last updated June 2019
Several months ago I asked, Is Self-Care Part of Your Paid Employment, and Should It Be? Of readers who responded to the interactive poll, 50% said yes, 25% said no, 25% it depends.
Since then, I’ve done more reading on self-care as it relates to church employment, and today I share the most helpful articles I’ve found with the title/link and a brief quote—not to summarize each article, but to encourage you to read the entire post. Some specifically address pastors, others speak more generally, some offer practical suggestions, others challenge the idea of self-care, one article might seem to contradict another, but together they stimulate a thoughtful approach to self-care when you work for the church.
Wherever you see “pastor,” “clergy,” or “employee,” please feel free to fill in your own job title, and wherever you see “workplace,” substitute church or other Christian organization. If you have other articles to recommend, please add the link in the comments to expand this resource list.
I have been asked what seminaries teach now about self-care, having only graduated 5 years ago. Self-care was one of most common mantras of my seminary education, and it seems obvious to me that you can’t really care for others, or fulfill your vocation with integrity, if you are a burned out wreck… yet so many pastors obviously feel the opposite.
For so many professional ministers, a well rested, healthy pastor is a pastor failing at ministry. The Duke Clergy Health Initiative study on self-care among pastors, suggests that many ministers think self-care is selfish. My colleagues have told me that there was a day in seminary education when the message to students was that being a pastor meant giving your life to Jesus (or in other words, to your congregation 24/7). There is no room for self-care in ministry.
I do not think clergy need more lectures about self-care.
It seems that at every ordination or installation service I attend there is a charge given about clergy self-care. One minister stands up and tells another minister that they know they are about to work themselves to death, so resist the temptation. “Take your day off…set boundaries…don’t try to be all things to all people.” All this is done in front of an audience of lay people who are supposed to be impressed that we clergy would need such a lecture. It has become a cliché, and seems to have trumped prophecy, theology and the love of Jesus.
Quite simply, good self-care is attending to and respecting the limitations and needs that God has designed for humans. I find the analogy of caring for our car as a helpful starting point. Changing the oil and doing regular maintenance is simply being a responsible car owner. It is not selfish to ignore the flashing check engine light; it is not a measure of one’s strength to ignore our needs as a human, rather foolishness.
The topic of self-care, particularly as it relates to physical and emotional health, has long confused and challenged me as a Christian. While I’ve deeply resonated with much of the common sense in the philosophy of self-care, other aspects have troubled me and seem completely incompatible with Christianity. I couldn’t agree with Scripture and at the same time agree with arguments encouraging me to pursue a self-focused, indulgent, comfort-based lifestyle. On the other hand, I heartily agreed in principle with discussions of self-care as stewardship. Still, I usually came away with more of a sense of heavy obligation than of freedom and gratitude. I often saw God as an auto mechanic pacing around, irritated and inconvenienced by my failure to get my car in for regular maintenance.
The closest the self-care movement can get to truly good news is to tell you to stare at something big:
- “Watch a sunrise.”
- “Hike in the woods.”
- “Go to the beach.”
- “Take a country drive.”
- “Watch a sunset.”
Each of these is an effort to put you in front of something bigger than yourself long enough that you forget yourself. The strategies hint at the Christian gospel because the sensations we feel gazing at bigness begin to uncover the God-sized cavity beneath our guilt, stress, and anxiety.
The care you really need is not buried somewhere deep inside of you, waiting to be unlocked by some dessert or diversion. No, you need the healing, forgiving, restoring, and transforming grace of a God who loves you.
When I was really struggling to understand why rest and self-care were important practices for Christians I conversed with various mentors and friends and couldn’t get a satisfying answer. I know of so many faithful pastors and missionaries who work tirelessly for the gospel despite their own deteriorating health—there is just so much need and good work to be done that carving out time for rest seems selfish and counter-productive. That is our human thinking—but what does the Bible have to say about rest and self-care?
If we look to the Bible for signs of Jesus taking care of His personal needs, we can see that He was able to recognise His own needs and tend to them accordingly. He was able to comprehend that He had limits and that God had allowed for Him to care for Himself. When He saw the need, Jesus would escape to nurse his heavy heart in prayer, indulging in time to Himself because He needed it.
Even Jesus had limits. This is humbling for us to remember. It’s so easy to hold ourselves to a level of perfection and feel shame when we struggle to meet our own expectations of what a Christian ‘should be like’.
When the Rev. Jeanette Hicks graduated from seminary in 2010, a mentor cautioned her about overwork. A retired pastor, the mentor hoped that Hicks and other young clergy would do better at staying healthy over the long run than she and her contemporaries had done.
But just six months later, Hicks, a United Methodist pastor then serving in the Kentucky Conference, was a sleep-deprived wreck, surviving on sugar-fueled energy and calorie-dense church meals. . . .
Hicks’ experience is not unusual. Even with the best intentions and all the knowledge and advice in the world, clergy of all ages often find it difficult to take care of themselves, the Duke Clergy Health Initiative has found. On the long list of items that must be done every day, they often put themselves last.
Workplace or Professional Self-Care involves activities that help you to work consistently at the professional level expected of you. For example:
- Engage in regular supervision or consulting with a more experienced colleague;
- Set up a peer-support group;
- Be strict with boundaries between clients/students and staff;
- Read professional journals;
- Attend professional development programs.
This article cites the work of professor Marie Asberg, who describes burnout as an “exhaustion funnel” and offers tips to foster a culture of self-care, including:
Create a healthy email policy – be mindful of the burden of e-mails on staff and implement ways to reduce it in order to increase productivity and efficiency. A new report by the London-based Future Work Center, which conducts psychological research on workplace experiences, found that two of the most stressful habits were leaving emails on all day and checking emails early in the morning and late at night.
Other Helpful Links
My reading and reflection on self-care led to my writing this book, published by Herald Press, 2018. Table of contents, endorsements, and order information available here: Four Gifts: Seeking Self-Care for Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength.
See also this blog series of 100 self-care ideas for heart, soul, mind, and strength:
For more encouragement and resources on doing ministry better: