When asked to reflect on what makes a healthy pastor, my initial thought was to create a check list–exercise, rest, good nutrition, massage, time off, time for family and friends, prayer time, study, spiritual direction, time for fun, therapy when needed and physical checkups.
But what is foundational to doing all those things and even believing we deserve to do them, is our need to know with every cell of our body that God loves us, all of us. That we are accepted just as we are. That we need not prove our worth or value. I need to return to that truth over and over again and have that truth come to me.
Few if any of us are over-indulging in prayer and devotional life, like Luther, in order to win God’s approval. Each generation finds its own ways to seek to be justified by works. But today these ways can be deceptive because some of them are culturally valued. Here are six ways we can get tripped up, all of them promoting unhealthiness.
- The illusion of being indispensable–always on call: pagers, beepers, voice mail, call waiting. The Psalmist writes, “He who keeps Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps,” but this insomniac God is Spirit. On the other hand, the Incarnate One did go off by himself–was sometimes unavailable. It took him three days to show up when he heard of Lazarus’ illness. He took a nap in the boat while his friends were panicking. Like Jesus, we have physical and emotional limits of energy. When I announce that parishioners can call me at home from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. for non-emergencies I am communicating I have energy limits and I am honoring my body rhythms. When I go on regular retreats I am modeling the need we all have for sabbath time. The Spirit is always available, but it is unhealthy to think we can be.
- Workaholism–telling parishioners about our 80 hour weeks, how we don’t get a day off (while it is our responsibility to take a day off). It is status in our culture to be “Oh, so busy.” The Workaholic Anonymous groups that met at our church disbanded because people were too busy to attend.
When we regularly give a litany of our overload are we seeking the praise and affirmation of our people, so the hole in us can be temporarily filled?
Where is the place for God’s grace in this? Living by God’s grace is foundational to health and wholeness.
Martin Luther writes, “I command you and the entire circle of my friends to force you, under the threat of an anathema, to observe regular habits for the sake of your health, so that you do not commit suicide and then pretend you did it in obedience to God. For we also serve God by doing nothing, in fact in no way more than by doing nothing. For this reason, God, above all things, wanted the Sabbath so rigidly kept. See to it that you do not despise this. What I am writing is the word of God.”
- Needing to be in control. Know all, be everywhere. “Why have committees? Our pastor steers everything her way.” It is a sign of health to allow the Spirit to work, sometimes behind our backs, often in surprising ways, and sometimes in people we’d least expect. We need to let go, trust the Spirit and our people. It is humbling to remember how little control we do have. We can’t fix, heal, or save people. We can only cultivate the soil or plant seeds so the Spirit can work. It’s a delicate balance to be appropriately in charge, to provide leadership, but not become overly fascinated with control.
- Acting the Lone Ranger. The soloist pastor or lay professional feels a need to do everything. To have all the gifts. In contrast, the New Testament presents a description of a healthy community in which a variety of gifts have been distributed and each person discerns and shares his and her gifts. We name this the priesthood of all believers, but do we believe it and live it out? I learned a healthy lesson over 20 years ago when I attended a conference for senior pastors. We were asked to compile and read a one page sheet describing our ministry setting. After I read mine one of the leaders said, “It sounds like you are wearing an invisible sign that reads, “It all depends on me!” Ouch! No wonder I was so weary. I think about that feedback often.
We model health to our congregations when we become clear what our gifts are and are not. It is wise to shape our ministry around our gifts and trust that others in the community have been given the gifts we lack. When we’re able to have staff we look for people whose gifts complement ours. I realize in every vocation we have to do some tasks we do not enjoy, but the less the better. The clearer we are in saying yes to our gifts, the easier it is to say no to those areas that are not our gifts.
- Persona versus authenticity. It’s easy to play a role in such a public profession as ministry–to perpetually smile and operate on automatic pilot, repeating the same script wherever we are, while losing touch with our souls, our uniqueness, our feelings. A sign of health is to be authentic, to be real.
I like to compare the persona to a thermometer, being authentic to a thermostat. A thermometer records the temperature, a thermostat regulates it. A thermometer is outer directed, a thermostat inner directed.
A thermometer minister takes her cues from feedback, expectations, complaints, and compliments, hopping like popcorn to every request or criticism until she eventually no longer knows who she is. We call her a pleaser. A thermostat minister lives out of prayer and a rich inner life. Much time is spent listening to one’s true self, feelings, dreams, body sensations and most importantly to the Still Small Voice. This calls for daily prayer, spiritual discipline, resting in God, being in love.
- Perfectionism is another deceptive way to attempt to be justified by works. We think if we can do it perfectly, especially worship, we’ll be able to live with ourselves and/or our people will love us. A healthy professional or lay leader has a sense of humor. “Blessed are those who can laugh at themselves. They shall never cease to be amused.” There will be mistakes, missed opportunities, hurt feelings. But mercy and forgiveness have the last word.
We might ask, “Will this error in the bulletin, or the missed cue by the organist, matter five years from now?” Do we give a ten cent error ten dollars worth of energy?
Can we let others do tasks even if they might not do them perfectly, therefore making the pastor not look good? (Oops! We’re back to self justification.)
By the way, it is illusion to think we’ll ever get caught up, and that when we finally do then we can take a day off. We need the grace to live with incompleteness. A prayer in the “New Zealand Prayer Book” says it well: “Lord, it is night. The night is for stillness. Let us be still in the presence of God. It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done. What has not been done has not been done.” Living this way is not as easy as it sounds. The traps I mentioned, as well as others, need to be confronted again and again. Unfortunately some of us need to reach the point of exhaustion or illness, getting out of balance, before we are called back to the place of not taking ourselves and our work so seriously and bathing once more in the lavish grace of God.
In conclusion, when we know we are loved and accepted by God we are more likely to be able to take care of ourselves. We will feel we are worthy of self care, of honoring our body and of taking time for our souls.