The paradox of self care

I love a good paradox. That love of pulling together seemingly opposite realities is part of the mental challenge of my vocation. I enjoy talking about some of the paradoxes of Christian theology such as the doctrine of the trinity, the dual nature of Christ (fully human and fully divine) and the nature of death and resurrection.

About 20 years ago I asked a colleague how his ministry was going and he answered, “What can I say? It’s a job.” I was a bit dumbstruck and had a hard time coming up with a response to his comment. It was so foreign to the way I looked on our vocation that I couldn’t tell if he was joking, or if he simply saw it so radically differently than I. I had previously encountered laypeople who considered the ministry to be the same as any other job, and who would cite some of the benefits of ministry, including work flexibility, longer vacations than some other professions, and sabbaticals as examples of the job being easier and better supported than some others. But to have a colleague who though of our shared vocation as just a job threw me.

As early as my ordination paper, written before I was ordained, I have spoken outwardly of the ministry as being more of an identity than a task list. Ministry is who we are rather than what we do. I have continued to try to model that conviction in the congregations I have served. I have spoken of that approach to search committees and pastoral relations committees and Committees on the Ministry. I know that my approach was sometimes a challenge for my family because they were frequently included in how people saw me and they developed expectations of my children that were different than the expectations of the children of other professionals in our community. It was a bit of a double bind for our children because both of their parents were ministers and because we have continually served the same congregation.

It turns out, however, that the colleague who commented, “What can I say? It’s a job” wasn’t alone in his thoughts and feelings. In fact, he may have been a bit ahead of his time. As the years have passed, I have discovered that my way of thinking about our vocation is definitely “old school” and more and more contemporary pastors view the ministry as a profession - a job among many other jobs. These days it is very popular for clergy to speak of the separations between their personal lives and their role as a pastor. Often those opinions are couched in the language of creating boundaries.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of personal boundaries. I was among the first advocates in our denomination for mandatory and recurrent boundary training for ministers. I have taken boundary training courses every few years throughout my career and now carefully track my trainings so that I attend at least one every three years. Boundaries are essential for effective ministry. The history of the church contains far too many examples of exploitation by ministers and exploitation of ministers that resulted from poor definition of boundaries. The people I served deserved to know that their relationship with me was safe. Even though there are many examples of abusive ministers, I needed to have ways of demonstrating that my service to the church would not become abusive of those I served.

I know that ministers often betray boundaries when they experience unmet needs. They begin to project their desires and wants onto the congregation and to place fulfilling their needs over the needs of those served. I served on a clergy sexual abuse investigation task force for many years and have been involved in trying to provide a measured and careful response to those who have exploited and abused members of their congregations. I know that these infractions are real. I also know that those who commit those acts often defend themselves by calling themselves victims and saying that the church failed to meet their needs.

Learning to take care of one’s self is critical to effective ministry. Knowing what one’s needs are and how to get them fulfilled in appropriate ways is essential to long term endurance in our vocation. But I react negatively to all of the talk of self care that is so popular these days. Remember? I’m old school. This is where another paradox enters the picture. The things that provide the best long term self care for pastors are things that bring them closer to their congregations, not the things that create space between them and those they serve. There is a difference between maintaining healthy boundaries and creating barriers.

The core of clergy self care does not lie in days’ off, comp time, or long vacations. It lies in practices of prayer and participating in loving and caring relationships where one knows others and is known by others. Clergy self care is the result of drawing closer to those served rather than withdrawing to a greater distance.

A wise mentor once told me, “When you have a difficult relationship in your church, pray daily for the person who seems to be a problem. If you cannot pray a prayer of gratitude for their good qualities, at least pray a prayer for health and strength so that you won’t be the one to conduct their funeral.” It has been a very important piece of advice for me when I have encountered conflict in the church. I found that praying daily for my congregation was an essential skill to maintaining a long term ministry. In order to make time to pray my work days were sometimes longer than some other professions. I got up earlier than some of my colleagues because I think most clearly in the morning.

The more those I serve come to know me as a person, with my own thoughts, feelings, and intentions, the better they are at providing the support I need. When I learn to show my weakness and vulnerability, our relationship grows stronger.

It is a lesson that my colleagues will have to learn on their own, however. It makes me wish I could be around to see them in 20 or 25 years when they have gained a bit more experience and perhaps a bit more wisdom. I fear, however, that some of them will simply leave our vocation in search of another before that occurs. After all, I’m pretty old school in the way I think.

Made in RapidWeaver