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.


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