The troublesome language of self-care

We have been talking about self-care for a number of weeks. But there are problems with the language of self-care. Three main reasons are the ways that it buys into the current self-focus of the age, multi-cultural factors, and ministry as a call to service.

Self-care: you’re worth it!

We live in an age when the idea of ‘self’ has burgeoned, with its highly individualised focus. One outcome is that there is an emphasis or bent towards all things ‘self’, even a ‘self-obsessed’ culture. Marketers play on the value of the self to sell a broad range of goods, with tag lines such as ‘you’re worth it’.

Christian theology endorses the value of selves made in the image of God, yet at the same time, Christian language of self is less about self-care and more about self-denial, less about self-fulfillment and more about serving others, less about my ‘worth’ and more about being a faithful follower of Christ. We’ve all heard (or said): “I won’t make it to [Presbytery/ church meeting / insert your own reason here] – I need to exercise some self-care.” How do we take care that our natural bent toward selfishness does not twist or bias our careful self-awareness and discernment of our need for self-care when we live in a society which all too easily bends toward the self?

Self-care in the cultural maelstrom

While self-care emerges from a Western context, many non-Western cultures are geared towards the community.  In indigenous cultures, the very notion of ‘self’ can be hard to identify. Attitudes and expectations around ministry, visiting, and presence prioritise the value of community relationships in many of our cultural groupings. Ajith Fernando, who speaks in the West as well as pastoring and leading in his home country of Sri Lanka, notes differences when asking for prayer for tiredness:

I get the strong feeling that many in the West think struggling with tiredness from overwork is evidence of disobedience to God. My contention is that it is wrong if one gets sick from overwork through drivenness and insecurity. But we may have to endure tiredness when we, like Paul, are servants of people.[1]

While not talking about self-care directly there is a cultural difference in attitude to ministry. As a church, we may question whether creating an affluent individualistic Western aspiration of self-care is in line with other cultural modes and expectations of ministry, or even if it is being faithful to our commitment to multicultural ministry.

Called to ministry….

The idea of self-care has come into ministry from the helping professions which are more structured and boundaries. In contrast, congregational ministry (in particular) is far more permeable, relational, and often responsive in the face of urgent deep pastoral needs. The church is also stressed and ministers may find themselves in situations of high demand. Yet inflexible boundaries and constant references to self-care work against a ministry of presence and pastoral care. Learning to continue to follow our call to ministry when it is demanding is to find ways that nourish the soul in ways that ‘self-care’ may not provide.  The notion of self-care may be inimical to the very calling to ministry that we follow.

Our language of self-care may, insidiously without our notice, create misalignment with our deeper values of taking up our cross and following Christ, of honouring the other, and of our call to service.

References

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.

Fernando, Ajith. “To Serve Is to Suffer.” Christianity Today, no. August (2010): 31-33.

Miller-McLemore, Mark. “Revaluing “Self-Care” as a Practice of Ministry.” Journal of Religious Leadership 10, no. 1 (2011): 109-34

[1] Ajith Fernando, “To Serve Is to Suffer,” Christianity Today, no. August (2020).

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