On Clergy Self-Care

This past Thursday, I sat down and helped moderate a discussion about clergy self-care with other youth pastors/workers in the Philadelphia area.  Since this is a topic that means very much to me, I was ready with quotes and references, books and self-awareness theories.

Fortunately, the people present were all of quality character and we quickly were into the thick of the topic.  Of course, there were some chuckles and even full out laughter, but there was a lot of great comments said by others in the room.  I think I can say that I was pleasantly surprised by how quick or ready people were to talk about self-care and boundaries.  It was delightful!  Here was a room of people in ministry, all under 40(?) that were invested and interested in the topic!

However, I know there are circles where clergy self-care is not talked about and people are expected to become martyrs for their jobs in ministry.  That being said, I offer my thoughts below…

I think what I would like to start off with is the idea of personhood.  American culture highly values and esteems individuality, of defining who we are without regards to others. The problem with such an emphasis is that we can be individuals without being persons.  Personhood is only found when in relationship to others, and often, in ministry settings we are not encouraged or given the space to be persons with definitive emotional, physical and professional boundaries.  Any person in ministry that does not enforce such boundaries or have their boundaries respected, is headed for burnout (if not there already).

Living in a culture that does not see overwork as demonic is, well, difficult.  There are stories of people overworked in China that simply pass away on the train because of the extreme amount of work they are expected/forced to do.  Often, in ministry people are expected to work way above and beyond the 40 hour workweek.  Worse, the vice of overwork is sometimes redressed as a virtue…  “They really love their job.”  “They really love this church.”  But overwork is not a sign of health, overwork is a symptom of poor boundaries somewhere.  Overwork may even be a form of idolatry, of thinking that we are the only ones who can do this or that specific work of the church.  There are two things in response to that overwork, 1. we are mortal and only have so much to give and 2. we are depriving the next generation from the chance to do our job just as well or better.

Yes, burnout is real.  But I want to hit an angle that I don’t think is often touched upon.  Perhaps you are in ministry, perhaps you know someone who is.  They may not be in burnout mode (yet), but what about the rest of their family?  Their spouse?  Their children?  Is it possible to have secondhand burnout?  Just a thought.  Your poor boundaries in ministry affects more than just you…

It was lovely to find out over the course of the meeting with other youth pastors, that many of them already see a counselor.  Many of them already have a spiritual director.  Many of them are already making good use of their yearly vacation time.  Hobbies may change over the years, but we need to find new ways to be stimulated and grow…  The room, then, was full of people who are either with good boundaries or are already learning to establish them.  Wow.

As I see it, if the church is going to thrive in the 21st century then it needs to think critically about the way it does things and ask why there is such systemic burnout or moral failures within the churches walls.

This leads me to resolutely say that I am a full advocate for self-awareness, to learn how to thoughtfully reflect on our own actions and behaviors.  Do we make decisions based out of anger, fear or shame?  Are we making our decisions and establishing our boundaries from a place of freedom in our own personhood?  It takes a legitimate amount of energy to look at ourselves, to thoughtfully and gracefully critique our lives and therefore, our habits.  If you have never engaged your dark side, your shadows, your demons, your shortcomings, the reality is that they are likely driving your life and calling your shots without you even knowing about it.  Everyone knows that one person in their life who is ignorantly un-self-aware, don’t be that person for others.

All this being said, allow me to share some of the tips that I shared last Thursday.  Feel free to take them and tweak them for your own betterment…  Because we want you here for the long run.

Tips for Self-Care:

  1. Get to know yourself through Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram, and other personality theories.  They may not perfectly describe you, but they may be tools that help you to “know thyself.”
  2. Reconnect with people that do not know you according to your title.
  3. Go get a counselor or spiritual director.  If possible, both.  Schedule these into your monthly appointments.  Do not give these up for anything, they will help you do your work better.
  4. Make a list of the top 5 people that feed you and encourage you.  These cannot be people who know you through your title and check in with them on a weekly or bi-weekly rhythm.
  5. Divide your day into morning, afternoon and evening.  Make certain you take one of those three off.
  6. Cultivate or return to a hobby.  If need be, even schedule it as a “meeting.”  You need to have something other than work to help you grow as a person.
  7. Get as active as possible.  Some churches are starting to pay for the gym membership of their staff, since it also helps to promote psychological health alongside physical health.
  8. Recognize triangulation and deliberately choose not to participate.  (Triangulation is when one person gets another person do communicate for them.)
  9. We are only capable of 40 friendships at a time.  More than that and we will be emotionally stretching ourselves too thin.  Be sure to know your relational limits.
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