Clergy Health and Well-being: Perceived Barriers, Part 1

The Ministry Life Choices Initiative (MLCI) will assist those in years 1-5 of ministry with developing habits and practices for sustainable ministry. The relationship will span the first few years of theological education and the introductory years as a congregational minister. The MLCI is a ministry of the Pension Fund of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in partnership with Lexington Theological Seminary.

The MLCI blog series, launched January 15, 2014, is designed to promote conversation surrounding issues related to clergy health and well-being. The blog seeks to include and incorporate writers from a wide variety of ministerial contexts, seminaries and demographics.

Clergy Health and Well-being: Perceived Barriers, Part 1
–by Julie Richardson Brown, M. Div., Advancement Associate, Lexington Theological Seminary, M. Div., 2002, LTS

“It’s impossible, Julie, to tend to the spiritual care of others if your own soul is dry.”

I cannot tell you how many times my nurse/caregiver/Sunday School teacher extraordinaire/preacher’s wife mother said those words to me as I entered and graduated from seminary, was ordained, and began serving churches—I did all this at 110%, all systems go, and ready to change the world.

Years later, my mother, very graciously, never said, “I told you so.” But she could have.

I know all too well the story of burnout, what it means to be so in-your-bones-tired from the work you are doing that you feel you cannot do it any longer, no matter how much it might break your heart to leave that work. It is easy to blame this on someone else—on a congregation, or on a particular situation or group of people. It is easy to blame it on pre-dawn hospital visits or late night phone calls or 18-hour Sundays. It is easy—far too easy—to set aside self-care for the practice of being all things to all people (an impossibility, at best).

The intent of the MLCI is to host conversation and develop programs, that, in a positive way, set about figuring out what helps pastors thrive, what keeps them energized, motivated and healthy, and what helps support a longevity of service. This blog is one way to get the conversation rolling, and in this particular installment (January 15, 22 and 29), blog writers have been asked to reflect on what perceived barriers might be to clergy health and well-being.

“Perceived” is a loaded word; but, the truth is, there are things that get in the way of clergy health and well-being that are, in fact, perceived (see above: that need to be all things to all people!). It is also my belief that the biggest barriers clergy face to physical and spiritual health, to vitality and energy of vocation, to NOT being burned out are…those we create ourselves. This is not an indictment, rather an invitation to think about how we—we clergy—might contribute to our own well-being in a more consistent and even faithful way. There is no question that it can be difficult to find balance when one is serving the church in a professional capacity. Those hospital visits and phone calls and long days do take their toll–no doubt. Still, we don’t do ourselves, our congregations, or our calls any favors when we don’t take the time to nurture and care for self.

Two years and-a-half years ago I left a job I loved very much, because I knew I couldn’t keep up with it much longer. I was exhausted—mentally, emotionally and physically. Since then I have written (via a personal blog) and run (via treadmills and sidewalks and city park paths) myself into a healthier, stronger and more whole version of myself. Maybe I’ve even written and run myself into more of who God created me to be. And I’ve landed “back home” at the Seminary that taught me so much, where I hope I am able to help others along the way.

That’s (part of) my story. It isn’t everyone’s. And my hope is that in sharing it—and inviting others to share theirs—we’ll all find ourselves healthier…stronger…more whole. More of who God called us to be. More of who God called to ministry.