Why Pastors Suck at Self-Care

Shoddy self-care seems to be an epidemic among pastors these days.

Almost as often as I meet with professional ministry colleagues, I have conversations about how difficult it is to take time off and to regularly practice self-care. Pastors bemoan the fact that we cannot seem to find time away from the parish. Working on days off is the norm instead of the exception. Forty hour work weeks are fanciful ideas, whereas 50 hours is considered a slow week. Families that never see a pastor spouse /parent is the common narrative among pastors’ families.

Somewhere along the way in Christianity – mainline, conservative, evangelical, liberal, orthodox – it has become acceptable to expect that pastors will drop everything, including sleeping or eating, to be at the beck and call of their congregations God.

I have been asked what seminaries teach now about self-care, having only graduated 5 years ago. Self-care was one of most common mantras of my seminary education, and it seems obvious to me that you can’t really care for others, or fulfill your vocation with integrity, if you are a burned out wreck… yet so many pastors obviously feel the opposite.

For so many professional ministers, a well rested, healthy pastor is a pastor failing at ministry. The Duke Clergy Health Initiative study on self-care among pastors, suggests that many ministers think self-care is selfish. My colleagues have told me that there was a day in seminary education when the message to students was that being a pastor meant giving your life to Jesus (or in other words, to your congregation 24/7). There is no room for self-care in ministry.

I have three things to say to that idea.

  1. What??!?
  2. Wait… what??!!?
  3. Bullshit.

Given our propensity for being bad at self-care, I think it behooves pastors to reflect on just why so many of us think that well-rested, healthy pastors are failing at ministry.

Of course, I have a few ideas about this:

Being crazy busy is the social norm.

The clergy is by no means the only profession where people are expected to over-work and over-function. Being crazy busy is a badge of honour in our culture. Bragging about the lack of sleep, lack of time, lack of leisure is just part of everyday conversation. Busy is normal, burnout nearly expected.

Working for Jesus lets us put our families and ourselves second.

While being busy is a cultural norm, there is the counter-narrative out there that putting family and a personal life ahead of work is important. But working for God is a holy calling, and so if the property committee schedules a meeting at 7am on our day off, Jesus will be mad if we don’t show up. Right?

Many pastors think our vocational goal is to care for everyone.

credit: http://salesjournal.com/2014/06/06/the-tyranny-of-the-urgent/

I think a lot of pastors and congregations see the primary job of  pastors to be care givers. Like a nurse or counsellor, we often see ourselves as someone whose job it is to help people feel better or feel good. Most care-givers go home at the end of a shift and are no longer on call, but many pastors feel responsible for their communities 24/7.  Often we see this to mean jumping at the drop of a hat to address a parishioner’s need, whether truly urgent or not. Life and death is urgent. Gossip, scheduling issues, complaints or other mundane things are not. The care that we offer as pastors is not the end in itself, but rather a tool to help our people see God in their lives.

Trying to prove our worth to our congregations

A lot of what pastors do is hard to quantitatively measure. Sermons are not measured by their word count. Bible studies are not measured by verses studied. But pastoral presence can be measured and tracked. I think many of us know that our jobs are provided for based on the generosity of others. Being omni-present and available is a way to justify our worth. Working 60 hours a week makes us believe that the church can’t survive without us. And being omni-present in order to justify our worth means those hard to quantify duties suffer, like planning worship, preparing sermons (including down time for creativity to seep in) and teaching the bible with intention and purpose.

Congregations fall in to cycles of consuming faith

We consume everything in our society. Church and pastors are just another thing to consume. Worship has become entertainment. The Bible is information to bolster our already established world views. Pastoral care is just another service we receive. No wonder pastors burnout if they are being consumed by those they serve.

Being a quivering mass of availability precludes other transformational work

It is impossible to be available 24/7, yet many pastors try. When pastors try to be present for every meeting, every event, every person in need, every time the church door needs to be unlocked, we are over-functioning for the community we serve. But being-omni present also means that consideration about what it means to be a community that cares for each other is lost too. Taking on all the responsibility to care for each member of the community means that care for the community as a whole is missed. It also absolves people of sharing in the caring work. Caring for each member is draining work, but caring for a community as a whole and its behavioural systems is also hard work. It is nearly impossible to do the whole community work when a pastor is emotionally drained on caring for individuals.

Pastors have become something between a paid friend and counselling professional.

Sometime in the 1960s, as Clinical Pastoral Education and counselling began to enter into ministry, pastors moved from being community leaders, teachers, prophets, moral authorities, to travelling visitors and caregivers, who also provided free quasi-professional counselling. There is nothing that will suck your time away like having to add “being a friend / providing free on call counselling for anywhere from 100 to 1000 people” to your job description, not to mention keeping up with all the other duties of a pastor. As the role of pastor shifts and changes, like the moral authority aspect of the role that has been largely dropped, so to will the paid friend aspect have to go.

Pastors find their roles hard to define.

Another result from the Duke Clergy Health Initiative was that pastors often feel like congregational members don’t understand the breadth of clergy duties. Many feel like parishioners only see the one hour of work on Sundays. While this may be true of parishioners, I think that clergy are also guilty of not understanding the breadth of our own duties.

Poor self-care is ultimately a problem of priorities. I suspect that, with so much to do in most parishes, and all the reasons I stated above, pastors have a hard time prioritizing. And this is because priorities mean disappointing someone, because not all duties are equal and not all issues need the same attention. When everything becomes urgent, keeping everyone happy and cared for is the goal. Time off, family time and self-care are bumped to the bottom of the list.

But when pastors take the time to ask themselves, what are the most important things for me to do each week and what can be left undone, the tyranny of the urgent and the need to be busy, busy, busy melts away. All of sudden that property committee at 7AM on a day off is not more important than sleep. Those late night emails can wait until office hours. The time to care for those in crisis ceases to be immediate, and instead becomes when time allows. Writing and preaching half-decent sermons, instead of Saturday night specials becomes a weekly occurrence. Leading worship like you know what is happening before it happens becomes the norm.

And most importantly, care for the whole community instead of the collection of individuals becomes important.  Pastors can teach people how to care for each other, how to participate in community instead of consuming church, how to become disciples rather than passive observers of church.

Self-care is not just an issue of burning out pastors. Reducing the work load or adding more members to the pastoral team aren’t solutions. Prioritizing ministry is the only way to really practice self-care. This means taking a deep look at what ministry is all about. What is a pastor really called to do and be?

And in the end, practicing self-care means preparing yourself to disappoint those who expect your omni-presence. They might not like it to begin with, but they will eventually they will begin to appreciate it as we become better pastors by doing what is important instead of doing everything.


What obstacles stand in the way of your self-care? How can congregations and colleagues support over worked, burring out pastors? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

And thanks to my wife, Courtenay for her insights and editorial support. Look for a post from her about self-care, coming soon. Follow her on Twitter @ReedmanParker

Cover photo credit: http://um-insight.net/blogs/dan-r-dick/too-busy-to-learn/

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2 thoughts on “Why Pastors Suck at Self-Care”

  1. Excellent article. I have come to believe that many Pastors do not understand their roles, as you mention above. When Jesus told Peter to “Feed my sheep” those 3 times, Jesus did not tell Peter that he was to feed the sheep all the time, every time. I believe what Jesus was commanding Peter to do was to make sure it got done. Also, when Jesus sent out the 12 and the 72, He did not go with them (obviously!). Jesus gave them a minimal set of instructions, and sent them on their way.

    I have come to believe that perhaps the Pastor’s main job is to help congregants discover their gifts and their calling, such that the pastor is not so burdened. Many Pastors, I find, are terribly reticent to delegate and allow others in the church to express their gifting. This happens for various reasons, of course, but unless others who have significant gifting in areas such as teaching, preaching or counseling need to be allowed to express and develop those areas. Does the pastor REALLY need to preach Sunday Morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday nights? Does the pastor REALLY need to be the only one who makes the hospital visits?

    I also find that many times expectations of the pastor are not clearly hammered out when the new pastor is brought on board. Truly, the Board needs to be sensitive to a pastors personal needs so that he can operate more effectively.

    Nick Marica
    Director
    Godly Training Ministries

    Like

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