Renewing Psalms: a writing retreat for clergy

With my colleague Martha Spong, I’m delighted to announce the opening of registration for “Renewing Psalms: a writing retreat for clergy” — a wonderful opportunity to refresh your spirit for ministry and reconnect with the compelling emotion of the psalms! Scheduled for October 21-22 this fall in Marblehead, MA and open to clergy of all denominational stripes, the retreat will provide a small group experience for writing, reflecting, storytelling, and praying. The schedule and registration details are posted here; join us in October!

Marblehead, MA

Marblehead, MA

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.


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.

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.


Upcoming Events

In the coming weeks and months, catch up with me at the following events:

As part of the Center for Progressive Renewal’s weeklong webinar series for church leaders, I’ll be hosting an hour-long webinar on Tuesday, June 16, entitled “Free to Believe, You and Me: Out-of-the-box children’s faith formation.” Join me for ideas to empower and enliven children’s spirituality in your congregation — and maybe teach a thing or two to grown-ups, too.

Attendees of the UCC’s General Synod in Cleveland at the end of June can find me and six other fabulous RevGals on Sunday morning in the convention center exhibit hall signing copies of the RevGalBlogPals’ newest book, There’s A Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor.

REVive 2015 – FINDING FAITH WHERE YOU LIVE: October 11-14
Where you are impacts how you are, according to a multitude of surveys on the best places to live, the healthiest states, the happiest small cities, the best companies to work for, and more. Where you are correlates to how you are. So friends, where are you? And how is your faith doing where you are? Develop practices for finding faith where you live at REVive 2015, a continuing education event of RevGalBlogPals. (20 Contact Hours – 2 CEUs)

Rachael HeckenbergInterested in having me speak at an event or facilitate a retreat? Drop me an email to brainstorm a speaking engagement — and in the meantime, I hope to see you online or in person at these events!