Daniel Whitehead interviewing Nigel Pollock on Zoom

Mental Health, Faith & COVID-19 With Nigel Pollock

Nigel PollockPodcast, Podcast COVID

Episode Description:

President of InterVarsity Canada, Nigel Pollock, reflects on the challenges of ministry during this season of physical distancing. He discusses the impact of loneliness on students, the difficulties of navigating life and leadership in the absence of fixed markers or transitions, and the ways in which the Church can become a more authentic expression of Christ’s body in this season of lament.

Running time: 25:57

Release date: May 29, 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:

InterVarsity Canada


The Sanctuary Course

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 another episode of 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. And during this season I’m interviewing friends of ours from across the world. Today I’m joined by a friend from Canada, from the East Coast—or we call it the east coast, but it’s probably not quite the East Coast, because like Nova Scotia’s the east coast, but anyway from Toronto, and my good friend Nigel Pollock of InterVarsity, the President of InterVarsity Canada. Hi Nigel, nice to have you with us.

Nigel Pollock: Hi Dan, good to be with you. I don’t think people on the east would like to hear Toronto as described as being on the east coast, but I’m sure they’ll forgive you.

Daniel Whitehead: I know, I know I made that error. I was told that when I first came to Canada, and I referred to the east as Toronto, and someone said “that’s not east,” and I’m guessing it’s a couple of hours short on a plane of the east so anyway. You’re in Toronto.

Nigel Pollock: Easily, actually, when you get to Newfoundland you’re slightly nearer Scotland than you are to Vancouver.

Daniel Whitehead: That’s just amazing isn’t it, that still staggers me the vast size of this country. In fact it was, I did something for InterVarsity, I flew over to Toronto and then another time to Ottawa, to do some training with your team.

Nigel Pollock: It’s true.  

Daniel Whitehead: I decided to go, just for like a morning, and it was on the return flight, on like a five hour flight back, that I thought, “I’m not sure I could do this very often,” but in my head it was like, you know well it’s in the same country, it’s just going to be a couple of hours. But no, it was like a full on international flight.

Nigel Pollock: That’s the problem when you live in the winterless west, Dan, that you think a day away from Vancouver is a day wasted. 

Daniel Whitehead: I did not say that, but I like, I like what you’ve done there Nigel. So Nigel is, Nigel how long have you been the President of InterVarsity Canada?

Nigel Pollock: About twenty months, I started in September 2018, so I’m in my second year.

Daniel Whitehead: Okay and before that you were based in New Zealand for a while.  

Nigel Pollock: I was in New Zealand for thirteen years, and before that I was in the UK. You can tell from my accent that I’m from old Scotia. 

Daniel Whitehead: Yes old Scotia indeed, whereabouts in old Scotia are you from?

Nigel Pollock: I was born in Sterling, but we lived in Edinburgh for most of the time, before we went to New Zealand. And three of our boys were born in Edinburgh, but did more of their schooling in New Zealand than they did in Scotland. And we still have two of them in New Zealand, and the middle one is in London in the UK at the moment.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow, wow amazing. So Nigel let’s start with—I mean, we’re in this season, which I mean I feel like it’s seven weeks now that we as a family have been, you know locking, self-isolating ourselves. This is strangely becoming normal, I wonder what.

Nigel Pollock: Fifty days—I’ve been chalking them off one at a time on my wall.

Daniel Whitehead: Is that right?

Nigel Pollock: It’s fifty days, yeah. 

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah I mean that’s—yeah one seventh of a year is a significant amount of time. I wonder how are you doing, how is InterVarsity, what does this season look like for InterVarsity? 

Nigel Pollock: I think how I’m doing personally is, like most people, I’ve got good days and bad days. I think InterVarsity, we’re trying to understand the times, and to respond appropriately. So there are some things we’ve been trying to creatively engage with students in high school online, but we’re really a ministry that works on gathering people together, in high school, on campus and in camps, and the inability to meet definitely has got a significant impact on what we’re, what we’re trying to be. Organizationally I think one of the big challenges is to, to not just rush into something, but to try and take time to reflect. You know we live in this kind of age that you’re talking about, where every day seems the same. I’ve got a friend who talks about every day being Blursday at the moment, and in that, in that blur there’s a real desire for clarity. But the world that we live in at the moment, while clarity is nice, what we often need is a certain amount of agility, to be able to respond to the situation that we find ourselves in, and to allow ourselves to be released from the frantic activity, that sometimes just sets the pace and determines what we’re trying to do, so I think there’s an opportunity in it as well. 

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah that’s, that’s been an interesting theme that continually keeps coming up, is people are I guess—you know at Sanctuary we’ve talked about this, we’re just running this little series on Instagram, of sort of light in dark places, like where are we seeing these kind of strange glimmers of hope, and in what ways is this very dark and difficult season actually presenting—in a strange way presenting gifts to us. And the gift of time is something that continually is coming back, is that actually we have more time, whether that’s time to be with our family, or time to be on our own. And I know that isn’t the case for everyone in this world, that they have the luxury of time, but certainly in our context in Canada for us it’s been, there is strangely kind of a weird gift. Not that we—we don’t want this to happen, but even so in the midst there is a, a gift of time that we’ve been given. What does that look like for, for you personally. You touched on it but for you, you live with your wife?

Nigel Pollock: Yeah we’re living in our own little small bubble on the twenty-fifth floor of a condo in Toronto, and we’ve probably spent more time together in the last seven weeks than we have in our married life up to this point, in terms of amount of hours of actually being in the same space on, on our own. But you know there’s, there is this kind of strange combination of opportunity and lament that we’re living in, you know, that although there is time, there is also an absence of the ability to do many of the things that energize us and we enjoy—you know connecting with friends, traveling, even simple pleasures like going out for coffee. You know that when you can’t do the things that give you energy, it’s harder to make the most of the opportunity. And I think one of the things that I’ve realized in this season, is how much of leadership is actually future-orientated. You know that you’re always thinking about the world that you’re moving into. Management is more to do with coping what’s immediately in front of you, but leadership is about trying to plot a  course further ahead, and when you don’t have fixed points, it’s hard to navigate, it’s hard to feel secure, it’s hard to feel comfortable, and that lack of things to look forward to, that lack of knowing when is this going to end, that lack of clarity around well what is the world going to be like, when this virus passes—I don’t think there’s going to be a return to normal. I think there’s going to be a new world that we’re going to have to work out, how we live and relate and do life and ministry in that new environment. But that kind of, we’re not being able to see the future clearly, or to see it even less clearly than we usually can see it, is actually quite threatening and debilitating, you know that you don’t have a holiday to look forward to, you don’t know what’s going to happen at this date, your empty diary spanning out in front of you, and as you say every day becoming the same, that can become quite difficult.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah which obviously segues well into the whole mental health conversation. I mean for us as a mental health organization who, we’ve worked quite a bit with InterVarsity over the last couple of years—with your camp directors and your campus leaders, and your leadership team—I’ve actually had interactions with all of them, I wonder yeah. What are you seeing as an organization, with students and mental health, you know either at this time or before this time—I’m just interested, what is happening?

Nigel Pollock: I think we’re seeing a lot of loneliness. You know one of the ironies is that this generation is probably the most connected, that any generation has ever been, but despite that often lacks the quality and depth of relationship, that they feel understood, loved, connected with, able to share their deepest feelings, and longings with, and all indications are that those feelings of loneliness have increased in this season. You know there’s opportunity to reach out to people that perhaps you haven’t spoken to before, but when you’re not used to doing that, when you don’t have the, the ability to really, to share and to converse and to listen, it’s much harder to broadcast in this season, because you’ve got, you’ve got less to talk about. Really, you know, how many, how many pictures from your window do you really want the world to see on your Instagram account? You know, how much news do you have to share when yesterday was the same as the day before? I wonder what my memories of this year are going to be like, in three or four years’ time, when I look back on what actually happened in those, in those months. So loneliness is definitely an issue. I think some of the people who are most affected are the people at those key transition points, you know it’s your final year at high school, and you don’t have a prom, you don’t have the end of your sports season that you looked forward to. It’s your final year at university—you’re an art student, you don’t get your degree show; you’re a music student you don’t get your final concert; you don’t get to graduate. You know these, in person—you know these kind of key rites of passage, that are often times to celebrate and reflect are one of the ways that I think we build resilience, because it gives you staging points that you can reflect on life, and how you’d been sustained to this point, and how that helps you to move on to the, the next summit that you’re trying to, that you’re trying to climb. And I think the absence of those things also has implications for people, the fact that this graduating class doesn’t know what their employment prospects are going to be, or how deep and long the recession is going to be, and what you know how that’s going to work out for them. I think there’s, there’s a fair bit of anxiety, and stress going on as well. And then you have people who are back living at home, who don’t want to live at home, and have to kind of cope with relationships that they perhaps thought they’d resolved a little bit, but are still there in front of them, on a daily basis. You know it’s—there’s many things that are not, that are not easy, but I think one of the gospel opportunities, is that when the things that give you security, when the things that give you purpose are stripped away and your life isn’t filled up with noise and activity, then there does come a question of: what is this all about, you know who, who am I? And that isn’t a question I think that people will be getting answered at the moment, but I think it’s a question that is going to be more to the forefront in people’s minds, as we begin to emerge into that new world, and I think that’s why we’re seeing curiosity in some of the things that churches are doing online, you know we’ve moved some of our Bible studies, MARK-camps and so on online, and we’ve had some folks joining them who aren’t Christians, because they’re interested at the moment, to try and begin looking for answers, to some of those questions that they have.

Daniel Whitehead: Wow, yeah I think I mean it’s, it’s very interesting that idea of, particularly developing that theme of there being a delay, in response to this, because that’s, I know that I’ve already said this on another podcast, but I know that in response to 9/11, the churches in New York, many of them said church attendance went up at that point of crisis. So everyone started going to spirituality for answers, and there’s a whole ton of research that shows that at a point of mental health crisis, people often turn to spirituality for answers. So people start attending but then there came this delayed response, to sort of three to five years later, the kind of trauma hit home for people, and they were then processing a lot of stuff, playing catchup with stuff. And it strikes me that, just as the Church has a unique sort of mission opportunity in being that safe space for people to turn to, that you know and I would say this: the smart churches will be the ones that are also developing an understanding of mental health and developing support structures for people—for when the rubber hits the road as it were, perhaps which could be further down the line for people. 

Nigel Pollock: I think that’s right. But I think there is still a lot of misunderstanding around issues of mental health in churches, as you know, and I think one of the—one of the things that’s interesting in this season, is that there is a genuine sense of lament, for what has been lost, and what is happening in the world. And we have a lot of worship which is quite triumphalistic, you know, we don’t have the same breadth in our modern songbook as exists in the Psalms, where you’ve got a blend of thanksgiving, approach, confession, lament—you know you’ve got the whole kind of gamut of human experience. But a lot of what we experience in the modern church, is about everything is fantastic, everything is sweet, and you sit sometimes, or stand in services, and you think what’s going on here, are these people crazy or am I?  You know, I’m just not feeling this, this isn’t connecting with where I’m, with where I’m at. And we may be able to see a slightly greater degree of authenticity, birthing through this if people are able to, to be more honest about how they’re getting on, and are able to talk about that, and are able to understand the difference between worship and singing, and how relationships of quality and depth don’t just brush over the real issues, but are able to kind of stand with you in the trenches, and to help your relationship with God deepen, through whatever experiences you’re facing. 

Daniel Whitehead: That’s so true, and I think you see that reflected in so many ways in culture. Like even a small example being recording these interviews, changing our podcast and the way it’s—you know we created the podcast, we had a whole first series ready to go, and we got halfway through it COVID hit, and we were like “oh this isn’t, this isn’t where its at right now, we need to park this and we need to just talk to real people, and hear what’s going on for them, and how they’re coping and what’s going on for them.” Because I think this, again one of the strange gifts of this time, I think, is there is this reality check, and suddenly all these pampered people that we’re told to admire and wish to be like, are all stuck at home doing Zoom interviews, you know, and suddenly the folly of—and it’s not to say we can’t enjoy this world—but the folly of much of what we’re encouraged to value in our world, you realize oh it’s meaningless. A virus hits and suddenly it’s all shut down. Like we just don’t know what to do anymore, we can’t make TV shows or play sports or—which I’m personally absolutely gutted about. I’m really missing the soccer.

Nigel Pollock: I’m with you, I’m with you on that totally but, you know death is a great, is a great leveler.  You know, Bill Shankly the great football manager once said, football isn’t a matter of life and death it’s far more important than that. But I think that’s putting soccer completely out of perspective, and when you’re faced with the reality of the big question of life and of death, when you see you know celebrities are not immortal, and people are always more shocked when somebody famous succumbs to an illness, or is killed in some way, you know whether they’re a basketball player or a film star, or whatever it is that hastens their demise, there is a point where you kind of say “well, what am I trying to do with my life, what am I trying to accumulate, who am I trying to invest in, you know what is my, what is my legacy, what is my impact, what is the point of me?” And it’s, you know, it’s not just about the one with the most toys wins, it’s about how we relate to each other, how we show love, how we show kindness, and how we kind of share the good news of Jesus. Because in the light of the hopelessness that death often brings, Jesus is the only vaccine, Jesus is the only treatment.You know somebody said once, “the heart of the human problem is the problem with the human heart”, and the only one who has done anything to deal with the way human hearts are hardwired, and to fill them with love and to bring forgiveness, and to re-orientate them to the God who knows them, and made them and loves them, is Jesus. And that good news isn’t something that as Christians we can ever get tired of, or we can see relegated down the agenda, because it is the, it’s the hope of the world.

Daniel Whitehead: Yeah, yeah. I mean Amen I’m with you, I think it’s interesting though applying that, and thinking about the thing you said earlier, about how many churches would have more of a predisposition to being places that cultivate happiness, right? Being happy, happiness and faithfulness is somehow the same thing, which they’re not. And I wonder, I wonder if that’s in part, maybe a twisting of that message, of that message of hope that you just rightly said, that Jesus is the answer, the problem of the human heart, you know, Jesus is the ultimate vaccine. But I wonder if, if sometimes that is turned into, and therefore you shouldn’t be unhappy, and therefore you shouldn’t be depressed, because there’s this, whereas I mean I, and I know you would say the same, but I would say the whole good news is that Jesus is available to you wherever you’re at. If you’re in the midst of the darkness, he’s there with you in the darkness, and he will validate your experience in the darkness rather than try and push you somewhere you’re not ready to be.

Nigel Pollock: Totally, and the good news of the incarnation is that God became flesh and lived among us, that Jesus took on human nature. He knew what it was to live in a family, he knew what it was to experience every human emotion, he wept over the death of a friend, he experienced disappointment and betrayal, and physical suffering, you know—he was a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief. And we have seated at the Father’s right hand one who intercedes for us, knowing what it’s like to be us, knowing—you know, we don’t have to pretend, you know, God knows who we are, and knowing who we are he still loves us. And that is the remarkable thing about grace, and what differentiates Jesus from religion. Religion is about human beings in search of God; Jesus is God in search of human beings, coming to do what we can do, bringing forgiveness and eternal life and hope, as God’s gift out of God’s love, and out of God’s desire to be and make the critical difference, for humanity. So I, I think you’re absolutely right, that the danger is that we have a kind of cartoon version of the Bible, about a God who died to make us feel better and give us what we want—whereas God actually did far, did far more than that. One of the things that I hope might come out of this season, is that we might have churches and mission agencies that are less concerned with running of programs and more concerned to connect with people, in the reality of their lives. 

Daniel Whitehead: Well I will say a big Amen to that, and I know that many of the people that Sanctuary have served over the years, would hear your words and be incredibly encouraged by them, because that is, to me that is the good news, that is the good news. You’ve just, you’ve nailed it. Thanks, Nigel. Nigel, I really appreciate your time, I’m just grateful that you would give us the time to share some of your insights, and just hearing you speak, you know as a leader I think, you are the right man for this time, and I’m just grateful that you’re here in Canada, being an example, being a leader and—yeah leading God’s people into whatever is to come.

Nigel Pollock: Appreciate that Dan. I’m not always sure about that myself, but we are very committed to all that Sanctuary is doing, and that whole kind of desire, that people experience the shalom of God, that integrity and wholeness, and holiness, a right relationship with God and with other people, are all bound up together—and that we can help each other towards that, that’s a great part of our calling as the people of God, as we journey together, not just through this season, but as we journey together through the world that our lives are characterized by reality and hope, and that we share that hope with those around us. So bless you and all that Sanctuary are doing, and keep up the good work.

Daniel Whitehead: Thanks, Nigel I will do. Bless you, see you soon.  

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 focussed on an individual story, a person of faith whose journeyed through mental health challenges. 

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.