Practicing self-care...

From time to time I find myself needing to pause in the midst of my ministry to do a reality check.  During the past nearly 30 years of ordained ministry in the local church setting, this has not always been the case; as a consequence sometimes I've found myself burned-out, resentful, confused, ungrounded, blind-sided, frustrated and a whole lot more.  Once, while participating in a month-long study retreat re: spiritual direction in San Francisco, I had one of my last major "temper tantrums" - a full blown pity party - that forced me to find a new way of dealing with all the shadow realities of being a pastor in the 21st century. 

It didn't come easily - and there were some profound lows on the road to doing ministry in a new way - but for the past 10 years... Let's just say there has been greater balance and introspection of the healthiest type.  So, for the past week I've been thinking about how I interact with the people in my congregation.  Do I share my energy and gifts in ways that are satisfy, authentic and life-giving?  Do I practice self-care as well as compassion?  Do I love the congregation as Christ loves his church - and what does that means for me personally and professionally?

In another of those fascinating moments of synchronicity, this morning's Alban Institute update contained the following posting re: pastoral integrity and care.  They note that there are four imperatives for the cultivation of enduring pastoral fruitfulness.

+ Systemic commitment to lifelong learning: Pastors must take the initiative to ensure that they are always refining their understanding of their fundamental purpose. This might mean writing or rewriting a personal mission statement or journaling about their unfolding discernment of God’s call for their lives.

They must also examine their own authenticity to make sure they are living out of their true self in ministry and sharing that self with the community of faith. This process could include seeking therapy to identify and integrate the various and sometimes conflicting voices within. Pastors must develop skills through seminars, coaching and mentoring relationships that can help them respond creatively to the challenges they are facing in ministry. Primary responsibility for a commitment to constant learning rests with the pastor. It is part of the cost of call.

The responsibility for lifelong learning does not, however, rest on the pastor’s shoulders alone. This must always be a shared burden with the larger church, and the church in all its manifestations must continue to provide abundant resources for the continuing formation of pastors. Sharing responsibility for cultivating a community of lifelong learning is just one way that the church and its leaders must cooperate to ensure the proclamation and day-to-day enactment of the gospel. This is how ministry is practiced best—with mutual effort and expectant openness to God’s continuing creation.

+ Intentional connection to communities of shared practice: Families are one kind of “community of shared practice.” Children grow up in families learning core values and beliefs and rituals, and they internalize an understanding that “this is how the Smiths or McCraes or Jaramillos do things.” The influence of those traditions and evolving ideas and practices lasts for life. The church is a similar kind of community, one in which people are called to bear one another’s burdens, to recognize how the varieties of gifts God has bestowed belong to the same body, and to encourage one another in witness and service.

At its best, the church might be described as a diverse and growing community of shared practice, whether conceived internationally, denominationally, ecumenically, or congregationally. Fruitful pastoral leaders understand the importance of being part of such communities and they make sure they have regular continuing access to such groups. The most basic community of shared practice for Christians is, of course, the congregation. When the central relationship between pastor and congregation is working well, there will be reciprocal teaching and learning and encouraging and confronting as all seek to live out God’s call in their lives.

But the demands of ministry and the peculiar relationship of pastors with parishes (employee/employer; leader/follower; servant/master?) require that pastors belong to other kinds of communities within which they might openly share ideas, hopes, and fears about the practice of ministry. This emphasis on mutual support for ministry is not an entirely new idea, of course. Religious leaders have sought to encourage and learn from one another ever since the eleven disciples huddled together in those agonizingly uncertain hours after the death of Jesus on the cross. What is new, however, is the increasing data from research attesting to the value of such groups for pastoral leaders and suggesting what works best.

+ Strong roots and active exercise in a growing faith: The word ecology was coined by zoologist Ernest Haeckel in the nineteenth century, bringing together the Greek word for the “study of” something with oikos, which means “house” or “dwelling place.” The ecology of Christian ministry is always surrounded by Christ. This is both a theological affirmation and a mandate for practice. Life in ministry must constantly be grounded in the lively practice of faith and confident hope in God’s providence, even through the dark days of discouragement and loneliness that inevitably come for most pastors. Staying connected to the vine of Christ is the most essential task of pastoral leadership and sometimes the most challenging.

+ Careful stewardship of the leader’s own self: Pastors rarely misunderstand the mandate to love God and love neighbor, but they too often fail to grasp the full meaning of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus did not say “instead of yourself.” I suspect this misunderstanding is most often rooted in some misguided attempt to live sacrificially, although I fear it is frequently a works-driven quest for worth or reward that bears witness to a lack of trust in God’s grace.

In my counseling practice I’ve seen hundreds of pastors over the years whose depression, physical maladies, spiritual burnout, and troubled family lives reflect their failure to love themselves as they love others. While Jesus’s warning in the Gospel of Matthew about bad trees’ bearing bad fruit was aimed at the dangers of false prophets (Matt. 7:15–20), the logic of his metaphor could surely be extended to the importance of pastors’ caring for themselves so that they might bear good fruit.

These four insights are essentials for my well-being - and I have been reviewing them carefully.  My exploration of jazz music and peace-making, for example, as well as the opportunity to travel and interact on the international scene is so integral to my soul that without this experience I would feel hollow.  It has energized my body and mind and given me a joyful way to share making music in the company of others that is simultaneously prayerful and challenging.  I have also discovered working with the Berkshire Association of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ has given me a community of practice greater than both my family and congregation - something I need for perspective and accountability. My monthly conversations with a "spiritual friend" takes this deeper, too.

I have discovered, much to my surprise, that over these past 30 years I have cultivated a deep sense of professional boundaries - and especially over the past 10 years:  I simply do not have much time for the crazy-makers or users that seem to feed off the naivete or co-dependence of some pastors.  As my wife told me last night, "You are an excellent preacher and teacher and musician; you are committed to using your time and gifts wisely to strengthen compassion personally and socially. So just face it:  you aren't called to waste your time doing anything else."   

Sometimes people in the church don't get that, right?  They want you to be available for all their real and imagined wounds and needs.  Or they want to suck you dry before moving on to their next victim. Or they are so narcissistic that they don't even know they are soul vampires.  Or they want you to be their "friend" without understanding that ministry is a "public" rather than a private relationship. There is love to be shared - and a real spiritual and physical presence, too - but without discernment and intentionality burn-out is always lurking around the corner. Heart break, too.

What I have discovered - mostly by lots of mistakes - is that I have very clear gifts for ministry and limitted time and energy.  When I move into the blessings of the Spirit, things are good and make me think of Warren Zevon's GREAT ode to the perpetual soul vampire...


Black Pete said…
Don't look now, but Dianne's speech is a Found Poem.

Popular Posts