Lillian Daniel: What clergy do not need

Don't clergy need better attention to self-care? The short answer: no they don't.

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).