Self-care is not self-ish
Caught up in the day-to-day demands of ministry, clergy often find it difficult to take time to attend to their health. But in North Carolina, UMC clergy are learning that it’s more than OK to care for themselves.
August 14, 2012 | When the Rev. Jeanette Hicks graduated from seminary in 2010, a mentor cautioned her about overwork. A retired pastor, the mentor hoped that Hicks and other young clergy would do better at staying healthy over the long run than she and her contemporaries had done.
But just six months later, Hicks, a United Methodist pastor then serving in the Kentucky Conference, was a sleep-deprived wreck, surviving on sugar-fueled energy and calorie-dense church meals. Despite the good advice and her best intentions, she was a walking portrait of exhaustion, with dull hair, brittle fingernails and dark circles under her eyes.
“I’ve always been a physically healthy person,” she said. “But many days I’d look at the clock, and it’d be 3 p.m. and I hadn’t eaten yet. If I took time to eat, well, that was time away from getting something done.”
Hicks’ experience is not unusual. Even with the best intentions and all the knowledge and advice in the world, clergy of all ages often find it difficult to take care of themselves, the Duke Clergy Health Initiative has found. On the long list of items that must be done every day, they often put themselves last.
Many pastors misunderstand self-care to mean “self-ish,” said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, the initiative’s research director and assistant research professor at the Duke Global Health Institute.
“Clergy recognize the importance of caring for themselves, but doing so takes a back seat to fulfilling their vocational responsibilities, which are tantamount to caring for an entire community,” Proeschold-Bell said. “They feel they need permission to take the time to attend to their health.”
As a participant in Spirited Life, the Clergy Health Initiative’s wellness program, Hicks is learning how to give herself that permission. A two-year program of intervention services -- part of a broader study of clergy health among UMC pastors in North Carolina -- Spirited Life emphasizes stress management and healthy eating, underscored with scripturally based reasons for taking care of oneself. The initiative has found that this scriptural connection is essential for clergy, for it makes the practice of caring for themselves a part of their calling, not an additional task to complete.
Now an associate at Trinity UMC in Jacksonville, N.C., Hicks is making an effort to set boundaries and create time to care for herself and her family.
As the Clergy Health Initiative learned in a series of clergy focus groups in 2008, pastors can get caught up in trying to meet what may be unrealistic expectations -- both the congregation’s and their own. One of the most pervasive and damaging is the notion that clergy should be available around the clock, seven days a week.
“I can’t tell you how many times people say to me, ‘Well, I know Friday is your day off, but …,’”Hicks said. “I know maybe two clergy that I think of as being good at [setting] boundaries, and they get a lot of flak about it.”
In the face of such expectations, it’s easy for pastors to fall into the trap of feeling guilty when they take time to care for themselves.
“When you do take care of yourself, there’s a sense that you’re not taking care of other people,” Hicks said.
Hicks points out that even when she’s not at work, she is still caring for others. Each evening, she returns home to find her four children and husband waiting for her attention.
Back in Kentucky, fatigue became a huge factor as she felt pressure to do ever more. As each new task presented itself, she felt compelled to address it immediately. Otherwise, it would take time away from her family later.
In the clergy focus groups, the Duke researchers found that many pastors believe that church members do not understand the breadth and depth of pastoral ministry. One pastor remarked that congregants “are aware we work one hour on Sunday, and they don’t realize [we work] the whole rest of the week. There’s no such thing as a 40-hour week.” Another pastor pointed out that “every person sitting in the pew has a separate job description for our job, and when you put it all together, it’s an impossible task.”
Only a few months into a new appointment -- his first as a solo pastor -- the Rev. John Michael McAllister is already beginning to feel the weight of such expectations.
In July, McAllister became pastor of Trinity UMC in Raleigh after four years as an associate at a larger church across town. After 10 years of declining membership, Trinity had asked for a younger pastor to help them identify ways to be engaged in the community. As their new pastor, McAllister wants to deliver.
“There’s a real vibe here that we are ready for some change, to have someone who is keen on making some connections in the community,” he said. “I’m really trying to capitalize on the new-guy, new-thing capital that I have right now.”
In his first month at Trinity, McAllister held 45 meetings with community leaders, made at least as many pastoral care visits, and wrote and delivered four weeks’ worth of sermons. He knows his pace isn’t sustainable, but he’s not quite sure how to cut back when the time comes.