Sunday Prayer

Hear our prayer, O LORD our God.
You are perfect in your ways,
beautiful in your love,
desirable in your wisdom,
powerful in your vast mystery.
We are in awe and we are in fear.

Bless us
as we wrestle.
Bless us, we ask,
with the breaking of a new day.

So often we pray for our own relief:
from grief,
from strain,
from hardship,
from heartache.
Do not pass us by, O Savior, but please
go out of your way for the relief of others:
from threat of death,
from the rage of wars,
from unjust imprisonment,
from the destruction of home.

Bless us
as we wrestle.
Bless us, we ask,
with the breaking of a new day.

We reach out to you and to one another:
for peace,
for courage,
for forgiveness,
for compassion.
We seek your face in each face and
we look for your Spirit to multiply among us
for the sake of your name,
for the salt of the world,
for the healing
of all people.

Bless us
as we wrestle.
Bless us, we ask,
with the breaking of a new day.

a pastoral prayer based on today’s Narrative and Revised Lectionary readings, cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals


to sit still
to do one thing
and one thing only
to begin and to end a breath
without distraction

outside my window
a man stands on a ladder
to paint the ceiling of a parking garage
with a brush — a brush for
six levels of concrete

to do one thing
to begin and to end
with constant attention
to be present to what’s needed
to be present to what’s
good, what’s
what’s holy

too often this is
beyond me

it requires much more
diligence in rehearsal than
I would like to admit

so let me practice:

thankful for the manna
of leftovers; thankful for the
wilderness of work and of words;
thankful for the blessing of flesh and space

thankful for this what instead of
regretful for what is not; thankful for this
where rather than restless for where I am not;
thankful for being instead of critical
for not being otherwise

one full breath
and then one more
let this be the extent of my prayer
out of gratitude rather than
weary resignation

just one breath
enfleshed and holy

just one brush
for what is needed

on Numbers 11:4-6

The Context of Clergy Self-Care

I’ve been known to say to Members in Discernment (the United Church of Christ’s term for those considering and being considered for authorized ministry): “The identity of ‘minister’ belongs to the Church and to Christ, not to you.”

Authorized ministry (e.g. ordination) begins and ends with Christ and the Church — that is, it derives its authority from and gives itself back to the Body of Christ. The faith communities around us recognize, affirm, nurture, and bless God’s calling on our lives. Those communities then ordain, license, commission us (or whatever the varied terms may be in your tradition), and they hold us accountable for the ways that we embody & live out God’s calling.

While many ministers (myself included) hold an ontological understanding of their vocation — believing ministry to be an intrinsic part of and even provide definition for their being — an individual minister’s ontological identity is always set within the communal landscape and ecclesial purposes of the Church. We are ministers (ontological) … our ministries serve the Church (ecclesial) … the Church lives in response to the love of God (theological), the grace of Christ (Christological), and the whirlwind of the Spirit (pneumological) … which is clearly too many -ogicals for one sentence, but I love them.

To state it more succinctly: We are not ministers all by ourselves.

I love Carol Howard Merritt’s question in her recent post as part of our clergy self-care dialogue: “As we talk about self-care, can we keep it in context of how most people work now?”

Yes, that’s it! That’s what “self-care” is missing — context! It’s the isolation embedded within the phrase “self-care” that irritates me, as though “self” is both the impetus and the aim of “care,” without recognizing the context in which both the self and the care exist. The context of others around us and beside us. The context of the Church living & laboring through us and beyond us.

We are not ministers alone. We cannot be ministers alone. Our context is the Church — the global & ecumenical Body of Christ, as well as the individual faith communities we serve. If self-care is integral to our ministries, and if our ministries are located with and belong to the Church, and if the impetus and aim of the Church are grounded in Christ, then self-care should not begin and end with “self” but should include & consider our contexts within the community of Church and Christ.

What’s missing for me in the phrase “self-care” is a clarity that the purpose of self-care, for clergy at least, is not actually ourselves. The purpose of clergy self-care is actually the work of the Church and the expression of Christ. I’d frankly rather we just call it “care” so that there’s room to examine the whole context:

What are the ways that I’m caring for myself and being cared for by others? How does my family take care of itself and how is it supported by others? How is the faith community I serve doing the work of caring for itself, how does it need the care of the pastor, and how is it welcoming care from persons & systems besides the pastor (e.g. Does it only “count” when a pastor visits a parishioner in the hospital or is it valued when lay persons visit one another? Does the congregation welcome the care & involvement of the denomination or of other local churches?)? What are the needs for care in our community?

We all need care — clergy, clergy families, churches, communities. Again, Carol is exactly right: “We’re all anxious messes. So can we use our anxiety as a bridge to understand people in our communities, rather than separating ourselves out as special cases?” Can conversations about care be moments of connection rather than isolation, occasions for building collaborative imagination instead of defensive detachment, motivations for talking about the whole health of our joint clergy-congregation ministry? Can we clergy take care of ourselves without self-centering ourselves?

I hear the arguments, “How can I care for others if I’m not caring for myself? If I don’t prioritize myself once in a while, who will?”

And here’s the horrible thing I want to say: we’re not the priority. To be absolutely clear: clergy should not be trampled upon or denigrated by those we serve, clergy should strive after health & wholeness, and clergy are neither above nor more than nor prioritized over anyone we serve. The arguments for “self-care” that hinge on the self are problematic to me, because the central argument for care should be Christ by whom we live and the inescapable context of care is always the Church to whom we clergy are accountable.

There’s a fascinating twist in current conversations on clergy self-care, and it represents a fine line within my argument that care must always be in context: clergy vulnerability. I’m not one who has any natural inclination to vulnerability, but the suggestions I read that clergy vulnerability should be exercised in the pulpit of all places really make me cringe. I’ve asked Carol Howard Merritt for her thoughts on vulnerability as an element of clergy self-care. You can read Carol’s responding post on her blog, Tribal Church.

Talk of Poems and Prayers and Twitter

Brevity can foster creativity, or at least that’s my experience of Twitter’s 140 character limit. Add collaboration to the brevity, and creativity is multiplied! My friend & colleague the Rev. Eric Anderson and I inspired one another with a sequence of tweeted prayers earlier this week, and Eric has curated the prayers on his blog, ordainedgeek. Here is the first prayer:

If a star can shine
beyond its extinction,
surely I can manage
to rise and shine
through my weariness.

Help, God.

Read the rest of the prayers on Eric’s blog. As a bonus, check out a few additional tweets on our prayers for morning caffeine.

The Problem with Self-Care

Carol Howard Merritt and I have been talking about clergy self-care — shaking our heads over it, to be honest, as we try to unpack the nuances of self-care in our own lives and in this vocation called ministry. I recently wrote a chapter on the topic of sabbath (for a forthcoming book on creative clergy habits), aiming to disentangle “sabbath” from “self-care” … and I’ve written blogposts to question popular assumptions about clergy burnout … all of which is to say, I continue to wrestle with the idea of clergy self-care, and I’m glad for Carol’s suggestion that we converse via blog on the topic.

From Carol: There’s a lot of talk about “clergy self care.” Why do you think that is?

I like to believe that the conversation about clergy self-care comes from a place of genuine concern. Surveys examining the mind-body-spirit stresses of ministry have been circulating through the news for the past decade — in fact, for at least the past four decades. Literally for as long as I’ve been alive, people have been reporting that clergy (usually equating “clergy” with “parish pastors”) have poor health, poor boundaries, poor family time, etc.

In addition to surveys, most clergy know personal stories of weariness from our own lives and those of our colleagues. We know the effort that is needed to attend to our well-being within a vocational calling that uses (indeed requires) our whole selves — our knowledge and our creativity, our time and our patience, our willingness to shepherd & build collaborative communities, our ability to fly by the seat of our pants with grace & intentionality, our presence through pain & death and our faithful holding of hope.

I like to believe that we talk about and emphasize “clergy self-care” because we’re worried for ourselves and our colleagues.

I wonder, however, about the commonalities and concurrence between our conversations about “clergy self-care” and the booming self-care industry around us: the trending diets that assume privileged food availability & quality, the luxury of medical & retreat services, the inherent (if unconscious) idolization of the time & finances needed to participate in the industry of self-care, even the whole category of self-care vocabulary.

We are told that these products and more are necessary for self-care, and to the extent that we clergy strive after these services in the name of “self-care,” I wonder if we have done our spiritual and theological work to distinguish ministry from industry. I wonder if we realize the privileges and the ambitions that underlie too many conversations about clergy self-care: assumptions of full-time pastorates that discount part-time or shared-time ministers as well as ministers in specialized settings (military & hospital chaplains, for example); ambitions of financial stability that — while not inappropriate — are also not Gospel and are not the aim of ministry.

I don’t dispute the need for clergy to “do their own work” (that is, the ongoing work of caring for one’s mind, body and spirit) — and diligently so! — but I’m unsettled by our longtime habit of calling that self-work “self-care” in such a way that centers the self and adopts the goals of an industry.

There is more to say!

Carol, from your perspective what’s useful about the phrase “clergy self-care” and what’s not? You can read Carol’s response on her blog, Tribal Church, at The Christian Century.