It was a normal run of the mill board meeting, something I had done repeatedly over the past number of years. However, as we neared the end of my agenda, one of my board members, noted he was attending a seminar and part of the topic was self-care. After listening to my list of activities and the schedule of the summer, he asked, “Rod, what are you doing to take care of yourself?” I mumbled something about taking time to walk, to get away, and I do. However, I have to admit that I have done a pretty poor job of that this summer. My fly rod never got out of the container it was stored in. I have a couple of fire arms that I enjoy making holes in paper with that never once fired. My wife and I never made it up to the hill behind the house all summer. Sure, I managed to get a few nice hikes in, even got to take a few little trips here and there. But if I am honest, I did not do as good a job of taking care of myself as I could have. Now that winter is here, the house is nearly done…then I can take care, then I can find sometime for myself.
But you have said the same things haven’t you! It is nearly Advent, once the first of the year gets here, before we know it is Lent, then when Easter is over…. However, I remember the pastoral ministry, I remember all too well and the reality is that when the first of the year comes, something else crops up. Once Easter is over, if we are fortunate, we have a week or two before something else jumps up in the schedule. In the last six months of my tenure as the pastor of my last congregation I had something like 6 funerals in short succession. (Now I know that others of you have that many in a month, but for me that was double my annual norm.) These were not “simple” funerals, they all involved some significant loss for me and due to the short time frame, I don’t know if I have been able to grieve those losses even today. Why, because there was something else to do, something else to tend to. As pastors, self-care, is often the last thing we take time for. Now keep in mind during this time I was going to the gym at 6:00 AM generally three times a week. I had an accountability group, spent time with my wife and grand-kids. But, did I really take time to take care of myself? I would have to say I did a pretty poor job of it.
What prompts my rambling today are two very different articles. The first was written by a man who describes ordination as isolating. This man happens to be an Anglican priest so he wears black and a clerical collar. So wherever he goes, people don’t see a man, they see a “Priest” with whatever experiences and images that may carry. I recall how relationships with others would change when they found out I was clergy. I started to describe myself as anything but a pastor until it was obvious that I could not avoid it. However, this man’s point, is that many people keep pastors at arm’s length, so finding support and encouragement in a local setting can be difficult. The second was an article that pointed specifically to clergy self-care. When I combine those two, the isolation and need for self-care, it might seem if those are two contradictory elements, but then again, let me see if I can blend them. While pastoral ministry may be isolating it does not mean we have to be isolated, nor defeated.
This blog is as much a reminder to myself as it is to you, that we need to take care of ourselves, as no one else will! If you ask my wife, I am probably my own worst enemy in this. For the past year and a half, I have been dealing with increasingly debilitating lower back pain. Why? Because some MD told me there was nothing to do about it! Finally, my wife and my Dad convinced me that if I sought a second opinion I might just find some relief. So I did and I am finding that relief. Now, remember this bull headed man has been putting up with this pain for a year and a half, so relief is not instantaneous, but it is beginning. What does this have to do with self-care? For many of us, the pain has been a part of our lives for so long that really don’t think anything is going to change. After all, we were told it was better to burn out than rust out. That “real pastors” can handle anything! Or other lies and myths like that. Or we think that pain and suffering are just part of what it means to be a pastor.
Let me digress a bit. Do you know the major difference between a horse and a mule? I am not talking biology, but temperament. I learned a number of years ago that a mule has one speed, and one speed only. A mule will walk or work that speed all day long, but when the mule gets tired, they stop and rest. A horse? A horse will run itself to death if you demand it. A horse will not stop until you allow it to. So we label mules stubborn, and horses reliable. However, at the end of the day, which animal will be available to you the next day and the day after that? You see I think most of us as clergy see ourselves as sleek race horses, running the race at breakneck speed. Yet what does author of Hebrews say to us, he calls us to run the race set before us with “perseverance” (Hebrews 12:1) Jesus says to us that his joke is easy and his burden is light. (Matthew 11:30)
So once again, I want to remind each of us that it is vital to take care of ourselves, as the only thing we can bring to the ministry table is ourselves, and if we have been run into the ground by perceived ministry activities, and emergencies, then we will have nothing to give to anyone. So for today, a few simple suggestions for self-care:
- Work with a spiritual director in non-emergency and emergency times alike—a monthly meeting to reflect on where God is moving in good times and bad can be a tremendous resource.
- Keep in honest and regular touch with five friends (outside your congregation). These should be people whom you can allow to see your flaws, with whom you can share what is going well and what is devastating. Why five? At any given “emergency” time, two will be on vacation, one will be in love, and one will be on his or her own emergency.
- Check in at least a few times a year with a personal therapist and a “systems” therapist—someone with whom you discuss the systems of your congregation.
- Get advice. When you are in emergency mode, it is hard to know how much your congregation “needs to know,” whom to tell how much and when. Have some professional colleague mentors in the wings whose advice you trust. Participating in an ongoing clergy group is one good way of building up the relationships of collegial mentoring that clergy need when the going gets tough.
- Write—and don’t mail. It can help to designate an hour in the morning to write out what is going on for you. This writing is not to be shared, no matter how lucid you believe it to be.
- Take a break. Maintaining a full work schedule in an emergency time can be enormously depleting. Consider the flexibility in your schedule. What can be deferred or delegated?
- Seek a 24/7 phone friend—someone whom you feel OK to call at any hour.
- Walk, sing, weave, garden, pray. Do the things that nourish your soul, every day, whether you feel like it or not. If you are in a non-emergency time, do these things all the more so they are readily accessible.
- Look at God, looking at you. Most clergy I know are terribly harsh on themselves and would benefit from spending at least one minute each day in the Ignatian practice of looking at God, looking at you. Rather than assuming that God knows only what we know, stop to ask God what God actually sees.
I like that last one, look at God looking at you! Now stop and think about that a bit. You are not looking in the mirror, you are picturing God sitting across from you, sharing a cup of coffee, or tea or whatever, and ask, God what are you seeing? You never quite know what you will find if you try that.
For now, I am planning on taking a little time this evening to read a junk novel! Nothing that is earth shattering, just some fun, relaxing reading. Might even sit with the lovely woman who has shared my life for over 40 years now in front of our new (unfinished) fire place. Who knows, if the weather improves we might just go for a walk in a day or two!
That is my plan. What are you going to do?