The Idol Of Clergy Self-Care

February 15, 2017 5

This post is not likely to make me many friends in United Methodism.

But here goes:  the current mantra in UMC circles of “clergy self-care” has moved from concern to caricature to idol.

Over the last couple of years in my Annual Conference, we have heard lectures, been given books, received mailings, and taken part in surveys all on the same theme:  we clergy need to take better care of ourselves.  In fact, we’re often told  that if self-care isn’t near the top of our personal priority list, then any effort we make to care for the congregations we serve will be both futile and fruitless.

Even in ordination interviews, we preachers are often so uncomfortable vetting candidates that we quickly turn to coddle them:  “tell us . . . what are you doing to take care of yourself?”

My objection to the drumbeat of self-care is three-fold:

  1. What makes our profession / calling unique that we need self-care more than others?  I can’t help but wonder: who instructs coal miners about self-care?  What about construction workers?  Migrant farmers?  I suspect all those physically demanding jobs are more in need of self-care training than we who get paid for studying, planning, teaching, and visiting.
  2. It easily leads to a victim mentality. We clergy whine easily enough anyway.  I suspect all the self-care talk only accelerates said whining, which in turn fuels our propensity to see ourselves as victims — victims of our congregations, victims of our bureaucracy, victims of life.  Years ago I resolved to focus on the incredible privilege that is ministry . . . as in “you mean I can get paid to excavate the truths of Scripture and then communicate them to a collection of pilgrims?  Sign me up!”  I haven’t always lived up to that resolution but when I hear my whining start, the reminders bring quick correction.
  3. Ultimately, scripture is more interested in self-emptying than it is in self-caring.  What does Paul say in Philippians 2, a passage New Testament scholars refer to as the Kenotic Gospel — the gospel of Jesus’ self-emptying?  Here it is:

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Paul’s command could not be clearer:  “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” 

And that mindset was light on self-care and heavy on self-emptying.

Because I have to believe that if we’d lean into Philippians 2 style living, then self-care would take care of itself.

There are 5 comments

  • Dear Talbot,
    What life-giving and energizing words of life you have written. Bless each one of us today who read these words to grow and walk in this truth. Eleanor Barley

  • Robert McCullough says:

    One must first have a healthy self in which/from which to empty and after such emptying, then renewing oneself to begin again. This is a cycle Jesus himself engaed in it seems to me.

  • Wes Smith says:

    Ok…I’ll bite (for kicks and giggles):

    1) What makes our profession / calling unique that we need self-care more than others?

    First of all, I would encourage anyone in any profession/job to take Sabbath-keeping seriously. Making time/room for rest and recovery is also Biblical (cf. Luke 4:42, 5:16). Clergy are not somehow specially entitled to time away for ‘self-care’, but Jesus does model for us the practice of retreating from the “crowds”. Again, this is not an example for us clergy, but we should not follow the example of other professions before we follow the example of Jesus.

    2) It easily leads to a victim mentality.

    Just as overwork leads to burnout and physical/emotional/spiritual/mental dis-ease. I remember hearing a famous, ultra-successful, and respected pastor talk about the sacrifices that he made to achieve success. He said that in order to grow the church, pastors must be willing to sacrifice their evenings with their families. He also mentioned that he was (at the time) estranged from one of his adult children. As a father of two elementary-aged children, a huge part of my “self-care” time is spent with my family. I choose to not sacrifice them on the altar of “church success”.

    3)Ultimately, scripture is more interested in self-emptying than it is in self-caring.

    On this, we agree. But Jesus also says that we are to “love our neighbor as ourselves”, indicating the existence of love (and, presumably, care) for self. Denial of self (Mark 8:34) and the Philippians passage that you quote do not preclude or forbid practices of self-care, but (in my understanding) are addressing ego-centrism and self-absorption. The issue in these passages is not that self-care is the idol, but Self is the idol. The idea that Jesus and Paul are arguing against Ego-idolatry (as opposed to “self-care idolatry”) fits the historical context more closely, with the early Christian movement contending with philosophical movements that offered no caution against self-indulgence (Epicureanism, certain interpretations of Stoicism, etc.) and nascent movements within Christianity itself that seemingly allowed for egregiously sinful practices of self-absorption/self-indulgence (certain varieties of Gnosticism that argued that the physical world was illusory, therefore physical acts were not important either way – this kind of thinking was pretty popular in Corinth).

    I, for one, think that there are a number of pastors who need to be encouraged to spend more time with their families, more time taking care of their souls and bodies, and more time away from the “crowds” in prayer. I once heard Lee Dukes say, in regards to his long career as a counselor, “I’ve never spoken with a retired clergy person who wishes that they had spent more time in the office. Nearly all of them wish they had spent more time with their families.”

    Just my two pennies…

  • Russell Brownworth says:

    Well, Talbot, I will not be found among the many you anticipate won’t like you after reading this. You’ve just articulated what many have thought for years. Strange brood we preachers who call for self-sacrifice from the pulpit and then find dozens of excuses for everything that involves a little effort on our part.

  • David DiYanni says:

    I think with this we need balance and I feel this “self care” movement has become unbalanced. Just came back from a pastors’conference and it was ALL about ‘soul care’ I see the need, it just should not be the entire emphasis!. Just like in any professions, there are going to be people who are unhealthy but I think the majority of pastors get it. (I have been a pstor at the same church for 40 years. It is been great)

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