One topic that comes up often for those of us in ministry, especially ministry in the grey space, is self-care. When working in areas of tension and even conflict, it’s difficult to not become burned out, cynical, disheartened, frustrated, and hurt. It’s challenging to know when to take a break, to give yourself a sabbath from being in the trenches, as well as to know how to spend that time. But as my time in ministry progresses, I’m realizing more and more just how precious and necessary those sabbaths are to me and my personal well-being.
One of my goals this year is learning how to further develop healthy emotional and physical boundaries for my ministry context. 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.
News flash: ministry can be draining
The past couple of months have involved both sharing my story with some and hearing the stories of others, either over the phone or in person. When a person’s story resonates deeply with my own, it’s hard to not let the emotions of my experiences surface, which in turn makes me a less effective listener, makes me less objective in times when I need to be just that. I’ve heard stories from other LGBTQ individuals about their experiences of coming out to their parents, of being a part of non-affirming denominations while feeling called to ministry, of coming to terms with their identity and having to wrestle with extremely difficult questions. I’ve listened to the stories of parents about their child’s coming out, about feeling alone, about fearing for their child’s future and holistic well-being.
If you’re in active ministry, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about.
Self-care and sabbath are challenging to me individually because 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. This makes hearing the voice and feeling the embrace of the Divine hard to do. It means being inundated with perspectives and opinions from all across the spectrum of human experience. It means not always knowing how I feel or what I think. Self-care for me necessitates knowing myself—who I am, what I’m called to do, what I’m able to do—which becomes a challenge when I often don’t truly feel alone.
Working with the Marin Foundation, a ministry dedicated to bridging the gap between the church and the gay community, I often encounter people who might look at me and my life and deem it unholy, sinful, or dishonoring to God. Because they often share perspectives and presuppositions with many around whom I was raised, my emotions and thoughts have a tendency to cycle back and forth between what I “know” now to what I “knew” then. My own thoughts and voice can get lost in the mix. I lose my sense of self, my sense of identity, and I feel confused, disoriented, and fragmented —all of which make it difficult for me to do effective and holistic ministry.
How can I help people become whole when I don’t feel that I myself am whole? How can I share my understanding of the “good news” when I have such a hard time hearing and assimilating it into my own life? These are the questions that make me aware of just how much I need to take care of myself so that I can better provide care for others.
So what does my self-care look like given everything I’ve shared thus far?
What self-care looks 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 a network 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 school work, 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. Being such a social person, I try to have a balance here. I go out with friends for dinner or drinks, but I make sure to be home earlier than I might have if I were still in my early 20s. 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.
Are any of these ideas new or groundbreaking? I doubt it. Do all of these precepts get put into place all the time? Of course not, but they are good basic tools for helping me live a healthy life while engaged in ministry. Will these ideas work for every person all the time in every kind of ministry context? I would imagine not. Self-care is just that … self. I have to know myself, my passions, and my limits and live and work accordingly.
I hope these ideas spark some for you wherever you are. Know yourself, know your limits, and know your heart. Set boundaries, take a sabbath, take rest, and take heart.
MICHAEL OVERMAN is a seminarian at Garrett-Evangelical in Evanston, IL. As a self-admitted “old soul”, Michael is more than comfortable asking the tough questions and not having immediate answers. Michael is passionate about all things interfaith, challenging the religious status quo — and baking whenever possible. A graduate from Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL with a BA in psychology, Michael believes Emma Thompson in Angels in America when she says, “In the new century, I think we will all be insane.” Find Michael on Twitter @irishremix8406 or catch up on his blogs at michaelmatthewoverman.com.