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Mental, Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Self-Care

Fredric Muir

During the check-in time at a clergy meeting several years ago, a colleague stood up and announced,

I’ve decided to leave the church, that is, the ministry. I’ve concluded that I can’t be a parish minister and a father and husband; I can’t do ministry and have a life. I think the Catholics may be on to something: Ministry is a full-time and a lifetime commitment. At this time in my life, I’m unwilling to make that commitment.

He and I were about the same age, both married and fathers of small children. His words sent me wondering: Was it possible to do both ministry and family? What kind of a husband, father, friend, brother, and son was I with all the stresses and challenges of my calling? Maybe I too should be reconsidering and leaving the ministry? Yet there were examples from my childhood and youth of ministers and other religious professionals who had balanced the demands of work and personal life. And what about all my collegial peers and mentors who had seemingly survived and often thrived? Was their success what it appeared to be?

Though these questions and issues, and the challenges they pose, could be regularly asked by clergy and other religious professionals, any religious leader—for example, pastoral and worship assistants, officers, and teachers—might ponder them during their tenure. All religious leaders can have a unique relationship with congregants (and other leaders) due to the supportive and serving nature of their work. All religious leaders can and will be faced or confronted with a version of the challenges raised by my colleague’s announcement.

One response to these questions has to do with self-care. Self-care is about keeping in balance the stresses, demands, and expectations of religious leadership and the intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of life. When these are balanced, a healthy and wholesome career, leadership role, and life can follow. An important part of self-care is boundaries. A boundary is a guideline that determines the appropriateness of certain behavior in a particular context. Boundary guidelines can be written or unwritten. A Unitarian Universalist congregation could have a safe congregation covenant (a behavior covenant that spells out specific ways members and friends will be in relationship with each other). There are also written codes of behavior and guidelines for religious professionals (see the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) and Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) guidelines). Usually written boundaries provide clarity, but unwritten boundaries can create confusion.

Boundaries in a faith community are a form of self-care because they provide the clarity, limits, and opportunities that help leaders and congregants to make decisions free of misunderstanding, pressure, coercion, and misplaced expectations. Boundaries can provide and maintain balance in one’s life and relationships. Recognizing and understanding self-care and boundaries is vital for all religious leaders. Self-care and boundaries are interrelated and reinforcing.

Danger Signs

It’s so easy to get swept up in the pressures and demands of religious leadership. For example, it’s not uncommon at religious professionals’ or leaders’ meetings to hear peers announce or discuss all the commonly accepted signs of success—how hard they are working, how their congregations are growing, how many awards they have won, how many volunteers are involved. It all sounds so perfect and could prompt one to ask: How can a congregation—one leader—appear to do everything and do it to everyone’s satisfaction? A tongue-and-cheek article that appeared in several newsletters addresses these issues:

The result of a congregational questionnaire has determined the perfect minister for our congregation. She will preach exactly fifteen minutes. He condemns sin but never upsets anyone. She works from 8 a.m. to midnight and is also janitor. He makes $300 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car, and gives $300 a week to those in need. She is twenty-eight years of age and has been preaching thirty years. He has a burning desire to work with youth and spends all of his time with elders. Our new minister will smile all the time with a straight face because she has a sense of humor that keeps her seriously dedicated to her work. He makes fifteen calls daily on parish families, shut-ins, and hospitalized. She spends all her time evangelizing the unchurched and is always in her office when needed. If your pastor doesn’t measure up, simply send this letter to six other congregations that are tired of their pastors too. Then bundle up your pastor and send him to the church at the top of the list. In one week, you will receive 1,643 ministers and one of them should be perfect. Have faith in this letter. One church broke the chain and got its old pastor back in less than three months.

We laugh at the unrealistic expectations named in this chain letter. Yet how often some religious leaders have felt these demands; how often congregants think that changing leadership is the answer. While we know that our faith communities are flawed, as any institution is, we can’t help wanting to create the best institution we can. When we hear others describing their work and successes, our image of an ideal gets reinforced and we strive to make it a part of our leadership vision. So we work all the harder to make our vision come true. We can even give ourselves over to this dream, which is admirable and altruistic, but it can bring with it difficulty and hardship.

Two danger signs that result from the lack of self-care—signs that could be precursors to questionable behavior and permeable boundaries—are stress and burnout. Though these two are often confused, Roy Oswald, author of Clergy Self-Care: Finding A Balance for Effective Ministry, does an excellent job of helping us understand the differences. Stress occurs with change, too many changes for a person to absorb in too little time. For example, you may be familiar with the kind of self-test seen in popular magazines and health journals. It lists significant changes in a person’s life—illness, loss of family members, job change, a move, divorce, etc. If you’ve experienced the specified number of these in one year, the authors say, you suffer from too much stress, which might have ill effects on you.

Changes in your faith community can also contribute to stress—changes in membership, programs, finances, staff, the building, and many more. As a leader, responding to these changes will, in part, fall on your shoulders. Congregants will expect you to provide direction and leadership. Too much change leads to stress. The results can be physical and emotional exhaustion as well as a loss of discernment and judgment.

Burnout, on the other hand, is the result of feeling too much—too much compassion, empathy, passion—all the things that religious leaders are expected to provide and show. Burnout shows up as exhaustion and frustration and brings on hopelessness, cynicism, a loss of idealism, and negativism.

When religious leaders are heavily stressed or burned-out, they often abandon self-care just when they need it the most. In the absence of self-care, boundary lines can become permeable or even disappear.

Common Boundary Violations

The boundaries that religious leaders need to be aware of are many and the FaithTrust Institute does an excellent job of presenting these. Five possible boundary violations that they name have particular meaning and relevance due to their scope and applicability in Unitarian Universalist congregations.

All religious leaders should be aware of the potential for misuse of power. For clergy, this can be an especially easy boundary violation to fall into. The use of power can feel natural and expected. It’s tempting to make an issue or agenda personal, not only for the religious professional but for any leader or teacher. Misusing one’s authority to embarrass, belittle, or undermine a member, or to manipulate, ostracize, or demonize another is inappropriate and crosses a boundary. Congregations give their leaders fiduciary responsibility that must be safeguarded, now and for future 

Closely related is the need to balance authority with congregational polity. Unitarian Universalists have a mistrust of institutions and authority that originates in our history, which is filled with oppressive, faith-threatening acts against our movement. As a result, we are heirs to a deep-rooted skepticism toward institutional power and authority; these have shaped our radical congregational polity. But authority and power, per se, are not bad. In any faith community, power is part of institutional life. Whether leaders of institutions are called, elected, or appointed, they will inherit the appropriate amount of power that comes with their office. Balancing the reality of this authority with a mistrust of it and balancing leadership vision with congregational polity can be a challenge for even the best religious leaders. Consequently, owning the authority that comes with an institutional position and not giving it away (often under the misguided pretense that “we’re all equal here”), is important; abdicating one’s position of leadership and its authority is irresponsible. But crossing the boundary of authority and violating congregational polity is also irresponsible, and in most Unitarian Universalist congregations it’s foolhardy. Maintaining, balancing, and being aware of this demanding and difficult boundary are critical. Another common boundary violation is dual relationships. Simply stated in Clergy Misconduct: Sexual Abuse in the Ministerial Relationship,“A dual relationship is one in which a person attempts to fulfill two roles with the same person—for example, to have a professional and a personal relationship with the same person.”

The boundary of a dual relationship is especially easy to cross for those serving in small town churches. A personal story will make my point. The first congregation I served was in a rural village. Soon after I arrived, I was at a town meeting and noticed another church’s minister on the other side of the hall. We had met briefly at a meeting, so I made my way over to him to renew our acquaintance. “So how is everything going?” he asked. “Just fine. We really love it here,” I said: “And the people are great; everyone is so liberal and progressive.” He smiled and said, “That’s because you have them all.” That is, all the liberals and progressives. For religious leaders, especially in small towns, the reality can be that those who you have the most in common with are members of the congregation you serve. Your members are the ones you might like to call your friends. They may also be your banker, doctor, dentist, your children’s teacher, or a car dealer. Entering into a “secular” relationship while still wearing a “sacred” role can put a strain on both the religious leader and the member. This is a boundary to stay aware of and monitor carefully.

Self-esteem issues represent another boundary challenge. While serving a congregation as a religious leader can be an empowering, uplifting, grace-filled, heady, and deepening experience, a leader’s role is to serve the community. To be very direct, it’s not about you; it’s about the members and friends of your congregation. If you find yourself becoming increasingly invested in issues, relationships, a particular vision—your vision—of the church’s future or you find a need to be informed of or to attend most meetings and events, then it’s time to step back and assess your role. Three valuable questions to ask yourself are:

  • Who benefits from my relationship and actions? Whose needs are being met?
  • What is the impact of my involvement on the congregation (and its mission)?
  • What is the impact on the person(s), their family and friends?

Every person needs and wants respect, nurturing, support, caring, and love. Meeting these desires through a position of leadership is crossing a boundary; when self-esteem needs are met in this way, the congregation is not served and trouble and stress are likely to follow.

Finally, some religious leaders are attracted to others in the congregation. Meeting the need for intimacy in a faith context can create challenges for any religious leader. For religious professionals, this is a clear boundary violation and comes with potential issues and problems that can destroy careers, relationships, and congregations. It’s simply best if the need for intimacy is never met in the congregation.

But attractions do occur; they’re normal. How you handle an attraction—an opportunity for intimacy—makes all the difference. (See “Sexual Attraction for the Religious Professional.”)

Being clear about boundaries serves the needs of everyone—religious leaders and congregants. Boundaries are a form of self-care. Staying aware and intentional about boundaries will meet the best interests of all.

Self-Care Strategies

If you start by following through with one or two (and hopefully more) of these strategies for self-care, and attend to them deliberately and intentionally, you stand a much better chance of avoiding stress and burnout and maintaining appropriate boundaries.

First, you can meet your intellectual needs through:

  • Workshops. Either through the Association and Unitarian Universalist religious professionals’ events or with groups like the Alban Institute or FaithTrust Institute, religious leaders have the opportunity to meet with others who serve congregations and hear objective assessment, learn from challenging insights, or feel listened to by a peer or consultant. It's a great opportunity to reality-test, share your concerns and frustrations, and re-energize and renew your vision.
  • Congregations. It’s a great opportunity to reality-test, seek the counsel of a consultant, share your concerns and challenges, and re-energize.
  • Religious professionals’ committee. Each professional staff member (minister and/or director of religious education) needs to have a group they can discuss their vision, expectations, daily routine, and joys and stresses of the work with. For parish ministers, some congregations refer to this group as the Committee on Ministry or the Committee for Professional Ministry. There are excellent resources available to help with the formation of this committee. The Thomas Jefferson District Office, Resource Reader for Committee on Ministry is an excellent place to start.
  • Peer groups. Religious leaders, especially religious professionals, need to attend their peer group meetings and gatherings. Staying in touch with peers is a way to demonstrate your concern for them and it gives them opportunities to care for you.
  • Staying healthy by meeting your physical needs can help to sustain your energy and focus and provide an emotional outlet. For some it can even be a disciplined spiritual practice.
  • Exercise. The kinds of physical activity available to anyone—from walking to rowing, aerobics to yoga, swimming to hiking, canoeing to Pilates—are astounding and can result in a positive attitude. Besides it’s good for you!
  • Diet. Like exercise, diet can make a significant difference in the way you feel. If this is a challenge, it might be worth consulting with a nutritionist.
  • Annual check-up. I’m always astounded by the number of people who can’t remember the last time they had a complete physical examination. Make one today and plan to make one annually.
  • Some basic strategies for emotional self-care are:
    • A mentor. Ask a peer, someone you admire and trust and preferably (but not necessarily) someone who has worked in leadership longer than you, to be your mentor. Try to meet with this person on a regular basis for discussion and reflection.
    • Support group. Many regional professional groups not only have monthly meetings for their membership but also additional small support groups. These groups offer an opportunity for honest and open talk (with feedback if you want it) about professional and personal concerns. Support groups are a wonderful way to share what’s on your mind and in your heart and make close friends.
    • Therapy. Traditional psychotherapy is always an excellent place to discuss leadership, self-care, and boundary challenges. Don’t wait for a crisis to occur; make quarterly or semi-annual visits just to check-in.
    • Finally, spiritual self-care, as strange as this may sound, may not be possible in your congregational setting. As a religious leader, trying to lead, facilitate, and promote the spiritual depth of those you are serving while also taking care of your own needs just won’t always be possible and it’s not fair to yourself or to the community you serve to split your attention. Try the following:
  • Spiritual practice. Prayer, meditation, journaling, yoga, and tai chi are just a few of the ways that many people augment their spiritual life. Having a daily spiritual discipline can be as important to self-care as anything you do.
  • Retreats. Whether it’s simply an unstructured couple of days away or an organized, disciplined spiritual getaway, retreats can be a time for deepening reflection, re-kindling and re-energizing the soul, and calming the noise of everyday routines. Retreats are a chance to follow the un-American Zen maxim, which counsels, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.”
  • Spiritual director. One sees a traditional psychotherapist for emotional support; one works with a spiritual director to become more attuned to the sacred, holy, or transcendent Presence in order to respond more fully to life.

Good self-care and staying aware of and observing boundaries allows religious leaders to stay fully engaged in life. While the calling to religious leadership is powerful, appealing, and difficult to refuse, the call to be a complete and whole human being is also powerful and must not be ignored. As religious leaders, our congregations expect us to model self-care and balance needs and demands with awareness. Modeling self-care is a religious practice, and like all such practices, it is a daily commitment and challenge. E. B White spoke eloquently about balancing when he said, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

But plan we must. Plan to improve and enjoy, save and savor. This is our calling. Take care of yourself.

Read Next>> Sexual Attraction for the Religious Professional

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Last updated on Friday, April 22, 2011.

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