Self-care and Spirituality for Servants of the Church

Written by: David Pinkston, Director of Seeking the Spirit Within

So there I was after 17 wonderful years of ordained ministry hitting serious burn-out. I was a practicing contemplative for 10 of those preceding years but the business and busy-ness of church life was starting to drain me. We were a missional community running at a very high (writ large: unsustainable) pace. Thankfully I wasn’t inflicting my burnout on others so much as imploding internally, needing significant self-care. 

I’d found it wasn’t difficult for me to be present to God – those muscles had been built up in my contemplative practice over the years. It wasn’t difficult for me to be present with people. After all, that is the vocation we are called to. (Though truthfully during that season of time, it was getting harder and harder to not see people as emotional and energetic vampires.) It didn’t take long for the anxiety attacks to come and my body was breaking down. I was also putting a massive strain on our marriage and partnership in co-leading the church. 

You can see the pattern, I’m sure. I was present with God and with other people but not to my own self. This was causing damage: to my body, to my emotional wellbeing and to my deepening relationship with God. My pastoral journey was showing detrimental shadow issues. I was not listening to nor appreciating my own needs, desires and wishes to be seen, known and cared for. A much-needed and life-transforming sabbatical was on the horizon. This sabbatical revealed consequential blindspots of self-care. I changed a lot of habits during this time: I went into therapy, exercised, practiced eco-spirituality* and discovered spiritual direction. 

For those of us in caregiving vocations, our orientation is to care for others. The very word ministry means administering to and caring for the needs of others. For many of us it comes quite naturally to have this outward, externalized focus. Yet if we are to “finish the race” we must do so with sustainability, kindness towards ourself and having attunement to our own flourishing. For “justice to roll on like a river” we must position ourselves to store up life-giving waters. 

In their book, Spiritual Wholeness For Clergy, authors Donald R. Hands and Wayne L. Fehr write:

“For all the talk of the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, many clergy actually ignore or even harm their bodies…clergy live in their heads, cerebrally and theoretically…[We] need to learn how to ‘listen’ to [our] bodies’ messages…to notice when we are tired and in need of rest or to recognize the bodily presentations of…various feelings, how [our] bodies react when we are angry or sad. Alienation from one’s own body, in fact, has a close parallel in being ‘out of touch’ with one’s feelings. To be intimate with oneself means also to be able to discern affective states…this means knowing when one is angry, sad, hurt, ashamed, glad, or afraid. So many clergy know only, if at all, that they are “upset” and that they should ignore it.”

Self-care is not “me first” but “me too!” 

Allergies to our own spiritual health care is not a luxury but a divine mandate. “Life abundantly” and “abide in me as I in you” is no mere theology but a way of life, an experience of is-ness with Jesus. Being a student of The Way, is a way of being in the world. A world in which we thrive – not as pastors first but as a person of value and care. It’s been said that hurt people hurt people. It is also true that healed people heal people. 

Time is not an enemy to be vanquished but a Friend who’s with us on our journey. May we all deeply hear the call to seek the Spirit within us as we continue to allow God’s love and care for us spill out onto those whom we are called to serve. 

* gardening, spending time in nature (considering “lilies of the field and birds of the air”), walking meditation, etc.