Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” – Matthew 4:8-9
“You are the third United Methodist pastor to present with these symptoms since I began at this medical practice, eighteen months ago,” said my physician.
I didn’t know whether to feel better or worse. I thought “At least I know I am not alone.” Then I tried to figure out who the other two were.
I knew I had to see a doctor. I had not had a checkup in at least two years, I was tired all of the time, regardless of how much sleep I got, and my every day, medicated feelings of anxiety had devolved into full-blown panic attacks. At times, it was even difficult to breathe.
For almost all of my twenty years of ordained ministry, I have been blessed to be a part of one Conference-level initiative or another aimed at making life and ministry better for my clergy sisters and brothers. When I was in my late twenties, I was working for the Call Culture Committee (formally called the Ordained Ministry Recruitment Committee). If you came forward during one of the bishop’s altar calls at Annual Conference, I was the one who followed up with you.
Soon, I was leading workshops at Conference Residency events for Provisional clergy, as well as leading sessions at Ministers’ Convocation, mainly in the areas of time and information management as well as interpersonal relationships using the DISC inventory. This year will mark my seventh year as a member of the faculty of the Virginia Conference Licensing School. I served the Practice of Ministry Committee for ten years on the Board of Ordained Ministry, was a Calling 21 intern host pastor and then helped run this program for the Conference, including training other host pastors. A couple of years ago, I led the team that created the Virginia Clergy Leadership Program.
All of this work has provided me with some of the greatest and most lasting joys of my life. I simply love clergy and have a deep passion for blessing them, so that they can be a blessing to others. I would not give up one moment I have spent doing this sacred work, because I believe that none of it was wasted.
And then last week, I was sitting in a doctor’s office giving a blood sample, trying to figure out why I feel so terrible so often. I felt like I had what Garrison Keillor calls the “Swedish Flu,” which is “just like Asian flu, but you feel like it is your fault.”
The thing is, how I feel is largely my own fault, and now is the time for me to admit that fact, to be freed for joyful obedience, if you will. Now is the time for me, and I suspect many of you, to throw down the gauntlet and reclaim our lives.
In his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap..and Others Don’t Jim Collins describes what he calls the Stockdale Paradox, which has two essential components: you must face the brutal facts, but do so with absolute certainty that you will prevail. It is named after Admiral James Stockdale who lived this paradox in order to help him stay sane and hopeful when he was a prisoner of war.
So then, here are the brutal facts: our self-care is our own responsibility. No one is going to do it for us. Not the Conference, not our District, not our congregations, and not the Board of Ordained Ministry. You and I are the most important people in this process. The lifeboats are not coming. We have to learn to swim.
If Christians mean what we say when we proclaim that “Christ died for us…” then we have to understand that this means that us killing ourselves in order to meet the sometimes realistic, sometimes ambiguous, and sometimes impossible standards of those around (and above) us is not in any way going to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Something that has always stuck with me, and which is ever-present in my mind now is a question that lay people in my congregation had to answer when we were receiving Calling 21 interns was this: “Does your pastor demonstrate that ministry is a joy-filled and life-giving vocation?” There is an obvious, practical reason for asking this, but how would the congregation you serve answer this, based on how they see and experience you?
For years I have counseled overwhelmed parishioners who came to me to strive for what I call balancing covenants. What I mean by this is that the living out of my covenant of baptism or ordination should not force me to violate the covenant I made when I married Tracy, and neither of those covenants should force me to violate the covenant I made when our daughters were baptized.
Put simply, the work of ministry is no excuse for being a lousy spouse and parent. Furthermore, just because a person is single and/or childless does not mean that they are to be endless sources of productivity because they haven’t the “excuse” of a marriage or caring for children to uphold. This also includes those who are caring for extended family as well.
A Presbyterian colleague told me years ago as he prepared to cover my parish for me when my daughter Claire was born that it is not even a matter of bad self-care for us to feel indispensable to our congregations. It is worse than that: it is conceited. It is conceited because we act as if we somehow think that God only really works through us, and when we do, we elbow God out of the picture, and we succumb to those temptations that Henri Nouwen writes about in his book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership: the temptations Jesus resisted in the wilderness, to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful.
I am convinced that there is more stress, more pressure to perform, more things to distract clergy today than we ever had before us. There will always be the temptation to spread ourselves so thin, to be so tethered to email, so blithely willing to compare ourselves to others’ self-projections on social media.
Yet the challenge is before us: to pace ourselves, to care for ourselves so that, if nothing else, we can, at the right moments and in the right places, be fully present with those, whoever they are, who need us, fully present with open hearts and focused minds. Remember that Jesus only walked on the water after finding a little time to care for himself.
I write this, not as an expert, but as a fellow sojourner with my brothers and sisters in the clergy. It is my prayer for all of us this day that we, the clergy of the Virginia Conference can find ways to better support one another, care for one another, pray for one another, and hold one another accountable to the abundant life Christ gave his to bring to us and the people we are called to serve. Pick up the phone. Write a note. After all, we are all in this together.
People need us, but they need us at our best. Take care of yourself. Be good to yourself. Give yourself a little (or a lot) of grace today. Make for yourself the good life you wish for others. You too are created in God’s image, fearfully and wonderfully made.