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The Character and Practices of the "Called"
Understanding expectations and self-care of those called to ministry
Kenneth L Mills
There are critical areas or disciplines that constitute the character of servant leaders. These characteristics along with the need for self-care help support, encourage, and allow those called to be continually formed into Christ-likeness.
"Most ministers don’t burn out because they forget they are a minister. They burn out because they forget they are people." (Archibald Hart, Christian Psychologist)
One topic that comes up periodically for those of us in ministry is self-care. When working in areas of tension and conflict, it’s difficult to keep from being burned out, cynical, disheartened, frustrated, and hurt. But even when things are going well, and you experience apparent "success," the well being of your emotional and spiritual life is still vulnerable. It’s challenging to know when to take a break, to experience a Sabbath, as well as to know how to take and spend personal time. But as my years in ministry progress, I’m realizing more and more just how precious and necessary those Sabbaths and personal disciplines are to a person’s well being.
Michael Overman shard, "One of my goals…is learning how to further develop healthy emotional and physical boundaries for my ministry context." He continues:
Inherently, I’m extremely physically affectionate and emotionally sponge-like. I always prefer a hug over a handshake, and I often find myself taking on and soaking up the emotions of those around me. Not only could such relaxed physical boundaries cause issues for me professionally, but such consistent emotional vulnerability could be detrimental to my psychological wellness.
From my own personal experience, self-care and Sabbath practices have been challenging for me for several reasons. First, I have a difficult time "shutting my brain off." I am always thinking, feeling, wondering, and questioning. Even in my times of solitude, the voices and words of others run through my head. Secondly, the things I have forgotten to do, and the things I better get done "or else," inundate my mind. Thirdly, I operated under false assumptions of how my Sabbaths or personal times should look.
The notion of self-care may even sound selfish to some of us, especially for those in vocational ministry. How does our Lord’s call to self-denial (Mark 8:34) square with the idea of self-care? The Covenant Seminary in their article on The Challenge of Sustaining a Fruitful Ministry, suggests:
As Christians we are called to die to our old lives of self-centeredness and rise to new lives of holiness. If the old life included slothful or obsessive activities—such as inconsistent sleep habits, crazy work hours, poor or neurotic exercise, or an excessive diet—then self-denying self-care might include getting to bed on time, setting aside periods for Sabbath and sabbatical, responsible exercise, and a healthy diet. After all, we are limited creatures. We must ask ourselves: How is the health of our social, emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual lives?
In his book, Finding A Balance For Effective Ministry, Roy Oswald says, "A sound theology of self-care begins with a re-evaluation of the call to ministry." This fits with Hughã€€Farquhar’s thoughts in his article, Self-care and the Call toã€€Ministry. Farquhar says,
There was a time when I thought to be called into ministry meant giving myself completely – "all for others, nothing for yourself." I knew that I had been given much, that I should count my many blessings, and I thought that ministry was "pay back time." I operated out of an unhealthy theology of ministry. I got the idea that a minister was supposed to be a paragon of faith from whom people in their weakness could extract strength when they needed it. I thought that was pastoral care. On those occasions when "I" was not enough to get people through, I felt terribly guilty and diminished in worth. I don’t think that way any more, and haven’t for many years. I was fortunate to come under the influence of some people who guided me to a different understanding of ministry and to a growing awareness of the need for self-care in the midst of a demanding work life.
The hardest part of being in ministry is saying "no."ã€€ Not just saying "no" when asked by someone to do some task, but saying "no" to yourself and limiting the amount of work that you do. The work of ministry is not a finite task. At the end of the day when I go home, I can't usually point to some finished product and say, "That's what I did today." There is alwaysã€€more to be done in ministry."
To be honest, there is a great satisfaction that comes with knowing that tasks have been finished, knowing that everything is complete. And for most people (myself included), it is uncomfortable to know that things are unfinished. But that is precisely the nature of ministry - unfinished. "But while the tasks of ministry aren't finite, those of us in ministry most certainly are," writes David Hansen.
As those called to ministry, we do what we do because we think it is important. We are passionate about the Gospel, and we care about the people whom we serve. And this makes it hard to say "no." This passion for our work is precisely what makes it hard to say that there is not time for another person, program, or meeting.
Hansen adds later,
"Unfortunately for many in ministry, the first thing to go is self-care: being rested, spending time with family, caring for our own souls. Next to go is often the work behind the scenes: the hard work of keeping oneself prepared for ministry -- reading, attending learning events, all the things pastors and others in ministry do to make us better preachers, counselors, leaders, and pastors."ã€€
And this is how burnout happens.ã€€ In ministry it often feels like the solution is to work more. The voice in our head says that if only you could work for a couple more hours, then the ministry would be more effective. But the opposite is true. An overworked minister - one who does not set limits (or boundaries) - becomes more and more ineffective at the work to which one is called.ã€€ If you are in vocational ministry, I hope you can learn this lesson: Say "no." Set limits or boundaries. Learn to live in that place where there is more that could be done, and some tasks that are unfinished.
So, how do we practice "self-care?" Much of this lecture has been identifying the problem, with very little solution regarding "self-care" and emotional and spiritual health.
I am impressed with Michael Overman’s process of self-care, even though he does not specifically represent my own experience or convictions. He asks, "So what does my self-care look like…?"
First, I have a therapist. I think anyone in ministry, especially ministry that has the propensity for emotional drainage, should have a counselor of some sort. This should be different from the person one turns to for spiritual direction. Pastors and counselors are trained in two different manners and should therefore be seen for different reasons and with different goals in mind—at least that’s my perspective.
Second, I have a close network of colleagues who are also engaged in ministry with whom I can share my challenges and struggles and have them share theirs in return. We take time to support each other, to listen, and to encourage one another, especially in difficult times. I also feel it’s important that there is aã€€networkã€€in place, primarily so I don’t end up venting to one person or being the sole person to whom someone else vents. We are to bear one another’s burdens, and I believe it needs to happen communally.
Third, I set limits based on what I know about myself. This means taking breaks (when possible) every 20-30 minutes when I’m doing draining work. This means letting my commutes and train rides be filled not with emails or schoolwork, but with music or simply being silent, with the occasional fiction novel thrown in. This means stopping work at a particular time of day so that I can rest, process, listen to music, watch some TV, read a book, play guitar, or spend time with my non-ministry friends. Relax and recharge.
Fourth, I do my best to have a life outside of ministry, outside of my office, outside of the classroom, and outside of my apartment. This means saying yes to spending time with good friends even if there’s something else work-related that I could (and sometimes should) be doing. This is a matter of awareness and choice… I keep an actual schedule, and I plan accordingly. Most of the time, I stop work after 7pm and spend the rest of the night doing things to feed and nourish my soul. Put simply, I make space for me.
One of the most important ways we build self-care into our lives includes having safe relationships. Leadership is inherently isolating. Leaders need to share their struggles with a trusted confidant or close friend. In their book Leadership on the Line, authors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky suggest that "the lone warrior strategy of leadership may be heroic suicide… When battling loneliness, insecurity, stress, or other pressures, the need to open up to someone can be almost overwhelming."
Personally I cannot stress enough the need for having others in your life that serve as confidants or at the very least, burden bearers. It is inherently too easy to try and be self-sufficient as a leader in ministry.
What I have avoided saying so far is the specific need for spiritual disciplines in our lives as a recipe for self-care. While the experience of a personal Sabbath, and the need for having others in your life with which you can share, are critical and necessary, there is so much more to the area of self-care than just those two areas. A part of my own learning has been the discovery that what provides self-care to one person does not automatically allow another person to find renewal or encouragement. However, let me spend a few moments talking about disciplines that can and often do bring renewal to leaders in ministry.
The online resource called, Soul Shepherding: For You and Your Ministry, provides an excellent summary of spiritual disciplines, and makes a distinction between the disciplines of abstinence and the disciplines of engagement. While there is no such thing as a complete list of spiritual disciplines, this is a list that should be helpful, informative, and useful as you seek to create self-care in your ministry. I suspect that many "called" to ministry are aware of such disciplines, but being aware of them and utilizing them as a means of spiritual formation and personal health is another thing.
Disciplines of Abstinence
These are ways of denying ourselves something we want or need in order to make space to focus on and connect with God.
Solitude:ã€€Refraining from interacting with other people in order to be alone with God and be found by him. (Solitude is completed by silence.) For most Christ-followers solitude is the most important discipline they can practice. The practice of other disciplines for the spiritual life runs out of steam because you just can’t go far with any spiritual discipline except as it’s coupled with or grows out of Solitude and Silence in God’s presence. When through practice you learn to withdraw from everything in your life in order to seek the Lord alone and find your sufficiency and joy in him then your life changes dramatically! Your intimacy with Jesus becomes the secret center of strength in your heart as you do all that you do. No one or nothing owns you or controls you — you’re free from the grip of all the pressures, distractions, and stimuli that constantly pull on you — Jesus alone is your Master and he loves you passionately and perfectly!
Silence:ã€€Not speaking in a quiet place in order to quiet our minds and whole self and attend to God’s presence. Also, not speaking so that we can listen to others and bless them. Silence as a discipline that goes with solitude has two sides: not speaking and not listening to sounds, except perhaps the gentle sounds of nature.ã€€When we learn to keep silence the quiet moves from our environment into our soul and the absence of sound becomes a wonderful realization of the presence of God as we feel the refreshing wind of eternity blowing gently on our face.
Fasting:ã€€Going without food (or something else) for a period of intense prayer — the fast may be complete or partial. The normal way to fast is to choose to go without food but drink plenty of water, perhaps for a 24-hour day. It’s important to know your body and learn about fasting before you begin a fast, especially with a longer fast of three days or more, because it can be dangerous to your health (e.g., if you’re diabetic or have digestive disorders). It’s especially important not to go too long without water. Fasting just one meal or doing a partial fast are good ways to begin experimenting with fasting and they can be very effective. Partial fasts include limiting yourself to juices, abstaining from meat, eliminating sugar and junk foods, or eating significantly less than normal. Also you can fast from things other than food, like media or shopping.
Sabbath:ã€€Doing no work to rest in God’s person and provision; praying and playing with God and others. Do no work means not working at your job, not earning money, not getting engrossed in projects, and, as much as possible, not engaging in your normal life responsibilities, including at home. Obviously, if you have children at home you still need to care for them and you may need to prepare meals or do other things around the house, but as much as possible you do these things before or after your Sabbath so that you can just relax and be.
Secrecy:ã€€Not making our good deeds or qualities known to let God or others receive attention and to find our sufficiency in God alone.
Submission:ã€€Not asserting ourselves in order to come under the authority, wisdom, and power of Jesus Christ as our Lord, King, and Master. (Can include submitting to a person as unto Christ.) I consider submission to God a discipline of abstinence because its about denying ourselves the power or privilege we want. We’re choosing not to make things happen for ourselves, not to control people or situations even if we can, but instead to come under the Lord’s authority, wisdom, and power. Often this includes submitting to people as unto the Lord.
Disciplines of Engagement
These are ways of connecting with God and other people, conversing honestly with them in order to love and be loved.
Bible Reading:ã€€Trusting the Holy Spirit-inspired words of Scripture as our guide, wisdom, and strength for life. When we read (or listen to) the Bible rightly we submit ourselves to it (rather than using it to support our theology or agenda) and so we find that God surprises us with insights, convictions, and encouragements. The Bible washes our minds and restores our souls. It is manna from heaven. When God speaks, as he does so clearly in the Bible, he gives us his abundant and eternal life today.
Worship:ã€€Praising God’s greatness, goodness, and beauty in words, music, ritual, or silence. This can be experienced corporately and privately.
Prayer:ã€€Conversing with God about what we’re experiencing and doing together. Prayer is a way of life in which we converse with God, at his initiative, so that we are "co-laboring" with him in all that we do to accomplish the good things that advance his Kingdom. For prayer to become a way of living intimately with the Lord it must first be a spiritual discipline.
Soul Friendship:ã€€Engaging fellow disciples of Jesus in prayerful conversation or other spiritual practices.
Personal Reflection:ã€€Paying attention to our inner self in order to grow in love for God, others, and self.
Service:ã€€Humbly serving God by overflowing with his love and compassion to others, especially those in need.
Those "called" to ministry typically put other’s needs before their own. High demands and the numerous obligations from school, church, denomination, friends, and family do not fit nicely into an easy schedule. However, your health and well-being really do matter. The habits and practices you cultivate are crucial to your personal success, and the effectiveness of your ministry.
In closing, I would make a couple of other recommendations for your consideration:
1. Personal renewal retreats. Once a month, take one day to go off by yourself to a place of rest, prayer, and reflection. Once a quarter, take a couple of days to spend by yourself on various ministry ideas along with prayer and personal rest.
2. Develop two or three prayer partners (of the same sex). I recommend that you have at least one (the ideal is two) major prayer retreat a year with these prayer partners if possible. Periodic times of getting together also help with accountability, and the creation of supportive relationships.
May the Lord bless you as you seek to be emotionally and spiritually healthy ministers of God’s grace.
|Due By (Pacific Time)||11/28/2015 07:00 pm|
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