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The Case for Self Care Or: The Perils of Self Neglect

 

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If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.
~ Richard Rohr

Let’s be honest: seminary can be extraordinarily stressful. Books, papers, deadlines, changing relationships, family dynamics, finances, health concerns, personal crises, spiritual crises, vocational crises, a million details, soul transformation. It’s a lot.

Being a minister or religious leader is a lot as well. Consider[1]:

  • 75% of pastors report being “extremely stressed” or “highly stressed”
  • 90% work 55 to 75 hours per week
  • 90% feel fatigued and worn out every week
  • 40% report a serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month.
  • 80% believe their pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families and 33% said it was an outright hazard

So we’re here to encourage you to do this: start as you want to go. Put things in place now that will ensure long, meaningful, healthy careers.

If you’re not convinced to do this for yourself, do it for your future congregants, patients, and all those you will serve, because if we don’t care for ourselves, we will not be able to care for others. The author and Fransciscan friar Richar Rohr cuts to the heart of it: If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.

If you are or will be a religious or spiritual leader in any context -- a congregational minister, a chaplain, a community organizer -- and if you neglect yourself, you will not only be at a far greater risk of burning out, but you will hurt others. We’ve all witnessed this: religious leaders who are so stressed out or spiritually depleted that they act out of their own pain instead of as a source of healing. In a congregational or organizational setting, the potential for this damage is great.

In other words: you simply cannot be a healthy religious leader without taking care of yourself first. It’s the old “put on your own oxygen mask first” metaphor: When we fly, we are instructed that in the event of an emergency, we should secure our own oxygen mask prior to assisting others in need. If you run out of oxygen, you can’t help others. Self care isn’t selfish! Self neglect is.

Self care means paying attention to your needs, your hopes, your heart. Sometimes that means allowing discomfort instead of numbing it. Sometimes it means being honest about your own stress and grief and crankiness. And then: using those emotions as data for what needs attention in your life.

Therefore (and I hate to be the one to break this to you seminarians!) a bubble bath might be the opposite of self care when it’s really just a mechanism for avoiding writing that paper that’s due at midnight. On the other hand (all is not lost!), a bubble bath might be exactly what you need to bring you back to your breath before tackling that paper. Sometimes self care means doing the hard things; sometimes it means taking time for soothing activities. Get into the habit of real self care and you’ll begin to learn the difference.

Here are some ideas for the sort of self care that fosters transformation, not just numbing:

  • Develop a spiritual practice of saying “No” to what you can. (Set healthy boundaries!)
  • Develop a spiritual practice of saying “Yes” to what you want. (Take healthy risks!)
  • Create something: art, music, ritual, the perfect cup of tea.
  • Ask for help.
  • Let someone love you.
  • Move your body: breathe, stretch, do yoga, walk, dance.
  • Get even just a little bit more sleep and eat foods that are even just a little bit more healthy to care for your body.
  • Choose one: Make that therapist appointment you’ve been meaning to make. Find that spiritual director you’ve been meaning to find. Go to that recovery meeting or grief group meeting or whatever circle of healing your heart needs.
  • Experience joy! Wonder! Beauty! Intentionally and frequently, if even in small ways.
  • Have self-compassion if you don’t do a single one of the above, then try again tomorrow.

[1] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/conference-workshop-teaches-presbyterian-seminarians-of-color-self-care/

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