The second significant theme in the book Resilient Ministry is the theme of self-care. It’s closely linked with the theme of spiritual formation. Self-care is the ongoing development of the whole person. While the authors acknowledge that it may sound selfish, self-care is actually a form of self-denial; it is a way of seeking to ensure as lengthy a ministry as possible. The aim is to burn on, not to burn out¹.
Prioritising self-care can be difficult for many pastors because of unrealistic expectations placed on them by their role. As with the theme of spiritual formation, the issue of identity and role plays a part:
The clergy role… is the only profession that wraps personal identity, professional identity, and religious all in the same package.
In addition, pastors may be unaware of the emotional impact their work has on them. Psychiatrists have noted the impact of their work on those in caring professions.
And pastors may deny their need of self-care by spiritualising away any need for it.
Five areas of self-care are highlighted: emotional, social, spiritual, intellectual and physical.
Interestingly, as part of self-care, the authors zoom in on the theme of calling. They were surprised by the extent to which pastors question their sense of calling to their particular ministry; not so much whether they were called to ministry in general, but whether they were called to the specific place where they found themselves. Discussions covered the way ‘God shapes his servants through the difficulties of questioning their call’, noting lessons of contentment.
There are three issues of emotional self-care:
1 – Issues of identity:
- Personality – how am I wired?
- Family of origin – how did relatives shape me?
- Role/person distinctions (again!) – what’s left if I quite ministry?
- Comparisons – how do I measure up?
2 – Issues of emotional management:
- Feelings of frustration, dryness or depression;
- How do I gain healthy emotional space (issue of ‘differentiation’)?
3 – Issues of ministry idolatry – an underlying motive for the previously highlighted theme of workaholism.
Social self-care deals with the question of isolation, including a discussion of friendships and the vexed question of whether pastors can have significant friendships within their ministry. Part of the answer to that lies in understanding the difference between allies and confidants.
In terms of intellectual self-care, pastors need to deal with the challenge to keep on learning. There are also implications for the way pastors establish boundaries on their use of time.
Physical self-care means avoiding the extreme of ‘the cult of health, beauty and fitness’, while taking seriously the challenges of both exercise and healthy nutrition.
Self-care is not selfish. It is a necessary part of staying involved in fruitful ministry for a lifetime.
¹A famous 19th century Welsh preacher apparently claimed that he would rather burn out than rust out in the service of the Lord. One of his contemporaries responded by saying that he wanted to do neither: he wanted to finish out his race. As someone else has said more recently, whether you burn out or rust out, either way you are out!