and doesn’t need it. And we’re learning how to manage that, but honestly Mondays and Tuesdays have become the most life-giving days of my week, and by the time Tuesday ends, yeah I’m tired and I’m ready to do some of my work, but I also feel a little sad, I start looking forward to next Monday. So it’s been a, again one of those strange gifts of this time, to get more time with my children, and so then you know I’m, I’m doing my work as a pastor, you know in three and a half days now really and so, it’s a strange time for me because my focus is on, leading our team well, and communicating well with our church. Right away we came up with three values for us to get through this COVID season, you know we co-opted some language that I think a lot of churches are using, which is we want to be a non-anxious presence for the good of the city, and we’re going to do that by collaborating, and by that we mean collaborating with health authorities, with the government, with other churches to discern the best measures forward. We’re going to pursue love instead of fear, even if love means staying away from your neighbour, that’s what we’re going to do. And then we’re going to be creative in finding ways to connect and engage, and so those are the three values we came up with as a team, and that we’ve been using to navigate decisions at this time, and that’s been wild as a church because, I’ve had to be cautious about feeling the need to start a whole bunch of new things. I’ve watched pastors and some of them I think have capacity, some may not but, in lieu of Sundays all of a sudden now they’re, they’re doing more than what they used to do, they’re teaching the Bible every day, they’re doing a podcast on top of it, they’re more engaged and, and that’s concerning and I worry that that might lead to burnout. And so I’ve had to be cautious about balancing, okay how do I lead our community well through this time, but how do I also take care of myself so that I’ll have enough resilience, for however long this is going to take, because even once it ends, we can anticipate that, well it’s not over, because there’s the rebuilding of the economy, there’s the long lasting social effects that we can’t even anticipate. And so you know adaptive leadership talks about getting on the balcony, and trying to get a perspective, and so as much as I can I’m trying to do that but, it’s also hard to do that when you’re very much on the ground floor with everyone else, going through the uncertainty of not knowing what we’ll be allowed to do next week, let alone one month from now, yeah.

Daniel Whitehead: And that’s, that’s a really interesting point you make about the, about the future and you know even when, when this is over, is it really over and, will it ever be over, these all seem like valid questions at the moment, but I wonder if you could talk a little bit about, you know I know that you’re, you’re calling is very much to the city of Vancouver, it exudes from you when you talk, and it’s a wonderful thing. You’re very well placed as a person, the place you’re in is important to you, and working out what does the Gospel mean for Vancouver today, and in the days to come, is something that I know you just live with as a, as a calling, so I wonder about in the days to come, in out working what is a really traumatic event that has happened for us all, what do you think about the future, when we think sort of strategically as the Church, or prophetically as the Church, what do we see ahead, and how are you planning for that, what are you seeing?

Alastair Sterne: Yeah, I was fortunate I was invited to a Zoom meeting with some international leaders, and one of the leaders pastored a fairly large church through 9/11 in New York, and he talked about how, on that first Sunday after 9/11, his church immediately grew by 25%, so went from 3,000 people to 4,000 people, and yet they immediately saw a drop in giving by 25%, so they grew by 25% but had 25% less financial resource, and so that was a huge opportunity and challenge for how do we care for all these new people, when we have less resources, but he said the real challenge started kicking in around the year-and-a-half, two year point after 9/11, because once things kind of settled down, and the adrenalin wears off, and the people who’ve lost loved ones, who’ve just been powering through each day to take care of their kids, or their family, when that starts falling apart, when the leaders who’ve just been going, going, going, run out, he said that’s when they started seeing just an overwhelming mental health crisis. And so he was inviting leaders to consider that after this, we’re going to have a mental health crisis, and this is a very strange sort of, I like that you used the word trauma, I think people are, reticent to use that, you see all these memes comparing now to like world wars, where you know people are sleeping in subways, and worrying about bombs and having to line up in food, for food you know and yeah that’s terrible. And the difference is huge, that one significant difference is they could actually do it together, and they could still have support, they could still hug one another, they could still touch, they could cry with each other, and by no means am I saying I would choose one or the other if you gave me a would you rather. It’s one of those neither right but, it is a trauma, it’s different, it has its own qualities, it has its own effect on us and, and so what I’m thinking about as a leader is, especially in the Church, how are we going to see, the rebuilding, that’s the first question right? We just we can’t assume that once we can gather again, that things are going to go back to normal. I think we’re going to have kind of, different kinds of measures for quite some time. But the other is, when all of this finally starts taking its toll, in a visible way, when we start seeing people struggling to do their work, or get out of bed, or to care well for their family because they can’t care for themselves, and so I’m thinking through that, I’ve initiated conversations with you obviously about what can we do, to try to help people get accessible counselling resources, but also what does the church need to be doing, and one thing we’re doing proactively is we’re running The Sanctuary Course this summer—and that’s just not to plug you guys, but to say how do we better equip our church, to prepare for what’s to come, and B.C. also offers mental health first aid, now I’m not sure yet if they are offering a virtual training, but we’re trying to identify people to send through that, so that we have people ready, to care for one another and it’s not all just going to fall on the leaders of our church.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, wow that’s very good, it’s great to hear that you’re putting those things in place, and I think that whole thing of you know this, this trauma isn’t as bad as that trauma, people can say that with good intentions. I was in a meeting the other day where someone was talking about, you know refugees who’d come in from very traumatic, I mean horrendously traumatic circumstances, and they were sort of speculating and saying, well you know this isn’t such a big deal for us, you know like we get to be indoors, it’s better than you know a war or some horrendous things they’d experienced, and so this person was offering this as a way of saying well we just need a bit of perspective, and of course one of the things at Sanctuary, that we know full well is that, every individual persons experience of life is different from the next, and if we start playing comparisons, “well my pain isn’t as bad as yours,” or “my pain’s worse than yours,” you shouldn’t feel, then we get ourselves into all kinds of mess, I think as you’ve said rather than try and compare, or say it’s less or worse. I think we just need to say this is horrendous, and there are many people at the moment that are, that are in an unimaginable, unimaginable pain, to be isolated, to be lonely, people who don’t have enough money and can’t eat, you know and don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow these are, in our particularly in our world today. These are terrifying times for many people, and it was great the way you started, and saying you acknowledge the, the privilege I guess, I feel so privileged living in Canada right now, I feel such immense gratitude and it’s not like I moved here from a war torn country, I moved from England and I’ll probably feel privileged if I lived there but, I’m just so grateful for Canada but I know that, I have many friends who are struggling immensely, and I’m sure people in your congregation, who are struggling immensely at the moment so, yeah want to validate their pain.

Alastair Sterne: I found for me comparing suffering has never, generated perspective per se, I think people intend that and they mean well, possibly by that, but there can often be an undertone of trying to motivate people by shame or guilt, rather than motivate people with compassion and love. You know and to, to do that you need to meet someone and affirm their dignity, not tell them from the get go well you’re wrong, you shouldn’t be, you know what are you complaining about people have it worse, it’s like well that’s true of every day of life, and yes that perspective happens, helps some, you know my, I remember once my wife was upset about something and in a weak moment, because I’d just been reading the news, I was like well we’re not in Aleppo how bad can it be? And it became kind of a, well it’s not Aleppo suffering, and that’s true for us in the West—we’re never suffering in the same ways as some people around the world—but that doesn’t mean we’re not suffering. And I think trying to qualify suffering in intensities, there’s truth to it, but it’s not always helpful. And so it’s one of those cases where yeah you’re probably right, but you’re possibly wrong in the way that you’re right, and so it’s a very challenging thing, because you don’t want to just, close your eyes to the world. But if I’m honest even in this moment, I’ve had to be like, I can only handle so much perspective. I need to actually limit how much perspective I have, into the suffering of the world because, there’s just too much, and I’m finite and I only have a limited, ability to feel compassion, and those are hard limits to accept, because we want to care for everything, and yet don’t have the capacity too.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, and that’s, that’s something that I know I’ve wrestled with over my whole life, from a very young age I remember this thought when you, when you, when you get in touch with or you see pain or suffering, you really get to grips with it, whether it be your own or someone else’s, but you confront it, I think my response has always been the same, there is this moment of, I can describe it as like brokenness, which the way it manifests itself is to say, “God I don’t know how you can take it,” like it’s almost like empathy for God, because you know as the one who is sustaining and holding all this together, and the one whose present to all of this, it’s an overwhelming. I mean it should be an overwhelming thought, but I think maybe in these moments, well I guess in these moments, where we go from talking about play and joy, to pain and immense suffering, and God is somehow involved and present to these extremes, all one and the same time, and I’m really glad he is, but it’s an overwhelming thought so I guess, to lay that down and say, “God, yeah I don’t know how you do it but, but you do and, I’m glad I don’t have to hold all this.” Alastair, I’m really grateful for the time, for the conversation it’s always great to talk to you, thank you so much for sharing with us and being so open, it’s been a real gift.

Alastair Sterne: Thank you for having me it’s been a joy in my day to spend some time with you, and hopefully this is of encouragement to others too.

Daniel Whitehead: I think it will be, and just to plug a few things, Alastair leads St. Peter’s Fireside you can look up online, they have a rather excellent blog that you can look up. You have—do you have an Instagram, do you have social media?

Alastair Sterne: Yeah kind of.

Daniel Whitehead: Okay.

Alastair Sterne: Necessary evil, but yes.

Daniel Whitehead: Yes exactly, well in these times we’re kind of grateful for these communications, but you can find St. Peter’s Fireside on social media, yeah and look up Alastair and his work, they do some great work as a church, they’re a very creative bunch, so look them up, and if you like this resource please share it with someone, you can look up all our resources online at sanctuarymentalhealth.org, including our newly launched Faith, Grief, and COVID-19 resource, a four part discussion guide, film-based guide for you, or our Sanctuary Course which is an eight week course, which actually features Alastair so there’s a reason alone to download The Sanctuary Course and use it. God bless you and thanks for joining us we’ll see you next time.

Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries exists to equip the Church to be a sanctuary for all people, at all stages of their mental wellness journey. May this podcast encourage you to create safe space for your own story, and the stories of others as well as create change in communities that stigmatize those suffering with mental health challenges.

The Sanctuary Course is a small group resource designed to help initiate and guide conversations about mental health and faith. It is a starting point, creating a base of shared knowledge from which churches can explore the next steps. Perhaps most importantly through the simple act of talking openly about mental health, the course helps churches begin to create safe spaces for people to share their mental health stories and receive support in community.

Each theme in the course is explored from a psychological, social, and theological perspective, and each session is accompanied by a compelling film focused on an individual’s story—a person of faith whose journeyed through mental health challenges. Interested in exploring The Sanctuary Course for use in your community? Learn more at sanctuarymentalhealth.org.

This podcast is released under creative commons attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives 4.0 license. Don’t change it or sell it but please share it all you like.