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A Guide to Ministry Self-Care: Negotiating Today’s Challenges with Resilience and Grace (Book Review)

Rev. Jerrod Hugenot

October 18, 2019

The authors of this new book, all affiliated with my alma mater Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, KS, have an important word on clergy self-care: “Without attentiveness, the self can be depleted” (p. 24).  

May the clergy (and everyone else) say, “AMEN!”

However, when it really counts, can we live this out consistently? And most of all: can we say this to ourselves?

“A Guide to Ministry Self-Care” (hereafter “The Guide”) begins with an overview of what today’s pastors are dealing with: rapid (and disruptive) change, churches losing rather than gaining ground, and increasingly moving into bi-vocational ministry (or if new to ministry today, more likely always being a pastor needing multiple sources of income to fulfill your call to ministry).

When I graduated from seminary in 2002 in Kansas City, there were a few multiple-income pastors out there, but the model seemed to be reflective of very small congregations. By the Great Recession, churches rapidly found (especially after a longtime pastor could safely retire, post-Recession pension gains being “safe”) they could not sustain the salary and full benefits with the next pastor. Did I mention that they knew they had fewer resources to fund a pastor with, but very few started the necessary work of acknowledging that lesser pay connotes fewer hours/expectations? 

Since coming to Region staff, I have made it part of my work with our churches to emphasize the idea of “dollars and duties” needing fair balance. This seems “newer thinking” to American Baptists. However, other mainline denominations, most due to the way their polity and oversight of a local church works, have been working along the lines of salary minimums. Whatever happens in the future, such conversations about “what is fair” need to be in the mix just as surely as the written (and unwritten!) expectations of a congregation, which will vary from church to church and even from pew to pew!

In 2015, the ABCUSA Minister’s Council studied pastoral attrition and ways to assist pastors in thriving beyond just “hanging on.” The Guide authors note a sampling of responses from fellow ABCUSA pastors when asked what advice they would give a new pastor about life in pastoral ministry?”

It’s hard work, and ill paid, so be sure you love it….Be certain of your calling, its costs and your willingness to pay the price…Seminary gives you some tools but is often isolated from the reality of the church….Be tender hearted but thick skinned….Plan to be bi-vocational like the Apostle Paul, so you don’t have to be dependent on the church. (2015 MC Survey results, quoted in the Guide, p. 9-10).

Into this milieu, I believe the argument for self-care increases. Again, “Without self-care, the self can be depleted” is a wise word from our authors. Complications will always arise. Conflict and change will always be with us. Complexity is part of life, including those calls at 3 AM from a congregant in need. Ministry is not for the faint of heart, yet such times also need those moments of intentional time away, where you can be “switched off,” and better yet, engaged in some sort of other activity that does not require anything of being the Pastor. Days of work must be met with days of Sabbath!

In another study of pastors who left the ministry, some responses may sound surprising. Others that they shared may sound like what we may say (or have already said) to ourselves when slogging through the days, weeks and years:

“We were ill prepared.”

“We were not well connected.”

“We did not see to matters of self-care and self-discipline.”

“We accepted or were assigned to a [church] that was too dysfunctional to be pastored well.”

“We could not afford the personal cost to continue to pastor.”

“We were not able to manage or resolve conflict.”

“We lost our way.”

How to avoid these scenarios (or work our way out of any that we find already sounding like “yep, that’s me right now!”) is an opportunity to explore what self-care means to you personally and vocationally. 

The authors build their Guide around understanding first that we live in a difficult world, a difficult time, and yes, with a difficult vocation. The authors provide a very helpful chapter on burnout and compassion fatigue, two familiar experiences to any clergyperson. A chapter on understanding stress was particularly illumining for me, as I have thought about stress as a matter of “fight or flight.” They point to research that shows stress can also be helpful in being managed and turned into rising up to a challenge. You can also experience stress in a way that builds up empathy for others (a “tend and befriend” response). 

The authors suggest an appeal to “resilience” strategies. If we build up our capacities for self-care, we also weather the storms more effectively. Resilience makes room within ourselves for being able to adapt, rather than react, and to improvise, rather than wonder why the script isn’t working anymore (particularly ones that make us bog down in self-flagellation and being the victim). They wonderfully observe,

Resilient people learn how to be innovators, tinkers, or improvisers. When confronted with events that have closed doors and changed possibilities, resilient persons talk, dream and invent new possibilities. They do so with the resources at hand. (The Guide, p. 68)

To get to a more resilient way of living, the authors share insights into different strategies for self-care:        

Spiritual Self-Care     
Relational Self-Care  
Physical Self-Care
Self-Care through Inner Wisdom
Self-Care through Laughter and Play
Financial Self-Care
Intellectual Self-Care

You may find one of these chapters more immediately relevant, so please feel free to skip around if you feel like one strategy is more needed. I suggest this book could be one  of those “go back and read again and again” type resources, as you may discover later that you are better able to hear what they are suggesting and implement more into your life as you’ve addressed the more pressing needs up front. It may very well be that in two years you go back and read this book again and realize how you’ve grown in your appreciation and capacity to “get” what they are suggesting. Indeed, that is the goal! (Further, they have a wonderful treasure trove of bibliography and endnotes to consume.)

The two final chapters (arguably needed earlier in the flow of the book’s presentation) provide basic steps and a theology of self-care. I say that, yet I realize the authors have another idea at work: We may tend to skip over earlier chapters looking for “what I need right now” and less time focusing on the underlying foundation.

What do we believe about ministry? What do we believe about our own capacities to be one human being without being taken down by the multiple demands (and persons) vying for our time? Is self-care something that comes when we have time for it, or should it be at the forefront of our daily schedule without fail?

Rev Jerrod H. Hugenot is Associate Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

Olson, Richard P., Ruth Lofgren Rosell, Nathan S. Marsh, Angela Barker Jackson. A Guide to Ministry Self-Care: Negotiating Today’s Challenges with Resilience and Grace. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018).

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