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!


Reading List: Summer Before Seminary

Sometimes at work, when I’m puzzling and pondering and trying to flesh out a word or idea, I swivel my chair away from the computer and turn to face my bookshelves. The colorful book spines and carefully worded titles (along with the content they represent) function like a sieve through which I pour my questions and my musings to see what may emerge.

This week — with a new school year on the horizon and Dirty Sexy Ministry posting her wisdom on “So You’re Going to Seminary” and @ABSWBerkeley asking what books I might recommend for a pre-seminary reading list — I’ve spun in my chair to contemplate my bookshelves again. Quite a few of these books were purchased during- and post-seminary, but which ones would be useful to read pre-seminary?

IMG_20140805_153421Part of me mourns the idea of posting a concise list, regretting the many brilliant books that will be excluded. (Seriously, I consider book-buying very much like ministerial formation: never ending.)

But those of you who are newly-enrolled in seminary have neither endless time nor endless funds, and many serious academic works will be assigned to you soon enough, so for the purposes of a “Summer Before Seminary” reading list, I offer five books that will likely not be required of you in seminary. These are not massive volumes or scholastic treatises. Most are short. Several are fiction. But all of them will knead your spirit and your mind in important ways as you prepare for seminary.

UnknownBiblical studies: The Manga Bible: From Genesis to Revelation by comic creator Siku. Before you tackle ancient languages, historical criticism, non-canonical texts, and Bible commentaries, remember that the Bible is a story with a plot line, overarching themes, and dramatic structures. To help you experience the Bible as story (and to refresh your memory of its particular stories), The Manga Bible is a quick and visually engaging read.

Extra credit: The Testament of Mary, a novel by Colm Toibin. Begin to understand — by way of a powerful narrative — that stories about God and stories about Jesus were told, written, and shared for very particular purposes. (Also, you need a good cry before seminary.)

For your bookshelf: Global Bible Commentary by Daniel Patte. Scripture is read differently in different social & geographic locations; singular and literal biblical truth is a myth — know this, learn why this is, and look to this book to remind you of it.

Unknown-1Systematic theology: God Went to Beauty School by Cynthia Rylant. How we organize our beliefs has everything to do with how we perceive the order of the world — and how we see ourselves within that order. You’ll learn this in seminary by reading a whole lot of dead white guys, by reading a whole lot of living white guys, and (I hope) by reading many theologians of color who give voice to liberation theologies and First People theologies and non-Western theologies. But first, Cynthia Rylant will begin to tease out the layers of your own theological assumptions with her deceptively simple poems in God Went to Beauty School.

Extra credit: How to Think Theologically by Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke. At the recommendation of a colleague, this slim book is a helpful primer of the fields and purposes of theological study.

For your bookshelf: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Not necessarily before you enter seminary but absolutely before you graduate, it’s essential to grapple with the problem of theodicy, and no author puts the problem more exquisitely and painfully on paper than Toni Morrison.

time-to-lovePractical theology: A Time To Love: Stories from the Old Testament by Walter Dean Myers. In beautiful short stories, A Time To Love retells familiar OT dramas with a tender twist that reveals love in places and moments where we have not been taught to see it. While its topic is scriptural, ultimately I place A Time To Love in the category of practical theology because it demonstrates the use of two critical ministry skills: listening for the untold story and welcoming complexity in scripture as in life.

Extra credit: Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little by Christopher Johnson. A non-religious but invaluable book. Johnson’s introduction alone should convince you that it matters enormously how you use words — whether in a seminary paper, in a church newsletter article, at a hospital bedside, or in a sermon.

For your bookshelf: Learning While Leading: Increasing Your Effectiveness in Ministry, by Anita Farber-Robertson. Plan to reread Learning While Leading every time you want to smack your head against a wall because you’re certain that people would be better off if they just listened to you and let you tell them the right way to do church.

passion-for-lifeChurch history: A Passion for Life: Fragments of the Face of God, by Joan Chittister. Church history is not my forte; truth be told, I studied what history was required of me and not much more. But church history — denominational polity, too — examines people and movements that have responded intentionally (if not exactly perfectly and sometimes outright mistakenly) to the questions, “Why God?” and “Why Church?” Alongside exquisite icons, Chittister shares the stores of 20+ historical figures who have reflected God-in-action to the world.

Extra credit: Your denomination’s constitution and bylaws. Seriously. If you’re affiliated with a denomination, read its constitution and bylaws for its answer to the why of church and of ministry. Then while you’re online, browse the blogs of ministers to hear the first-person stories of why church and why ministry. (RevGalBlogPals can point you toward 300+ blogging clergywomen, for starters.)

For your bookshelf: The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge to the Churches, edited by Gregory Baum and Harold Wells. A survey (albeit a dated survey) of contentious and conflicted regions of the world, and the rubber-meets-the-road faith work of reconciliation and justice in those places.

Writing to GodSpiritual formation: Writing to God, Praying in Color, Praying with the Body, labyrinth walking, fasting, singing, deep breathing — adopt a spiritual practice that engages your physical body and commit to it while you await the first day of classes. Likely you’ll test a variety of spiritual disciplines and prayer styles throughout your time in seminary, but your continuing spiritual formation is intrinsic to your professional and educational formation. Start now. (And yes, I know that it’s flagrantly biased of me to suggest my own book and others from my publisher.)

Extra credit: For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics, edited by Roger Housden. For Lovers of God Everywhere is a gem of a book to stir your faith, comfort your spirit, and challenge your theology with poetry from mystics across the generations.

For your bookshelf: Tucked into your favorite Bible on the shelf or bedside table, maintain a list on which you keep track of the last time you visited the doctor, the last time you had a session with a therapist, the last time you spent at least 24 consecutive hours at a continuing education event, the last time you had coffee with a friend, and the last time you got out of Dodge for a week. These activities are fundamental to your spiritual health and growth.

Blessings, prayers and happy reading to those who are entering seminary! For those who have attended seminary already, what books do you recommend as “must reads” for those who are just beginning their studies?

Summer Reading: Streams Run Uphill

We need each other’s voices. We do not need numbers. We do not need quotas. We do not even need goals or standards. We need each other. We need each other’s experiences. We need each other’s dreams. We need each other’s stories. (64-65)

51c+Dw5+FeL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Church would do well to listen to the stories of Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Young Clergywomen of Color (Judson Press 2014), edited by Mihee Kim-Kort. In these pages there is camaraderie for women of color striving to answer God’s call into ministry. In these pages there is truth-telling about the Church’s conflicted intentions toward diversity. In these pages there is affirmation of God’s gifts of and through the particularities of our flesh — age, gender, culture, language. In these pages there is dedication to the struggle, to the uphill swim, of living into the Kingdom of God.

Sometimes I wish I could just hang out with people like me. But ministry was never meant to be that way. Ministry is not a social club. Most of us are not called to minister to sameness. … Ministry is often a constant cross-cultural exercise, with each ministry setting having a unique culture shaped by its history and identity. (53-54)

My copy of Streams Run Uphill is heavily dog-eared and underlined — places where I paused to listen more closely, moments when I resonated with the joys & struggles of ministry, words that lingered to challenge me. I feel simultaneously encouraged and disheartened by the stories shared by clergywomen whose divine call and ministerial leadership were/are received by the Church through the harsh filters of racism, sexism, ageism, and general xenophobia. Through their stories and their ministries, these clergywomen are leading the way toward a vision of wholeness as one diverse Body of Christ. In order to follow their lead, Streams Run Uphill is a must-read.

Where streams run uphill, there a woman rules.
(Ethiopian proverb)

Red Heels and Purple Boots

I miss the congregation I pastored.

I miss the space and the voices, the community as a whole and the congregants individually. Sometimes I wonder how the church is doing. Sometimes my throat tightens with loss and I have to distract myself before crying.

The loss hits home for me in predictable moments (receiving communion in an unfamiliar church gets me every time) and in some very surprising moments … like shoe shopping. I bought purple boots recently, my concession to the severity of Cleveland winters. They’re warm and practical, but most of all they’re purple, which makes them fabulous!

You know who would crack up over the fact that I bought purple boots instead of settling for regular old boots? My former congregants. Across every generation in that church, there are some folks who would both tease and admire these fabulous purple boots of mine, just as they teased and admired and shared my delight over a pair of ridiculously fabulous red heels that I wore occasionally while leading worship.IMG_4126

And now I can’t figure out what to do with this keen awareness that I used to be in a relationship with a 150-odd people, in which we noticed everyday things together like shoes and coffee and births and deaths and even budgets … except to be aware of it, and to hold up the church to God’s light, and to keep tissues close at hand.

I read with interest and resonance Trudy Cusella’s recent column lamenting the departure of her pastor. She writes about sitting in the pew and waiting — just waiting — for her grief to run its course. Yup. I’m doing that too.

It seems important to note that I kept very appropriate boundaries with the congregation I was serving. And I don’t second-guess or regret the call that led me to resign my pastorate. At the same time, I miss the habits of worship we shared, the life stories continuing from one conversation to the next, the children hiding under the pews and growing too quickly, the hard work together over how to live as a church. Even with professionalism and boundaries, the very nature of the pastor-parish relationship is intimate — she is called to love her congregants and to witness to the heights & depths of their lives; when she leaves, the routine of those relationships is interrupted … not only for the church, but for the pastor too.

When we talk about it, my kids acknowledge that they miss the church as well. Despite the dubious distinction of church = mommy’s work, this community was their church home. In the congregation’s support of their pastor, people connected with and invested love in my children. There’s the couple who took my son to a soccer tournament that conflicted with Sunday worship, the woman who taught my kids a trick for cracking eggs, the friends they would sit with in a pew, the homebound member who would make sure that I took cookies home to my kids.

Of course, the pastor-parish dynamic is different for every minister and congregation (in the long-run, perhaps I’ll be surprised to discover that the dynamic is quite similar from one church to the next); in any case, the grief at the end of a pastor-parish tenure varies according to the relationship. I don’t mind knowing that some parishioners may be relieved that I’m gone. 🙂 Certainly I’m aware that, in my remembrance and grief, I gloss over the difficult days and the long hours of that work.

What stands out for me at this moment, half a year later, is that I lost my church home.

Two weeks after announcing my resignation as their pastor, I preached a sermon on how we can’t go back — not to who we used to be, not to how life once was. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples tried to go back to fishing; without Jesus around to fill their days, what else were they supposed to do? On that Sunday, I encouraged: “But there is a voice calling across the water, calling us not to be afraid in meeting the changes of life, pointing us toward an unimagined abundance that will take us beyond our boats.”

I’ve been rereading that sermon lately, trying to pay attention to the ever-calling voice and remembering that we are continually called to love anew. Although it’s still hard for me to imagine, for me this call means learning to love a new congregation (and from the pew rather than the pulpit). For the church that I pastored, this call means learning to love a new pastor. Welcoming someone new into our faith journeys does not dishonor those who have already shaped those journeys; rather, it trusts God’s abundant ability to multiply our love and faith.

It may take me awhile to love a new church and call it “home”; between you and me and God, I’ll just admit that. I may cry through a few more Communions. But love will come, and I will trust in that hope while I grieve.

And I will continue to wear fabulous shoes.