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Self-Care for the Weary Pastor

This article is brought to you by Focus on The Family's Pastoral Counseling staff

As a pastor, you’re called to look out for the needs of God’s flock. Anybody who has spent any amount of time doing this kind of work knows how demanding it can be. It requires in-depth knowledge of the Bible based on hours of intense scriptural study. It involves teaching and preaching with an eye to “rightly dividing the Word of truth.” It entails visiting the sick and dying, offering encouragement and guidance to the lost and lonely, unraveling the knots in the tangled-up lives of hurting people, and listening long and hard to folks who just feel the need of a sympathetic ear. Sometimes it means doing all of this while holding down a second job in an attempt to make ends meet.

Sound like a recipe for a mental breakdown? That’s exactly what it can become if you don’t take deliberate and intentional steps to keep yourself sane in the midst of all the hustle and bustle. Sanity is just another word for health, and neither physical nor mental health is automatically self-sustaining. No one is immune to the wear and tear of too much, too often, and too soon. If you want to stay in shape to serve God’s people as faithfully and effectively as possible, you’re going to have to come up with a strategy for fending off the demons of over-commitment and burnout. We want to help you do just that.

Sane Church, Sane Pastor

When it comes to maintaining your sanity, there’s a great deal to be said for the importance of operating within a healthy environment. In case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of “crazy” churches out there. Some are so financially strapped that they ask way too much of their pastors and pay them way too little to do it. Others are plain disorganized: no one knows what’s happening, or when, or why, so they slap the whole mess on the minister’s plate and expect him to figure it out. Still others are too rigidly controlled, whether by the elder board, the denominational hierarchy, or the whims and wishes of a dynastic “founding family.” None of this is conducive to pastoral health or good, sound ministry and outreach.

This bears thinking about. If you’re just out of college or seminary, searching for a job or candidating for a pastoral position, be sure to take a good, hard look at every opportunity that comes your way before signing anything. Don’t take the plunge until you know exactly what you’re getting into. Ask for a complete job description and don’t be afraid to negotiate the details. Yes, that can be scary when you’re still on the outside looking in. But believe us, you’ll be glad you did it later on.

If you’re already in the middle of a frazzled, mind-bending situation, ask yourself what can be done to take your “crazy” church in the direction of order and sanity. Institute a program designed to cure the ills and make the unhealthy environment safe. If this precipitates a conflict or leads to a break between you and the “ruling powers,” so be it. In that case, shake the dust off your feet and go somewhere else. You’ll never be able to accomplish any real ministry anyway until you have a reasonably wholesome context in which to do it.

Healthy Attitude, Healthy Habits, Healthy Heart and Mind

Many pastors struggle to stay sane because they’re operating under the handicap of a flawed philosophy of Christian leadership. Some are controlled by a sense of never-ending obligation and guilt. Others pride themselves on their “self-sacrificial” dedication to “ministry” as a 24/7 proposition. Both approaches are inherently self-destructive. They eventually lead to burnout or something even worse.

If you want to care for others effectively without losing your mind, decide right now that your own times of Sabbath rest are going to be inviolable. Maintain healthy personal boundaries and devote some careful thought – preferably in cooperation with your spouse – to a good time-management plan. Don’t sacrifice family time or self-care time to the all-consuming demands of something you vaguely regard as “ministry.” Remember that “minister” is a verb, not a noun. It’s not who you are. It’s just one of many things you do within the context of your life as a follower of Jesus Christ.

If you’re wise, you won’t allow the “job” to take over the totality of your existence and personal identity. Among other things, that’s going to entail learning how to “pick your no’s” carefully. Don’t be one of those pastors who feels responsible for everything and who fears the consequences of turning anyone down. Instead, live as if you really believe in the sovereignty of God. Remember that the universe doesn’t revolve around you.

Doing Good Self-Care

Jesus Himself knew that self-care is an issue of the greatest importance. That’s why He regularly took time out to re-fill His pitcher with Living Water. You need to do the same.

Believe it or not, there are a lot of pastors and dedicated Christ-followers who don’t take their Lord’s example very seriously. Some actually believe that self-care has no place in the Christian life. Self-care, in their view, is simply “selfish.” These folks have forgotten that Jesus summed up the law in the words. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39; Leviticus 19:18). If you don’t love yourself, you have no way of gauging the meaning of love for others.

So how do you go about tackling this challenge? We’d suggest that good self-care strategies or activities can be grouped under four major headings: the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical:

Spiritual (Heart). Prayer, Bible study, devotions, solitude, silence, and scriptural meditation all belong in this category. The objective is to find a place apart from the daily grind where you can get in touch with God and discover who you are within the context of His love.

Mental (Intellect). Mental self-care – things like thinking, reading, and discussing important issues with others – supports psychological integrity by maintaining completeness, wholeness, and unwavering commitment to personal values and principles.

Emotional (Soul). The idea here is to stay in touch with how you’re doing by listening to your feelings, identifying your emotions, and then coming to a conclusion about what they mean and what you should do about it.

Physical (Body). This is probably the area that comes most readily to mind when we think about self-care. It involves a healthy diet, regular exercise, adequate rest and sleep, and a conscious effort to reduce stress.

We have a team of pastoral counselors on staff here at Focus on the Family who would be more than happy to discuss the importance of self-care with you. If you feel inclined to take advantage of that option, don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and give us a call. You can reach our counselors for a free consultation Monday through Friday between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. Mountain time at 1-844-4PASTOR. The Family Help Center staff member who answers the phone will arrange for one of them to call you back as soon as possible.

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