Taking ourselves seriously when it comes to self-care

A ministry colleague (and previous student) has just posted his second day of  ‘25 Push-ups for 25 days to raise awareness on Anxiety, PTSD, Depression and Suicide’. When I commended him (not volunteering to do the same) his response was ‘self-care is a must!’

I’m pleased that that message has got through to someone. But why do we need to talk about self-care: or why aren’t we do good at exploring our reluctance or impediments to self-care?

Today I want to stay with the question around why are we seem to be so reluctant to address our own self-care. There are various statistics about minister’s self-care.

A 2013 article in The Australian quoted Grant Bickerton, who works around issues of clergy stress in Australia, saying “up to 75 per cent of ministers, pastors and priests suffer from stress-related issues, and up to 25 per cent have taken stress leave or suffered serious burnout.” That same article states that up to 5% of ministers in WA Uniting Church Synod take stress leave annually.

In other places we can find statistics about high levels of overweight, alcohol and substance abuse, and marriage problems, and of course the turnover out of ministry. Statistics for ministers not taking annual leave, not going to supervision, and not having regular weekly time off show that as ministers we have problems in the self-care department.

Every job and profession has its unique stresses, apart from the normal stress of living as a human being. The stresses that are unique to ministry, and cause drop out and burn out are numerous. Some of these also make it both more necessary and at the same time harder, to make sure we take time for ourselves.

  • Ministry itself is a calling to something that is never finished. Often there is no clear picture of the expectations and the tasks that we are to fulfill. The church itself is a haven and refuge for people in great need. Or to put it more bluntly – Ministry is often a mess – people and their lives are often messy. As ministers we have little time to step out of our role.
  • In ministry we often deal with leadership (local congregational and at higher levels) that is stressful. In spite of everyone’s best efforts there are often failings in leadership that leave ministers hurt. Within a denomination we also deal with decisions and stances that we aren’t always in agreement with, but we have agreed to be part of an ‘order’ in our ordination.
  • The church and ministry is not valued by the surrounding culture, and ministers deal with institutional decline and a sense of our own failure. The fall-out from the Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse of Children adds to this.

In our current COVID-19 situation there are extra reasons for why we might need to be aware of self-care.

  • The current stresses of a pandemic with a situation we have not faced before, and our own and family health concerns.
  • The steep technological learning curve many are facing
  • Social and mental health factors from living and working at home with the myriad associated factors.

Yet apart from the pressures of and messiness of ministry, of congregational and church and societal factors, there are also some personal factors.

  • We don’t plan or prioritise and manage our time for self-care. Peterson talks about the too busy pastor as someone who has let other demands take control of life.

“The word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.”(Peterson, 1989).

Peterson talks about how busy-ness might be feeding our own needs to be important, or to not take control of our own agenda and diary and let others control that.  In a worldwide survey in 2007 Barick found that Christians and in particular ministers were ‘too busy for God.’ This has implications of what that means for time for self-care as well.

  • As ministers, we are not good at receiving care. We have a ministry model that means we hear a call from God to serve others, and mobile phones and constant contact mean we are always accessible to hear others’ need. There is an ethical issue here: we have intrinsic value as people. Recognising that attending to ourselves may also benefit and help protect those we serve, might help us balance that giving and receiving care. Further, our lack of self-care may mean we perpetuate unhelpful behaviour in ourselves and also in others as we model something that may also help others in unhealthy or co-dependent behaviours.
  • Finally, in self-care, taking time to do our own thing, is to give us time to reflect. Some of us would much rather be busy and so resist the need to turn inward to do the hard work of self-reflection. Yet taking this time leads us to insight about what is really going on for us and our own inner dynamics. Which in turn leads us to be more at peace with ourselves and in our ministries.

This is a sampling, if you like, of reasons we may not take self-care seriously. But to take ourselves seriously is for each of us to know what the reasons are why ‘I’ don’t address my own needs for self-care.

Self-care question for today: what is it in my own person that means I think I do not take self-care (and so myself and my ministry) seriously?

Rev Dr Christine Sorensen
Presbytery Minister (Formation and Discipleship)

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Helpful References:

  • Barrick, Audrey. “ Survey: Christians Worldwide Too Busy for God.” Christian Post Reporter Jul 30, 2007
  • Canning, Sally Schwer. “Out of Balance: Why I Hesitate to Practice and Teach “Self-Care”.” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 30, no. 1 (2011): 70-74.
  • Miller-McLemore, Mark. “Revaluing “Self-Care” as a Practice of Ministry.” Journal of Religious Leadership 10, no. 1 (2011): 109-34.
  • Peterson, Eugene H. The Contemplative Pastor. Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
  • Vitello, Paul. “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work” New York Times Aug 01, 2010.
  • Willimon, William H. Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry.  Nashville: Abingdon, 2002.

Photo by Fabian Møller on Unsplash.

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