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)

4 comments:

Luke said...

SO thankful for you sharing your story. I often feel guilty that I'm not doing something similar. Doing some big, "move-into-my-house" type thing with folk. I see so much need. This call on some weeks can be a 30 hour work week and sometimes 90+.

And sure, I'm a white, straight male over 6'. There's a lot that I don't see. I know my leadership is accepted quicker than if I were not these things. However, there also seems to be an expectation that since I have a wife who stays at home, her job is to raise the kids and my job is to raise the church. I'm to attend every single meeting. My fall weekends are booked up so we can't take weekend trips. It's a hard thing, something I'm trying to fight against for my own health, the health of my family, and the health of whoever comes after I do in this pastorate (whenever that time comes).

Anonymous said...

If I read the Gospel accounts correctly it appears that Jesus shared time and space and close quartered living with a great number of his flock, mor than one of whom seemed to have difficult "issues". One could even understand Jesus to have become cross and short with them and others, at least in part as a consequence of what our culture calls such boundary breaches. Yes, it was a different time and culture. Yes it was, and is, a seemingly unhealthy thing for Jesus and you to do. And yet, it seems you (and Jesus) faced a difficult choice, your well being over another's well being. We are to love our neighbor as our self but what do we do when love toward neighbor adversely effects our well being? We know what Jesus advised when faced with the question: Do you give the coat off your back and freeze so someone does not, or do you keep coat and someone else freezes? I truly get the boundary issues that that teaching of Jesus' raises in cases like you describe, but I am not so sure the choice you made (as I understand it) was anything less than Holy, even as it created what felt like unholy moments. We do not always know the extent of the needs of those we reach out with God's hands to tend. We do not always know what God has in mind when we do. I pray in gratitude that you reached out and did your best to be God's hands and voice; and that you and your family are safe. I pray too for person who needed the amazing love and help you all provided.

Unknown said...

I have always viewed your practice of boundaries as one of your greatest strengths as a minister and have greatly appreciated the way you have modeled that to me. Good boundaries are something I try to establish early in a new church job and practice regularly. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Amen. I knew a pastor with 30+ years of experience who did some of the very same things. Good for you for keeping strong boundaries - it’s truly a necessity. Thanks for sharing your story. You are not alone.