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Practicing Healthy Self-Care: An Essential Discipline for Your Pastor

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Stress, burnout and mental fatigue are becoming more intense among clergy, according to studies conducted over the past decade.

This trend is leading even some of the most devout ministers to leave ministry. And while no one knows the exact percentage of ministers who experience depression, one Baylor University professor suggested, “The likelihood is that one out of every four ministers is depressed.”

It is tremendously tough for those who care for the souls of others to take care of themselves. But proactive self-care is absolutely essential for ministers who hope to serve effectively and with longevity.

Self-care includes developing and maintaining healthy practices that promote and preserve good physical, spiritual and mental well-being.

While these three areas of wellness are intertwined and inseparable, in my own life and the experience of many of my colleagues, I recognize that more attention has been given to physical and spiritual health.

Mental health is often neglected, often resulting in the diminishment of all three, as it includes our emotional, psychological and social well-being.

Every human being experiences highs and lows in mental health. Although some forms of mental illness are serious and require the ongoing care of a therapist, general variations in mental health may be related to circumstances or body chemistry and may be pre-emptively avoided or proactively addressed by practicing good mental hygiene.

A common but naïve misconception is that pastors or persons with strong religious faith are exempt from mental distress.

The Apostle Paul is noted for his courageous ministry but even he confessed, “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28).

In his book, “Surviving the Stained-Glass Jungle,” veteran pastor Bill Self (1932-2016) contended that, “Self-care is not destructive self-indulgence, but rather it is being a steward of some rather special gifts – the human body and soul, along with the capacity to bring joy to others as well as to experience it.”

Those in every vocation experience varying levels of stress, distress and duress.

However, the pastoral task requires remarkable investment in the lives of others. So, a pastor who neglects mental hygiene can gradually slip into a state of melancholy or emotional chaos and then compound the dilemma by ignoring the symptoms for fear of stigmatizing his or her ministry.

As a coach and encourager of pastors, I can identify at least five areas that commonly place stress on a pastor’s mental and emotional health:

1. Unrealistic expectations

These expectations can be real or perceived, and they can be generated by vocal congregants or be self-imposed by a minister with a “messiah complex.”

Most congregations have ambivalent expectations that fluctuate between market-driven goals (for example, attendance, budgets, awards) and mission-driven goals (for example, participation, stewardship, life transformation). The wider the gap between these two categories, the more intense the stress on the minister.

2. Perpetual preparation

The task of perpetual preparation can be a mentally exhausting chore. Many professional public speakers have four or five well-rehearsed speeches that they give over and over to different groups.

Professors and teachers have lectures and lesson plans that are updated and revised from semester to semester, but they usually follow a core curriculum.

A preaching pastor is unique in that he or she is generally expected to prepare and deliver 40 to 50 different Sunday sermons per year to virtually the same group of people, in addition to providing devotionals, Bible studies and speeches for community events.

3. Diverse emotional encounters

A minister deals with grief, grace and everything in between on a daily basis. Perhaps more than any other vocation, a pastor regularly moves in and out of situations with polarizing and intense emotions, such as birth and death, marriage and divorce, perversion and conversion, and conflict and resolution.

If a pastor is not careful, the residual emotions from these encounters will linger and intermingle, creating either emotional apathy or spiritual neuropathy.

4. Dealing with problem people

Not to be confused with people with problems, problem people are unusually high-maintenance individuals who consume an exorbitant amount of a pastor’s time with an unnecessary complaint or unconstructive criticism.

Marshall Shelley, director of the doctor of ministry program at Denver Seminary, refers to these “well-intentioned dragons” as “sincere, well-meaning saints, but they leave ulcers, strained relationships and hard feelings in their wake.”

5. The weight of confidentiality

Because the pastoral role is not only prophetic but also priestly, a pastor is entrusted with a lot of confidential information that is locked away into a pastor’s mental storage.

The volume of this information can become a heavy emotional weight if it remains in a pastor’s mental inbox and is not appropriately archived.

In light of these and other areas of pastoral stress, to preserve good health and promote longevity in ministry, how can a pastor practice good mental and emotional hygiene?

Each pastor has to identify and adopt hygienic habits that fit his or her context and personality. Here are some practices I am finding to be helpful in my own pastoral routine:

  • Establish and maintain a consistent prayer and devotional life.
  • Maintain friendship with a trustworthy conversation partner, perhaps even another pastor, outside of your church.
  • Convene a small accountability group, establish a confidentiality covenant with them and meet with them monthly.
  • Read regularly in multiple genres, including biography, history and fiction.
  • Pay attention to diet, especially limiting intake of sugar, caffeine and other foods that can trigger emotional swings.
  • Develop a regimen of moderate physical exercise.
  • Follow a consistent routine for sleep and rest.
  • Periodically disconnect from the work of the church, especially from mental labor (problem solving, conflict management), cellphone calls and social media.
  • Have an annual physical examination, as well as eye examination and dermatology screening.
  • Participate in a peer network of pastors who convene with a covenant of confidentiality, and who vent and vision together.

Be alert to seasons when your mental distress leads to dysfunction, manifested by ongoing and overwhelming symptoms of depression, chronic anxiety, paranoia or insomnia. Immediately enlist the care of a medical professional. To procrastinate getting care prolongs the process of recovery.

Life in the stained-glass jungle has unique rewards and challenges. Self-care is absolutely essential.

Before departing this world, author Bill Self reminded us that, “It takes courage to take care of yourself. One of the hallmarks of a professional is the ability to keep healthy – physically, emotionally and spiritually. You must take responsibility for yourself and not expect others to take the initiative to care for you.”

Practicing healthy self-care can empower a pastor to be mentally sharp, emotionally balanced and spiritually perceptive in all seasons.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Howard’s blog, Barry’s Notes. It is used with permission.

Barry Howard

Barry Howard serves as leadership coach / consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches. He served previously as an EthicsDaily.com board member, and he lives in Pensacola, Florida.