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Jesus came so that we could have life and life to the full.
Back in the mid to late seventies I worked with the Ministry to Priests Program as part of the Center for Human Development at the University of Notre Dame. During that time we worked in more than thirty dioceses around the country. In the early eighties I facilitated a priest support group focused on spirituality and spiritual development. One of the mantras in the ministry to priest work was: “Your ministry is as healthy as you are.” From these formative experiences and borne out repeatedly in my subsequent work as a consultant and life coach over many years I have observed that the demands of ministry make it all too easy to be focused on the needs of others to the neglect of one’s own needs. These work experiences and my own process of human and spiritual development has repeatedly driven home the need to attend to self-care.
For many ministers and others in the helping professions, “self-care” is often associated with being selfish or self-centered. In fact, I believe it is an example of the practice of good stewardship, taking care of the gifts we have been given so that we have more to offer to the people that we live and work with, the communities we are part of, and the people we serve.
The practice of self-care is a means to living an integrated life, a life of less stress and more ease. But our culture promotes a consumer-oriented and machine-like approach to life. The world and structures of life are rationally constructed and tempt us to lead compartmentalized lives dissociated from our emotions or spirituality.
This is in stark contrast to intentionally cultivating and respecting life as an organic process, a living system. During the winter, I have been working in the yard cleaning up the flowerbeds. It has been quite cold for Seattle this season but as I rake old leaves, I see that new life is both ready and in some cases is already emerging. The emergence of new life is not wholly dependent on my actions—like raking up old leaves or giving supplemental water—but my actions can enhance it or detract from it. Similarly, the quality of my life can be greatly enhanced or greatly diminished by my level of commitment to self-care.
To live life as an organic, constantly regenerating process depends on adequate attention to practices of self-care. And developing an effective regimen of self-care takes energy, discipline and support.
Begin with an assessment of your whole person
A place to start is with an assessment of your current reality in a number of different dimensions:
Dimensions of the Whole Person
+ things are going well / –things need improvement / OK things are satisfactory
Family, friends, communities, networks
Giving Back/Paying it Forward
How would you characterize your current status in each of these areas? Use a + if things are going well, a – if this is an area of need or calling for action and an ok if current reality is satisfactory. Prioritize your top one to three areas. Does your assessment reflect your priorities?
Value of discipline
Identifying your priorities for the practice of self-care is just a start. We don’t naturally develop or mature without the conscious commitment to become more focused and disciplined through consistent practice.
In an article titled, “Following Jesus in the Real World: Asceticism Today,” George Maloney helps us to see the rich potential of discipline which he describes as “the conscious self-control and systematic exercise of the Christian life in the light of obtaining the goal: the growing experience of God and a growing unity with God, neighbor and self.”
Discipline has, he says, a negative side in that it addresses “removing all that hinders one’s ability to love,” but it also has a positive side, emphasizing “consistent striving to gain virtues and graces that develop a Christian spirit of love.”
The negative image of discipline for many of us may stem from an image of God as judge and a spirituality which sees pleasure as bad and pain as good. Yet Maloney’s reference to negative and positive aspects of discipline—taking away and adding to—call to mind the concept of dying and rising so present in our minds, especially during Lent and Easter.
This Paschal mystery was a remote abstraction to me until the time of my father’s dying when I began to understand the connection between death and new life in a very personal way. As I did in raking my flower beds this winter, we experience this connection in the rhythm of nature, moving out of winter and into spring. I find discipline to be a friend because it keeps this connection always before me and helps me focus on these questions in my life: Where am I called to die or to let go, and where am I called to new life or new patterns of action?
Both in my own life and in my ministry experience I have continually encountered the need for the small steps of practical action. The night before I embarked on a year abroad in college a friend of mine gave me an empty book saying that I may want to write. I started out by keeping a diary, reporting daily activities. After a few months I crossed through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin. Later that day writing to describe my experience, my writing moved from a report to a reflection of how I never realized how much I had taken my freedom for granted. Over many years I have found journaling to be a way of “writing myself to self-understanding.”
Practices of self-care
Practice is the key to progress in any field and self-care is no exception. There are a number of practices or disciplines you can use to advance your regimen of self-care:
1. Take care of the body.
This concerns exercise, diet, proper nutrition and rest. Eating healthy is important, but also consider the discipline of fasting. Fasting from food strengthens our sense of solidarity with the millions in our world who go hungry every day. The practice of fasting can also extend to other things that are “too much” in our lives: business, television, texting, email, surfing the web, judgment of self or others, etc.
2. Cultivate silence.
Most of us are too busy and almost totally focused outward. Make space in your day and week for solitude and silence. When we slow down and make time for silence we can become aware of life and our place in it. (“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10)
3. Engage in reading and reflection.
Exercise your mind. Emphasize quality over quantity—and subjects that nourish your life and spirit.
4. Make time for regular personal and communal prayer.
Any relationship requires time—prayer is quiet time with the Holy One.
5. Participate in a community of faith.
Gathering regularly with a faith community breaks us out of our individualism and calls us to the common good. It is also the place where we are invited to share our faith connected to daily life and receive support and challenge to live it out in daily life.
6. Keep a journal.
One way to keep in touch with the inner life is to keep a journal. Give yourself the gift of an empty book and carry it with you at all times.
7. Spend time in nature.
Taking advantage of the outdoors teaches us the natural rhythms. “We are as much alive as we keep the earth alive.” – Chief Dan George
8. Pay attention to the particulars of your relationships.
Our human and spiritual development is intimately bound up and reflected by the key relationships in our lives.
9. Engage in acts of service.
Bottom line: life is not about us or what we’re getting. We are gifted in immense ways and in recognition of this, we give back—and are empowered and enriched by the giving.
10. Make an annual retreat.
Stepping back from the normal routine of life frees up our energy to attend to both our inner and outer life.
11. Choose a spiritual director or coach.
Most of us are not going to engage in a consistent practice of self-care on our own. Spiritual directors, coaches, mentors—all of these offer a necessary support structure. They will challenge and encourage you in the direction you are feeling called and hold you accountable for the actions that will get you there.
12. Find a small faith sharing or growth group.
Meeting at least once a month to reflect and share your journey with others keeps us honest and can be very enriching.
Many leaders, and perhaps especially ministers, are tempted to ignore self-care in the face of unceasing calls on their time and energy. But too many ministers learn the hard way that neglecting their own care leaves them with fewer and fewer resources with which to care for those they serve. Consistent practices of self-care regenerate the commitment to and energy for the important work of ministry.
Think about what your organization could do if the process of planning met the inevitability of change head-on—and it resulted in significant success.