Self-Care in Ministry

Anthony J. Headley

Self-care represents a perennial need in ministry. When I work with seminarians in ministry internships, the need quickly becomes apparent. In truth, I expect it, yet I am still a bit surprised at how quickly and often it rises to the forefront. The need does not simply arise from early adjustments pains in practicing ministry. In fact, the same issue arises among those who have formally entered full-time ministry and even those who have served for some time. It’s especially a critical need among those in the early stages of ministry.

Unfortunately, this failure in self-care often carries devastating consequences. It contributes to unmanageable stress, spiritual and emotional exhaustion, and even premature exit from ministry. Physical consequences also abound as ministers find themselves at risk for many ailments. Brian Sixbey recently completed a study among United Methodist Clergy that uncovered physical problems such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes. Emotional problems such as depression also appeared in this group (“Clergy Peer Groups: Do They Make a Difference for Clergy Health?” [DMin diss., Asbury Theological Seminary, 2014]). In nearly all cases, the rates for these ailments exceeded those in the general population. But the consequences do not end at the minister’s door; they tend to produce a trickle-down effect in families and congregations.

What contributes to failure in this critical area? The reasons are myriad and include both personal and system-wide factors. Personally, one often discovers a failure to set appropriate boundaries while succumbing to the faulty notion that a good minister is available 24-7. Along with this comes the financial strain that often holds true in ministry careers. Within congregational and denominational systems, contributing factors often include the health of the church and the impact of serving within an itinerant system (Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, Sara LeGrand, John James, Amanda Wallace, Christopher Adams, and David Toole, “A Theoretical Model of the Holistic Health of United Methodist Clergy,” [Journal of Religion and Health 50 [2009]: 700-720).

However, there often exists a faulty understanding of ministry. Some clergy conceptualize ministry as an other-centered activity demanding great self-sacrifice and self-neglect. Such a notion treats self-care as invalid, unnecessary, selfish, and guilt-provoking. John Scanzoni described ministers who hold such notions as sect-type clergy. They see the ministry role as all consuming and thereby give priority to the clergy role at the expense of conjugal and family roles (“Resolution of Occupational-Conjugal Role Conflict in Clergy Marriages,” Journal of Marriage and Family 27, no. 3 [1965]: 396-402). Of course, they also neglect themselves in the process.

Contrary to this view, Scripture includes an important place for self and by implication, self-care. The creation narrative supports such a truth. In that narrative, God as a gracious host created a hospitable world for humans to inhabit. This implies that humans need such environments to thrive. God also endowed creation, including the creation of humans, with goodness. No doubt he intends we treat the good body he created with care and respect. Moreover, God also provided an excellent example of healthy work; rather than continual engagement in endless activity, he oscillated between work and rest. One gets the idea that he desires we image him in this area. Not surprisingly, Jesus exemplified this kind of balance in his ministry; he often reserved time to retreat from activity to quiet places. Additionally, because he was never unrealistic about human needs, he desired the same for his disciples. Mark’s Gospel, grounded in realism, demonstrates his awareness of these needs. In Mark 6, after the disciples had ministered in the villages, he invited them to come aside and rest (6:31). Jesus evidently knew hungry people needed to eat and tired people needed to rest. Being his ministers never exempts us from having these needs or caring for them.

Wesley’s theology and practice carries a similar message of self-care. Given his tireless reputation, one might not readily connect his writings with this theme. Yet a close reading of some of his works reveals his concern for self-care. In fact, Melanie Dobson-Hughes saw Wesley as a resource for fostering wellness. She suggested that because of his understanding of the body he strongly emphasized preventive care attained “…through diet, exercise, adequate sleep, and good hygiene” (“The Holistic Way: John Wesley’s Practical Piety as a Resource for Integrated Healthcare,” Journal of Religion and Health 47 [2008]: 242). One encounters this theme in several places. For example, in discussing the prudential means of grace, Wesley gave attention to care of the soul and body. Accordingly, while warning believers to watch against the world, the devil and one’s besetting sins, he also inquired about mundane things like food and drink. In short, he showed concern for moral rectitude and good health (“Minutes of Several Conversations between the Rev. Mr. Wesley and Others; from the Year 1744 to the Year 1789”). He deemed both as necessary to the well being of his helpers. One also finds an emphasis on the priority of the self. In the sermon “The Use of Money,” he presented clear priorities in spending money; he encouraged his readers to first provide for themselves food and clothing and other necessities for promoting bodily health and strength. Next, and in this order, he encouraged providing for one’s spouse, children, servants and anyone living in one’s household. Only then should one provide for the household of faith or those beyond. For Wesley, money was a way of doing love, yet in its exercise, he clearly recognized priorities that began with adequate care of the self.

How does one cultivate appropriate self-care? To those unaccustomed to its validity, relevance, or importance, it starts with shedding the notion that a neglect of self (and in some cases, a hatred of the self) represents good spirituality. Instead, in line with Matt 22:39, one should see love of others as grounded in an appropriate love for the self. One also needs to get beyond seeing self-care as selfish and something to be avoided. Rather, accepting God’s call to care for the good body he has created, one should feel free to engage in self-care without great reservation or guilt.

In many cases, this means reframing one’s understanding of the nature of ministry. Reframing means seeing ministry in a different light. Rather than narrowly defining it as an exercise done solely for the sake of others, it involves broadening the concept to make space for serving self and one’s family. This reframed understanding gets beyond seeing self-care as a guilt-worthy activity. Instead, it allows one to see self-care as a legitimate foundation for ministry (Anthony J. Headley, Reframing Your Ministry: Balancing Professional Responsibilities and Personal Needs [Evangel, 2007). Such a shift in perspective should go a long way toward creating a mindset and willingness to reorder priorities in ministry. These priorities can easily be turned upside down; instead of laying a foundation of self and family care, serving others often rises to the top of ministry priorities, leaving the dregs for self and family. Moreover, reframing ministry will also mean creating boundaries to demarcate self from others while cultivating space for engaging in life-sustaining wellness in all its dimensions.

Hopefully, freed for self-care, one will experience the holy leisure that characterized God. Richard Foster described holy leisure as having “…a sense of balance in the life, an ability to be at peace through the activities of the day, an ability to rest and take time to enjoy beauty, an ability to pace ourselves” (Celebration of Discipline [HarperCollins, 1998], 27). May God help us make space for self-care and image him in holy leisure!

Posted Mar 11, 2015