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.


8 thoughts on “The Problem with Self-Care

  1. hello friends. For years in our diocese EVERY clergy gathering emphasized the necessity of “self-care” and “clergy wellness” and some gatherings were entirely devoted to those same topics. It became something of a joke. It was also noted that nobody in fact felt less stressed as a result of attending a compulsory presentation on self-care and wellness. And finally, confirming vague suspicions, a visiting bishop let the cat out of the bag: that the church’s long-term disability fund was seriously overdrawn, and THEREFORE we were OBLIGED to take care of ourselves and be well; or IOW, be sick if you must but please don’t fall down or otherwise let on, because that costs us money.
    All that (somewhat grumpily) said…there are elements in the life of parish clergy which are burdensome and tiring, and not all of them are addressed by the ambient cultural responses to stress. Now there is a book (all I ever do is recommend books) that all clergy should have, I think, that DOES address them — ‘Clergy Stress’ — Mary Anne Coates — 1988, SPCK. it was of great help to me.

    • Yes, talking about and releasing studies on clergy self-care don’t automatically create clergy wellness, do they? #snark Which begs the question: if decades of “clergy self-care” talk haven’t impacted change, what might we do differently?

      Thanks for the book recommendation!

  2. Is there training for being a healthy congregation that would allow those of us in the amen row to better serve the servant? Or a book recommendation? website? blog?

    • Let’s talk, Lois! There is a Healthy Congregation workshop that touches on the boundaries clergy set to help with self-care. Coming to Spokane Nov 15!

  3. Amen to Lois’ comment. I have learned what I know about good self-care from clergy friends, but I see how hard it is for them to practice it. As a clergy supporter, I’d very much like to encourage that.

  4. In my current reality of half-time parish job, 1/4 time job with RevGalBlogPals, whatever’s leftover for writing, plus family and being a clergy spouse (also demanding at times). The parish job I manage to keep to the covenanted hours, while the other is a struggle, and I knew that from the start. I get plenty of time off from both on paper, but it’s been very hard to wrap my own head around the scheduling that allows for a legitimate break from all the things at the same time. There is no workshop that will substitute for a really good calendar meeting and the will to live by the calendar established. For next year I’ve asked for Professional Release time from one job when I am doing the other. I knew that mattered when I started doing both jobs at the same time, but somehow I didn’t get it clear in my own head.

    • “Clarity in our own heads” — that resonates with me, Martha. Our worlds, our ministries, our twenty different hats, inevitably and often unavoidably overlap, and so we are responsible to have clarity within ourselves about what role(s) we are embodying and which task(s) must be prioritized at any given moment. I generally think that “balance” is a lie we tell ourselves, but “clarity” is something worth striving after. Thanks!

  5. Pingback: Taking Care | The Viau From Here

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