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.
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
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.