Monday, September 23, 2019

Self-Care, Privilege, and Lessons Learned the Hard Way

I am a huge proponent of good clergy self care and healthy boundary-keeping. It has been a long held stance of mine that, while ministry is not always the most demanding work in terms of day to day functions--some seasons can be busier or less busy in that regard--it can be so in other ways that largely go unseen. This can be an emotionally and spiritually taxing profession, if not also a physically exhausting one.

And for that reason and for others soon to be shared, I've become quite the cheerleader for time off and time made up, for seeking outside support such as therapists, spiritual directors, or peer groups, for a proper balance between work and family, for maintaining a proper life outside of ministry in general. Whether it's Sunday evenings spent with zombies or something else, I will always strongly believe that people in ministry need to care for themselves, or they won't be able to care for the people in their callings.

Sometimes when I advocate for my fellow clergy to practice good self-care, it is pointed out to me that I as a white male may have an easier time of doing so.

That is a fair statement, and certainly one that I cannot and will not dispute. What I can and should do instead is listen to the experiences of friends and colleagues who have a more difficult time with this concept, either because they feel the demands of ministry more heavily or this vocation pushes and pulls at them differently than it does to people like me.

But lest I be viewed as preaching self care from some lofty perch, I feel the need to share an experience of my own. I'd rather not share it, to be honest. But this story is the main reason I value boundaries so highly.

Once upon a time, I had a church member live with my family for a few months.

(Do I have your attention now?)

This was someone whom I'd accepted into a mentor-mentee relationship. He was a few years younger than me and had expressed an interest in entering ministry, so it was not unusual from my perspective to meet up regularly to talk about call, the Bible, the UCC's authorization process, and life in general.

Eventually, he needed help with rent. I, thinking the church had a real chance to be the church, rounded up some givers to help him out.

A few months later, he needed help again. In fact, he often did. Sometimes it was rent, sometimes it was to find a job (over the time I knew him, he couldn't keep one more than a few months), sometimes it was with gas or other car repairs.

I should have seen the red flags sooner, but certain personalities are able to mask them for a while until you're in deep. In this case, I didn't really see them until after I invited him to sleep on an air mattress in my basement. It was then that I could see the personality and mental health issues up close, and the causes behind a lot of the struggles I'd been helping him with over the course of those few months were brought into much sharper focus.

There are several things that you need to know at this point. The first is that I thought this was what so-called "radical hospitality" that certain corners of progressive Christianity tout looked like. This near boundary-less existence where you don't really take the needs or safety of your family into proper account is certainly what Jesus had in mind, right? That's what many of the hip books on the subject seemed to imply.

The second thing, related to the first, is that I'd already internalized a notion that this church--and by extension this individual--needed me, even at all hours of the day and night and on days off and during vacations. Many clergy assume and wrestle with this, and it was another factor in how I reacted to this person.

The last thing is that this was not helping this person get healthy. I was not equipped to truly give this person what he needed, which a lot of those aforementioned radical hospitality books tend to omit.

I was getting burned out. My family was becoming increasingly concerned about their own well-being. The church was seeing more and more of what this person was about as well. I was becoming tired and stressed and becoming short with others. I was skipping meals and losing sleep.

Fortunately, around that time, I did have some resources. I had a therapist and a spiritual director and a few colleagues I could talk to about this, and I really leaned on them more than once when things were especially difficult. I didn't really bring other church members into things until later, but the difference it made once I did became a major point of relief.

Eventually, he got out of my basement. And at that point I started exploring both what I needed for myself to heal, and to ensure that going forward, I'd practice much better boundary-setting and self-care, not just for the duration of this situation but for a more healthy ministry in general.

I do not doubt that there are some systemic issues related to self-care in churches. Some of that is related to expectations and biases and unspoken prejudices, and some of that is related to the particular ways that ministry extracts energy from women and minorities that I do not know and can only listen to and hope to understand. I as a white male, for instance, may meet with greater understanding or less resistance to getting away when I need to. As I've mentioned, colleagues who are women or POC occasionally point this out, and their reminders and stories are helpful.

But the reason I am so passionate about clergy self-care and boundaries is because nearly a decade ago I learned firsthand what a severe lack of it does. 

This is the single most embarrassing experience of my ministry to date, with so many false assumptions and bad choices and terrible theology at every step. This is my first time really writing about it at all for that reason. The shame has been difficult to shake.

And even so many years later when I'm hesitant or wary or standoffish in social or pastoral situations it's in part because this experience still echoes in my psyche.

Whatever sort of privilege I have when it comes to self-care, I acknowledge and am always willing to explore. And I'd much rather walk with others and advocate for others' need for self-care, because I have a story just like they do, even though they're not the same.

So, what's your story? What self-care needs do you have in this season of life?

(image source)