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.

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