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February 12, 2009

Lillian Daniel: What clergy do not need

I do not think clergy need more lectures about self-care.

It seems that at every ordination or installation service I attend there is a charge given about clergy self care. One minister stands up and tells another minister that they know they are about to work themselves to death, so resist the temptation. “Take your day off…set boundaries…don’t try to be all things to all people.” All this is done in front of an audience of lay people who are supposed to be impressed that we clergy would need such a lecture. It has become a cliché, and seems to have trumped prophecy, theology and the love of Jesus.

To lay people it seems strange, since they work hard themselves. Should they raise this, they will be treated to a lecture from these same overworked clergy about how they, in bravely trying to take better care of themselves, are “modeling” appropriate self-care for the laity. Such talk is condescending to the laity, tedious to listen to at ordinations and most of all, unsuccessful in changing clergy behavior.

I would personally like to declare a moratorium on all clergy self-care conversations, in the interests of clergy self-care.

I have a theory about why main line clergy talk about self-care so much, and it has to do with a real need. I suspect that we preach to one another about self-care because we see a lot of sad and unhealthy pastors out there, or we have been there ourselves at one time or another. There is a need for care.

But ultimately, the notion of self-care does not work because we don’t have in us what is required. Self-care is the Band-Aid we put on spiritual exhaustion, dark nights of the soul, and the disappointment of consecutive losing seasons in a long ministry. It seems odd that as Christians, we would tell one another that the answer to such woes lies in ourselves, and in our own will power and our own resolutions to do better. We take a spiritual problem that affects a community and give it an individualistic and therapeutic answer.

My hunch, based upon my own experience in times when I have not taken care of myself, is that what I was missing was not within me already. I was lacking something, but it was not something that a lecture in self-care would fix.

We desperately need community as pastors. We need deep friendships with others who understand this odd and wondrous calling, and where we can tell one another the truth. We need to remind one another of the God who cares for us all, whether we overeat, make too many appointments or plow through our day off. We need one another’s care, in the company of friends, and over time. Most of all we need Jesus. And none of that can happen in a lecture.

Lillian Daniel is senior pastor of Glen Ellyn First Congregational Church (UCC) in Glen Ellyn, IL, co-host of the television program "30 Good Minutes," and author of "Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony" (Alban).


Self Care

Touché, Lillian. Too much talk of the self only compounds the patterns of conduct and habits of heart and mind that get pastors into lives of carelessness. And yet, as you say, there are real issues of concern that give rise to all this talk about "self care." I have begun to think that there is a conversation about boredom to be had among pastors. There is a reason pastors get hooked on hyperactivity and busyness and I think it is often the attempt to cope with (to borrow a phrase from Milan Kundera) an unbearable lightness of one's being. Pastors are especially vulnerable to the deep and deepening unresolved question of whether what we do as pastors really counts for anything. This loss of confidence, this self doubt, makes so much of the counsel offered in the "self care" literature your post has in view not only inadequate but deadly to the spirit. Namely, to spend more time alone, quiet, in prayerful solitude in order to somehow magically recover one's bearings. Such advice fails to address the profound need we have as human/spiritual beings to know and be known by others. Others who have the capacity to help us see what we have lost sight of, to pray, to listen, and to remember. Which places, as your post suggests, the practice of friendship--that deepest form of Christian love--at the center of our capacity to live careful lives.


Lillian, I wonder if your issue isn't so much with what clergy do in the name of "self-care" but the name "self-care" itself. I have wrestled a bit with this myself as I go into my first parish. As I think about what I want to do and/or be from the get-go, I've come up with some points of transition. First, become a student of the context. Second, dynamic and creative preaching and worship. And third is where "self-care" comes in. Third, shaping a faithful corporate and personal life together. I began calling this "personal wellbeing" but decided that didn't quite get at it or wasn't theologically up to par. But the actions under this emphasis are similar to what one might call "self-care." This isn't to suggest that language isn't important. I think it is. What we call something subtly shapes how we live into it.

Anti-virus or Language

Who spells semantics as "symantics"? Oh, me. :)

I guess Anti-virus software has so infiltrated my mind that I've lost the use of language. What irony!

Behavior change

Thanks for this, Lillian. I'm now working on a grant aimed at promoting clergy health, and your post might remind me to avoid saying something pat and perfunctory about self-care. Gestures that are well-intentioned but tone-deaf or insensitive, are sometimes worse than no gesture at all, aren't they.

There's a growing literature about how people manage to change health-related behaviors, and how health professionals can facilitate those changes. I have colleagues who are much more well-versed in this than I, but it's fair to say that nagging, lectures, even sermons are insufficient. Readiness for change takes time, and the means and ends of change need to be relevant for each individual, to fit into her narratives about herself and the world.

("symantics" -- ha! If only there were software to make sure our semantics were mutually compatible.)

Self Care

Lillian, Your weariness at self care language is understandable. Like much else in the tribalspeak that clergy fall into, the phrase can become hackneyed and trivialized. I'm troubled, though, by your assumption that to speak of self care is to assert that we possess within ourselves the capacity for renewal; that's not my understanding. Self care includes a deeply spiritual component: it can never be merely the latest low-fat diet/exercise regimen, coupled with allowing proper time for silence and reflection. Your assumption does, though, illuminate an irony: perhaps clergy have so bought into the self-help mythology of the secular culture in which they minister that they have lost the sacred dimension of self stewardship.

Self care

Call it what you will, but each year we read the list who have fallen in the warfare that is church ministry, either by sickness, by death, or by indiscretion. Most laity would prefer a pastor with good boundaries than a pastor who has no boundaries and nothing left to give. Self-care is simply a call to look clearly at ourselves, and see how our life patterns such as overeating, lack of exercise, and no sabbath rest, are self-destructive and lead to burn out or worse. The best self care is allowing Christ to care for us, but it does require our willingness.

Clergy self care

Lillian, yes 'clergy self care' is over used. but I think it is mainly over spoken but over done. We realize that we all need to take care of ourselves. From physical to spiritual issues but how many of us do? I think we are clergy are not intentional enough when it comes to simply being a Christian rather than doing pastoral duties.
When I talk with pastors the admit that they don't take time being with friends in community. That they don't take vacations with their family. In fact one pastor recently said he had been at his church for 30 years. And that his wife would appreciate him coming home sometime. :) A little laughter, but not much.
Maybe we need to drop the term 'clergy self care' and come up with a different term that covers the concept.
Clergy need to have times of community, when they are not leading, so that they see God at work among them and their follow pilgrams. They also need times alone with God, Sabbath time, time on the mountain etc. They need to realize that the church and its ministry is dependent first on God and not on their own efforts no matter how effective that may be. I could go on and on but we get the picture.
Thanks for the reminder that there is a difference between 'preaching' and 'doing'.

Clergy self-care

Thanks for such a provocative posting, Lillian. I too have had enough of pious lectures about self-care without real attention to the assumptions of self-sufficiency that often go along with it -- and which I have participated in imposing on myself. What kind of a failure am I, that I can't even seem to take care of myself??? I also appreciate some of the push-back that you've received in other comments, which imply, perhaps, a less polemical approach to the problem (it's not an either-or). The problem of clergy burn-out is real, and begs a much deeper analysis of church than what clergy can do to get more sleep or days off. But polemics tend to get the mental juices going, and the point is not to stay there. What your reflection suggests to me is a much larger question, one that you imply in your concluding remarks about the deep hunger for friendship in the work, for those who understand what you're going through, and can help you put some of it into perspective, ideally by helping you to laugh a little bit at it all. I am sorry that I hear so much about Jesus' uniqueness and so little about his ability to surround himself with boon companions (okay, even boon companions fall asleep on you sometimes) who are not heroes, or perfect, but who are essential to his sustenance on the way, to his ministry, and to his sense of humor (which shines all over the walking on the water story). My point is, how do we also set ourselves up with the theology we use? --Laurel


Lillian, I think this is pretty well on target. I believe there are things we as clergy need to do to stay mentally, physically and spiritually healthy: 1) most of them are not qualitatively different than what any person (certainly any Christian, at least) should be doing); 2) most of us won't do most of them any better than anyone else without some sort of push or scare (diabetes for me); and 3) most of us need a support group to keep us going once we decide to make a change -- we're not that much better at self-motivation than we are with self-care.

Both the language and the engaging in self-care are tricky and require some sort of balance. Excessive focus on self is pretty much the definition of sin, as I understand it. "Love your neighbor as you love yourself," calls for some sort of balance that most of us spend a life-time trying to find.

I am in a group that is to spend the next year studying clergy self-care. For lots of reasons I was reluctant to join this group because of this focus. I've been there and done that subject to death, or so it feels. The group is to read a book a month on the topic of self-care. My guess is that after the third or fourth book, there will be little new worth reading, certainly not a whole book's worth. The value will lie in the friendships developing among us in the group, not in the redundant books that we will read. I finally agreed to join, not for the information we will read about self-care, but the for the growing relationships that have great potential to be caring.

self care

I am most grateful to read the thoughts about self care. They give me hope for our clergy, although my prayers will definitely be with the guy who has to read a book a month on self care.

self care

I found this article quite refreshing. As a too-busy ordained elder, director of music, Presbytery Vice Moderator and Temp. Church Administrator until we get a new clergy person- I am quite guilty of over commitment. (Did I mention that I also run my own business?) I know that I need help here. But, I don't respond well to "self care" talk myself. And, what I witnessed with one clergy colleague was that they started operating in a "time clock" mentality, either in response to "self care" admonitions or as a stress response to discovering that they needed good collegial mentorship and coaching that wasn't available. As a result, real and perceived accessibility to pastoral care was damaged and curtailed. Trust was broken on both clergy and congregational sides because of artificial time limits. Pastoral care, as many caring ministries, doesn't run on a time clock. This minister left their congregation suddenly only 1 1/2 years into their ministry- not enough time to even get off the ground. I'd like us all to hear more about discerning better what, and how much of what, God is calling each one of us to do. How do we find our ministry and healing while serving as disciples. The "self care" talks sometimes result in an "us" and "them" setup. Yet, we're all in God's family together and called to serve together.

Honest insight

As a regular reader of your work, I'm always refreshed by your willingness to share your insights from a very practical and real place. Our current social and economic conditions remind many of us that we must find ways to help each other and adapt a more outward view. While self care is important, perhaps our ability to focus more on the needs of others also nourishes us in the process. Thank you for contnuing to share your views as a pastor struggling to ask the right questions.

Stressing over self-care

Well-said, Lillian! I'm in a pilot program for "first call" pastors in the PC(USA) that is supposed to be all about self-care- monthly clergy support groups, bi-monthly retreats with guest speakers, etc...The funny irony is that this obligatory, self-care program has almost become more stress-inducing for a pastor in her first call and mother of young children. Could it be that, at least in the mainline church, we've become "stressed" out about "self-care"?


I am remembering an association clergy workshop on the subject, where the presenter made the naive misstep of asking our thoughts on the subject before she began to tell us hers. One colleague piped up, "Yup. Self-care. Just one more d--- thing I have to be good at."


That is hilarious. Self care is now something we need renewal from. A Self-care Sabbath will be coming next, complete with an accompanying book one must read in order to give up self-care appropriately.


Self Care is not just about taking a day off or relaxing in the evening or even about going to all the durn seminars concerning boundaries and "self-care". Taking care of oneself is just that. Listening to our inner clock, paying attention to our children who need us just as much, if not more, than our parish children. It is also about taking care of ourselves physically. Watching what we eat, making sure we have those yearly medical checkups (even if we don't like them), exercising, etc. As Scripture says, we are God's temple, and if we don't take care of ourselves, who's going to??

self care

LD: "My hunch, based upon my own experience in times when I have not taken care of myself, is that what I was missing was not within me already. I was lacking something, but it was not something that a lecture in self-care would fix."
Is it possible that what you were missing might have more appropriately been offered to you by the community of faith than by you yourself? If laity are taught that clergy are responsible for their own care, it only reinforces the idea that we as clergy must then be apart from and not a part of our churches.

pastoral self-care

Lillian is right on target about the need for pastors to help each other care for themselves. I joined an accountability group several years ago that is still viable and it has made all the difference in the world in the way I care for myself physically, spiritually and emotionally. Without it, I shudder to think where I would be now.

pastoral self-care

Lillian is right on target about the need for pastors to help each other care for themselves. I joined an accountability group several years ago that is still viable and it has made all the difference in the world in the way I care for myself physically, spiritually and emotionally. Without it, I shudder to think where I would be now.

Rather than self-care we

Rather than self-care we should be emphasizing balance. Christ had it. Why not me. Take a moment to get away, but use it to focus. Prayer and rest go together. Believe in waht you are doing. Too many are thinking what am I going to do next rather tahn what do I need to do now. Ask God, "what are you doing now that I can help you with?"

clergy self-care

I think this is a tricky subject. I do agree that we need to get spiritual care into the mix - I also know that there are pastors out there that don't get it. That taking days off for themselves or to be with their families can make a big difference. How often is to often to tell each other stop being stupid and do the right thing. 7 times or 7 times 70.

Beyond self-care

While I understand the point that Lillian is making, what bothers me is that we seem to be ignoring a way to deal with a very real issue/problem. In the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, we have a Conference Counselor/Psychologist to whom clergy can turn for help when the self-care idea doesn't cut it. Granted, self-care speeches may not be the panacea -- but there is a real need here that we should not ignore. Clergy need help and we are not always providing the help that is needed in a private and appropriate manner.

All people, clergy and laity

All people, clergy and laity alike, need self-care. We need to hold each OTHER accountable to this. So many of our laity are working two-three jobs, or are laid off with NO work and are dealing with THAT stress-- and are also faithful church members/committee members. We need to faithfully look after them too, honoring their needs for self-care, as well as expecting them to honor ours, as clergy.


Everybody needs self-care, thats obvious.


Clergy Wellness

I agree that simply telling another minister “Take your day off…set boundaries…don’t try to be all things to all people” can sometimes do more harm than good, depending on the setting and the way in which it is done. I think Lillian hit the nail on the head when she wrote, "We desperately need community as pastors. We need deep friendships with others who understand this odd and wondrous calling, and where we can tell one another the truth..."

For a variety of reasons, all too often those needs go unmet. I don't think anyone who has not been a pastor can ever fully understand the unique challenges of this vocation, and when we gather with other pastors there is often an undercurrent of competitiveness or at least an unwillingness to be truly vulnerable and openly share our personal struggles.

Because of that, I have chosen to leave parish ministry and focus on ministering to other pastors instead. I now provide individual life coaching for clergy via phone and email, and lead workshops on clergy wellness. If you would like to learn more, get my free newsletter, or join the conversation on my blog, please visit http://www.betruetoyourself.com.


Thank you for this. And, yes, I agree. I appreciate all the comment that express the ongoing struggles of clergy, but I still think you hit the nail on the head.

Self-care and identity

I read this article some eight months after publication, so this comment comes belated. Corporate America has been the role model for the late 20th century. You know - the CEO who works late, brings work home, and often misses family events in order to get the job done. Having been taught this is the way to "success," and witnessing what appears to be "success," we as clergy diligently follow. Now the business world has in certain respects embraced the self-care model, and we follow. Has it occurred to anyone that sometimes we work so much, because we feel that is what we are supposed to be doing. We can't attend an event without reading a book or attending to business, because we must work constantly at something. Read John Wesley's description of what pastors do, and even the busiest of us feel guilty we are not doing enough. And, in an age where mainline churches are declining, we must be guilty of not doing enough or our congregations would not be declining. And so we believe. Maybe it is time for a better job description for 21st century clergy, one that takes into account our need for friendship, family time, and spiritual growth.
There is a commercial for a brewery that goes something like this: the owner/worker (I"m not sure which) says that his father told him that if you enjoy what you are doing it really isn't work. Then he proudly proclaims, as having been at this for something like 20 years, he hasn't worked a day. Maybe, just maybe, if we can recover such hope, joy, and peace in our ministry, then we might not need all those self-care books.

Self care?

After spending 32 years as a full time pastor I agree with Lillian. We need the fellowship and support of our fellow pastors. The healthiest time for me was the years spent in a pastorate where there was a good fellowship with other pastors. In today's climate of competition among churches and ministers it is rare to find this kind of healthy support.

Preaching With Power

Family & Self Care

My uncle was a minister for over 2 decades and I saw this need in him strongly. He found his connection to Jesus his main source of inner peace in an extremely challenging path. I am sure that a community of close friends and like minded ones would be a strong solution.

We all need a good social circle

We all need a good group of friends and family to support us and to be around. I think ministers are no different. They are people who also need support. Unfortunately we too often depend on them for guidance and support but don't consider their feelings and needs.


Life Coaching Los Angeles

I agree with Lillian, Jesus is the best life coaching mentor that the clergy has available to us, either in the clergy, or laity.

For a variety of reasons....

I don't think anyone who has not been a pastor can ever fully understand the unique challenges of this vocation...

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Bottom Line...

Let's stop talking about it and start supporting one another, lifting up each other, praying for each other and holding one another accountable.

Jesus set the disciples out two by two, but often as pastors we are sent out solo. Jesus knows us best and must have a reason to send out his disciples by twos.

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