The Confession of Self-Care

As Carol Howard Merritt and I have been examining clergy self-care in a series of blogs (Carol’s latest post considers clergy vulnerability), I find myself digging into the life stories that have shaped my outlook on self-care. Here’s praying that this story contributes to the conversation in a useful way…

If there’s an aspect of “clergy vulnerability” that makes sense to me within the context of self-care (beyond inappropriate revelations from the pulpit or the careless blurring of pastor-friend distinctions), it’s the spiritual need to reorient ourselves, our lives & our faith by practicing confession and surrender, that is, by practicing vulnerability not before our parishioners but before God.

For example.

Going to bed is the most difficult self-care choice for me to make every day.

Although sleep is inevitable, actually getting my body under the covers, head on the pillow,  back stretched for muscle relief, requires a deliberate act of spiritual surrender within me — a concession that the day has ended without every last task completed, a resigned recognition that I am limited in capacity and time, a confession that I am not God.


I would much rather be God, not out of hubris but out of fear.

I can identify precisely when sleep became difficult and when confession-as-self-care became important in my life. Twelve years ago my unhealthy marriage ended — poorly — and the pretense of sharing life & family responsibilities with a partner fell apart. I was alone with two young children, two car loans, a lease as well as a mortgage, and a part-time job. For good measure, the degrading spirit of my ex-husband’s voice remained after he left, taking up residence in my head. It found there a natural collaborator in my already-existing internal critic, and the two paired up nicely to make sure I believed that I wasn’t good enough and that no one cared.

Convinced that my own bootstraps would have to suffice because life hadn’t given me another pair, I demanded of myself, of my skills and of every hour, of every avenue within my control, absolute excellence and success. Anything less was unacceptable. Anything less risked the frailty of my family’s life circumstances. Anything less proved my ex-husband’s voice right. Anything less was unfaithful to my calling as a parent and as a minister.

There’s a problem with this perspective, of course: the fullness and fearfulness of “anything less” doesn’t allow much room for God’s sufficiency.

Ergo: the need for confession.

Ergo: the need to practice vulnerability before God.

Every once in a while, I recognize my expectations and demands of myself. Every once in a while, I still hear the doubt and cynicism that whisper within me, No one — not even God — will take care of you or attend to this life if you do not do it. Every once in a while, I confess that Billie’s lyrics ring too true to my worldview: “God bless the child that’s got his own.”

And I see the spiritual barricades that I build against God.

And I expose my fears to God yet again in search of forgiveness.

So this is the spiritual premise that orients my approach to self-care: not a claiming of time and space for self, as I often hear my clergy colleagues describe their reasons for & habits of self-care, but in fact a surrendering of time and space and self when I find that I can no longer play God, a laying bare before God all that cannot be risked otherwise.

In order to take care of my whole self, I find that I must first and routinely take care of my relationship with God through confession:

of ability and control and prowess —
all of my fondest idols

of marking my own iniquities
like a wrathful deity
(“Psalm 130:3”)

of the willful concealing of my self
before the very Being and Lover of all selves
(“The Cock Crows Twice”)

of setting my “to do” list above the One
who is my Work and my Rest
(“That Bothersome ‘To Do’ List”).

Self-care, to return to a point in my first blogpost in this series, too easily runs the risk of centering our selves without attending to the more appropriate & necessary centering of God, the latter being the true Fountain and Source of well-being for our lives and ministries. As much as self-care can rightly be an activity of joy and thanksgiving, it has been vital for me personally to approach self-care in a posture of confession.

For me, it’s as simple (and as difficult) as allowing myself a good night’s rest — giving in to God by getting into bed.

Readers and colleagues, what about you? Do your habits of self-care mirror certain liturgical practices (e.g. confession, thanksgiving), and/or does your self-care reorient your spirit toward God in a particular way? What stories shape your perspective and purpose in self-care?


One additional note (10/26): If you’ve been following this blog series on clergy self-care, especially and more recently on the question of clergy vulnerability, I commend to you Mihee Kim-Kort‘s necessary critique of vulnerability vs. fragility in her latest “This Everyday Holy” podcast. Start around 14:25.


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.