Gretchen E. Ziegenhals: Will this work make me sick?

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Our discernment processes don’t often consider the physical sustainability of our work, but Christian leaders have a theological obligation to explore this question, writes a managing director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

Those of us involved in Christian institutions and churches often work to protect other people whose bodies are oppressed, abused, trapped in violent situations or discriminated against. But we don’t often stop to think about how well our own bodies sustain the work we are called to do.

In a recent conversation with a friend contemplating a career move, we carefully examined all the angles: What work is she called to do? What work is she most gifted to do? What is her passion?

But later, it occurred to me that we had missed a crucial question: What work can she physically sustain? What work and how much work can her body take?

Like so many Christian leaders I have met over the years, this wonderful friend is serving God to the fullest -- in an institution, a church and the academy at the same time. She is using all of her talents. She is young enough that she may not yet have considered this question of physical sustainability, but in time, she will need to.

As Christian leaders and as creatures in God’s creation, we have a theological obligation to ask the question, “Will this work make me sick?”

The Clergy Health Initiative, a 10-year program to assess and improve the health and well-being of United Methodist clergy in North Carolina, has documented findings about the high rates of work-related illness among clergy. Researchers have found that pastors’ health and vocations are affected as they try to balance work, home, family and friends. The sense of call that we feel as Christian leaders often prevents us from recognizing when enough is enough -- even as we develop high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and heart disease.

The Clergy Health Initiative works to underscore “the theological reasons for caring for oneself” and to offer strategies to help pastors develop holistic health practices. Ideally, Christian leaders will learn to implement more of these strategies on the front end of our work, as we decide what and how much we can do, rather than be faced with how to cope in the aftermath of a physical collapse.

I have witnessed such collapses over years of working with Christian leaders who are physically affected by the strains of their work. Some have developed illnesses from working too much; others, from the stress of the work itself. My work with more than 50 seminary and divinity school deans has taught me that these workhorses are particularly vulnerable. I’ve met several deans who have had heart attacks from managing an overwhelming array of details, conflicts, people and programs without sufficient money, time or support.

Christian leaders work hard, in part, because we know we are doing God’s work. St. Teresa of Avila wrote, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours.” Even so, if we are to take her charge seriously, we must take care of our bodies so that we will be equipped to continue Christ’s ministry through those bodies.

Taking care includes good nutrition, periods of exercise and rest, and time off from screens. For me, taking care in the midst of my evolving roles as professional, spouse, mother, caregiver of an elderly father, church member, friend and community member means in part paying attention. My body, my spouse and my friends teach me where my boundaries lie, if I will remember to pay attention to their wise voices.

As the linchpin of my balance, I have over the last nine years saved most Fridays for Sabbath. In the stillness of my Sabbath Fridays, I exercise, putter in my house, meet a friend for lunch, play with our dogs, paint or read. I try to rest both mind and body. I can tell the difference in my body when I don’t take my Fridays.

What is good stewardship of your body? And how can you work to protect those who do not have a choice about the stewardship of their bodies?

I know Christian leaders who rise early to exercise and pray, who ride their bikes or walk to work, take frequent three-day weekends rather than wait for a two-week vacation in the summer, walk or practice yoga on their lunch hours, stand at their desks, and set their phones to mindfulness chimes every three hours. These preventive measures all help.

But how can we think differently about the work itself and what we can physically manage? It is not simply about having that little plastic gizmo on our desks -- the “NO” button -- that says “No!” in three different ways when we push it. Or repeating to ourselves, “I’m not on that committee” when we try to control too much.

It is about those things and creating jobs that are “small enough to do and big enough to matter,” as Dave Odom, the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, writes.

If you supervise others, are you attentive and respectful about creating jobs that can actually be done? Are you willing to help others think through the question, “Will this work make me sick?” If the answer is yes, can you be creative about reassigning, recombining or rethinking tasks?

These are, at root, not questions of calling or of gifts; these are fundamental theological issues. We are embodied servants of God. God thought that bodies were important enough that God became embodied in Jesus. Jesus’ ministries were about healing, touching, feeding, reconciling and resurrecting bodies.

Christian leaders may need all of these healthy mindsets, as well as the theological reminder that we are creatures, not the Creator. As creatures, we are blessed to have limits within which we function best. Yes, we are God’s hands and feet on earth, but more is not necessarily better for us, our physical functioning or our constituents. Celebrating our creatureliness means celebrating and caring for the bodies we are in and recognizing when our work is harming those bodies.

What is your balance? Your tipping point? What are the signals your own body sends when you can’t physically sustain the work you are doing? What are your choices? Do your colleagues or congregation members support you in those choices?

If your institution is short-staffed and under-budget, what one small change could you make to care for your body or the bodies of your staff? Could you do a bit less, or something different, in order to celebrate and honor your creatureliness?