Self-care sounds like man-centered psychobabble. It feels inherently selfish, contradicting biblical concepts such as self-denial and self-sacrifice. Why would a ministry-minded Christian pay special attention to himself or herself?
Let’s learn what self-care is, then see if any part aligns with Scripture. Perhaps it belongs on the trash pile of worldly philosophies. Or possibly common grace has made mankind instinctively conscious of a healthy practice.
A helpful definition of self-care is “the self-initiated behaviour that people choose to incorporate to promote good health and general well-being.”1 Simply stated, self-care is taking responsibility for your personal health and well-being.Areas usually in focus are physical well-being – diet, exercise, and sleep; mental/psychological well-being, especially how one deals with stress; and relational well-being – harmony and satisfaction with family, friends, and others. As Christians, we add one more, spiritual well-being – communion with God and spiritual formation.
The Need for Something Like Self-Care
Two questions arise when relating self-care to people in ministry, particularly pastors. Does pastoral life increase the need for self-care? And is self-care a legitimate pursuit for a Christian in ministry?
“Self” denotes the care of one’s own person, but it also emphasizes the individual’s initiative in performing this care. One practicing self-care doesn’t wait for a medical professional, family member, or other outside entity to look after his well-being.
In the case of a pastor, he doesn’t rely on his deacons or his doctor to tell him he needs to cut back on seventy hour work weeks, eat more whole foods, and go for a bike ride with his family. He takes charge of his habits, schedule, and priorities. He orders his life to fulfill his pastoral role while maintaining personal health.
Herein lies the problem for pastors. The very nature of their vocation is to serve others. Their time and energy are poured out every day for church members and anyone else who seems to need assistance. One text message can disrupt a day or even a whole week depending on the degree of calamity it conveys.
Stressors are primary contributors to the need for self-care. A normal ministry week can produce vast fluctuations in a pastor’s stress levels. You can probably identify with this list from Faithful and Fractured: Responding to the Clergy Health Crisis:
Twelve hour workdays; supervisory relationships requiring managerial and delegation skills; unpredictable schedule; people seeking help with serious problems; unable to take extended breaks from ministry work, or guilt feelings when you do; numerous meetings; expectation of availability to church members; enlisting and overseeing volunteers; leading well; conflict resolution; working without appropriate skill set; working with political forces in the church; taking criticism; performing sacred work2
Here’s another list of stressors that Christian leaders experience:
Poor diet; poor exercise habits; career uncertainty; role ambiguity; role conflict (between church expectations and personal or family needs); role overload (too many real or imagined expectations); lack of opportunities to ‘derole’ and be yourself, for a change; loneliness; time management frustrations; life-change stressors; temptations of all kinds (sexual, despair if your church isn’t growing, jealousy of the success of others, anxiety over financial problems, anger)3
On top of all that, Sunday’s coming!
A helpful resource that identifies areas of a pastor’s personal health needing attention, as well as recommended solutions, is Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving. Regarding the need for self-care, the authors say, “If we combine the expectations of this role with the fact that most pastors are people-pleasers, we can understand how ministry can feel like a never-ending treadmill of trying to satisfy others whose expectations cannot be met.”4
In the past two years, a new source of stress has arisen in ministry. I don’t have to cite statistics for you to know that anxiety, depression, and resignation from ministry altogether have increased as a result of dealing with COVID-related issues in the church. Even before COVID, according to Barna Report’s The State of Pastors published in 2017, 1 out of 3 pastors were at risk of burnout and almost ½ have faced depression.5
Pastors are especially susceptible to work and lifestyle patterns that wear them down physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. And, though many church members are affectionate toward their pastors, they are not likely to realize daily ministry is a threat to pastors’ health and well-being. It would be a very unusual setting in which the chairman of the deacons asks the pastor for a report of his schedule and says, “We want you to sleep more and spend more time with your family. The church needs to hire an assistant pastor. And by the way, this summer we’re sending you on a six-week rest and study sabbatical.”
A typical congregation isn’t aware their pastor is redlining until he’s in the ER with chest pain or suddenly resigns on a Sunday morning. Pastors must take responsibility for gauging their health indicators and maintaining their own routines to preserve and protect their well-being.
Does pastoral life increase the need for self-care? I think the answer to that is pretty clear. What about the second question? Is self-care a legitimate pursuit for a Christian in ministry?
Problems with the Concept of Self-Care
We’re good with terms like self-denial, self-discipline, and self-control. But self-care? It sounds like you’re taking yourself to a spa. Try this on your deacons: “I’m taking a few days off this week for self-care.” Right.
The common wisdom for Christian living, especially ministry, is anything that caters to self is bad. Self is the enemy, second only to the devil. Anything that appeals to self is automatically suspect. Self-indulgent practices are guilty pleasures. Soldiers of the cross endure hardship, and they’d better not be caught reading fiction or taking a nap.
How could self-care be legitimate for one called to the rigors of ministry? This is where a secular term can blur our perspective of a valid idea. Self-care sounds like you’re being soft on yourself, avoiding difficulty, and putting your own needs first. Of course all these are the opposite of biblical principles, especially love, which is giving yourself, not coddling yourself.
(Next: A Biblically-Based Perspective of Self-Care)
2 Faithful and Fractured: Responding to the Clergy Health Crisis by Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell and Jason Byassee, 1-16
4 Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving by Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald Guthrie, 62
Dean Taylor has served in pastoral ministry for over twenty-five years. He holds degrees from Bob Jones University and Seminary (BA, MA, MDiv) and Northland International University (DSM) and serves on the pastoral ministries faculty at Faith Baptist Bible College. His delights include his family, reading, and the great outdoors.