Self-Care 101 or Pre-Retirement Seminar?: Old First E-pistle 05.24.19

Self-Care 101 or Pre-Retirement Seminar?: Old First E-pistle 05.24.19

I was away last week at a retreat organized by the UCC Pension Boards. The good news is that I had a great time away, but was also happy to get back. It’s also good news that since I began ministry in the late 80’s, the church has recognized and put in place a lot more in-service support for ministers.

People who go into ministry, not surprisingly, are caretaker personality types. After all it is both a truism and an aspiration of our faith that it is more blessed to give than receive. Caretaker types tend to place the welfare of others before their own. The same type folks tend towards other helping professions as well — social work, teaching, nursing, etc.

Sometimes, I think, the specific dynamics of church exacerbate and reinforce the caretaker’s shadow side. Caretakers, though suited to taking care of others, are often lousy with self-care. So as soon as one commits to ministry, one starts hearing the chorus, “You can’t take care of others unless you also take care of yourself.” “But on your own air mask first, then you can help others.” “Breathe, it will never all get done, and it will still be there tomorrow.” You hear it, and you know it, but somehow, even when your career has proved it to you, you cannot always do what you hear and what you know… 

Added support for those serving in ministry is called for for other reasons too: some where along the line since I was ordained, I remember a statistic that as many as half of seminary graduates were leaving ministry within their first 5 years. Ministry — with all the personalities and differences and feelings, it can be sort of a cauldron ready to boil over! — is always complex and tricky; perhaps more so in changing, “church-adverse” times like ours. I will always advocate for support for ministers. That is why, in fact, I went into Conference Ministry: I wanted to support pastors in the hard work they do.

One of the funniest moments in my week away was when one of our faculty, the Rev. Da McAllister, told us she was going to sing us a song and wanted to see who could recognize it first. She began this slow, spiritual, almost bluesy song of lamentation, stretching out the first word, You-u-u-u-u-u-u and every word thereafter with modulations, vibrato and tremelo in the style of older church mothers in the Black Church tradition. It took her quite awhile to get a few words into the song, so we could recognize what she was singing. Were it not for the words, the melody and style she was using would have been unrecognizable, but she was singing us “You put your left hand in, you put your left hand out, and then you shake it all about…” the Hokey-Pokey! though disguised as some old-time spiritual from the down south back in the days of enslavement.

Da went out to explain, the song was a good illustration of what ministry can be like. You put your left hand in, and then your right, and then one leg and then another, and eventually, your whole self. And each time, if you are sensitive and aware, once you put something in, you want to pull yourself right back out again, because, well you know how church people can be. She suggested, and the minister crowd roared with recognition and laughter, “Church people can REALLY shake us pastors all about.”

You all don’t shake me around too much! Old First is a very healthy church. I appreciate that. But life and ministry, they can still shake a pastor around a bit, sort of like riding a roller coaster.

Yes, the added help is welcome, even if often decried as “more requirements” by pastors who began their careers when “lone-rangering” was often the dominant ministry  model.” It includes things like boundary, diversity training and continuing education that we are expected to keep up to date on. But our Pension Board has organized two, bigger programmatic aids:

The Next Generation Leadership Initiative (NGLI) for young pastors — a 6 year program of on-going training and support for ministers beginning their careers are organized into 14 person cohorts and meet together 2 times a year. A bunch of colleagues with me last week were graduates and say that it have given them a great start and some very close colleagues (even if they serve on opposite sides of the continent).

Credo is the program I attended. It takes 30 mid to ¾ career ministers away for a week of focused reflection on physical, emotional, spiritual, vocational and financial health. My cynical side says the Pension Boards just wants to ‘keep us going’ so they get our money — insurance premiums and annuity contributions (and even more cynically, they want us to die the day after we annuitize so they don’t have to pay out, but keep our principal!). 

Truthfully, it wasn’t much new information. More the things I have heard from the start: have a standard day off; make time for your family; ask for help and delegate… There were also the kinds of things we hear in the culture as a whole: you need enough sleep; drink water; excess weight is a bigger health problem than it’s an affront to your vanity. Little changes over time can add up to some significant differences. Same stuff we always hear. But there was something about the Credo context, how the program is designed because minister’s work is important and to help us feel appreciated, even pampered. It was convincing.  With ample time for reflection, rest and discernment, we were asked to create a covenant of self-care that, when we get back home, we’re supposed to try and live out. 

You all know me, so some of the items on my covenant won’t surprise you: 

I hope to find better ways to share that I have struggles too (but ones that don’t keep me from being a pastor to others); 

I hope to find ways to do a better job of limiting my work hours. 

I hope to eat with more planning, mindfulness and discipline. 

I already have an appointment to begin Physical Therapy seeking help with leg injuries that have plagued me for too long. 

I hope to ask people more directly and often to pray for me (please!. I also hope to increase a habit I have of taking a midday breaks from the office to sit quietly in the Sanctuary for awhile, centering, praying, reflecting, waiting. 

I even hope to tackle things in my financial life like a monthly spending plan and more deliberate savings!  

When we had composed our “Covenants of Self-Care,” we were asked to bring them for a blessing in the Sunday midday communion service. Each of us was asked to introduce them in a sentence or two. …What we learned or what we hoped for, for example.

I explained, “Years ago, a seminary student preparing for ordination told me her preaching professor had suggested each minister needs  a core value — in as few, straightforward words as possible — against which to measure every sermon… a standard actually everything done in ministry.  As the seminarian shared this, I figured out what mine would be. Since that day I have tried to hold my service up to the standard of ‘People Matter.’” As I placed my “Covenant of Care” on the makeshift altar for blessing, I went on to say, “My revelation at Credo this past week has been “I am a person too.”

Pray for my improving in my self-care. You can even ask me how I’m doing with my covenant!

And join me. Pastors aren’t the only ones who find it easier to take care of others than themselves. You might know what better self-care would look like. You might even be able to do some! It’s is not an unusual or unique struggle.

What could you do to better care for yourself? How could you improve your physical health? What would strengthen your psychological health? Are there things you could do for your spiritual health? Steps to take for your vocation health. And surely, there’s something you could do that would build up your financial health? You don’t need to take it all on at once. Or solve it all. But you could identify some stews…

Let’s make self-care a priority so that we can be all God wants us to be… won’t you?

See you in church,