A pastor may be deeply committed, extraordinarily faithful, highly educated and extremely hard working, but for a pastor to be effective and durable, a pastor must practice healthy self-care.
Self-care includes developing and maintaining good physical, spiritual and mental health practices.
These three areas of wellness are intertwined and inseparable. Yet, in my own life and in the experience of many of my colleagues, I recognize that more attention has been given to physical and spiritual health. Mental health is often neglected, causing all three to diminish.
Mental health includes our emotional, psychological and social well-being.
Every human being experiences highs and lows in mental health. Although some forms of mental illness are genetic, other expressions of mental illness may be related to circumstances or body chemistry and may be pre-emptively avoided or proactively addressed by practicing good mental hygiene.
A common but naÃ¯ve misconception is that pastors, or persons with strong religious faith, are exempt from mental distress.
The Apostle Paul is noted for his courageous ministry but he confessed, “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28).
In his book, “Surviving the Stained-Glass Jungle,” veteran pastor Bill Self writes, “Self-care is not destructive self-indulgence, but rather it is being a steward of some rather special gifts – the human body and soul, along with the capacity to bring joy to others as well as to experience it.”
Those in every vocation experience varying levels of stress, distress and duress.
However, because the pastoral task requires remarkable investment in the lives of others, a pastor who neglects mental hygiene can gradually slip into a state of melancholy or emotional chaos and then compound the dilemma by ignoring the symptoms for fear of stigmatizing his or her ministry.
I have observed at least five areas that commonly place stress on a pastor’s mental and emotional health:
1. Unrealistic expectations.
These expectations can be real or perceived, and they can be generated by vocal congregants or be self-imposed by a minister with a “messiah complex.”
Within most congregations, a mix of expectations exists that fluctuate between market-driven goals (for example, attendance, budgets, denominational recognition) and mission-driven goals (for example, life transformation, ministry participation, stewardship practices).
The wider the gap between these two categories, the more intense the stress on the minister.
2. Perpetual preparation.
The task of perpetual preparation can be a mentally exhausting chore.
Many professional public speakers have four or five niche speeches they give over and over to different groups. Professors and teachers have lectures and lesson plans that are updated and revised from semester to semester but they usually follow a core curriculum.
A preaching pastor is unique in that he or she is generally expected to prepare and deliver 40 to 50 different Sunday sermons per year to virtually the same group of people, in addition to devotionals, Bible studies and speeches for community events.
3. A pendulum of emotional encounters.
A minister deals daily with grief, grace and everything in between. Perhaps more than any other vocation, a pastor regularly moves in and out of situations with polarizing and intense emotions, such as death and birth, divorce and marriage, perversion and conversion, and conflict and resolution.
If a pastor is not careful, the residual emotions from these encounters will linger and intermingle, creating either emotional apathy or spiritual neuropathy.
4. Problem people.
Not to be confused with people with problems, problem people are unusually high maintenance individuals who consume an exorbitant amount of a minister’s time with petty complaints or unconstructive criticisms.
Marshall Shelley, director of the doctor of ministry program at Denver Seminary and contributing editor of Christianity Today’s CTpastors.com, refers to these “well-intentioned dragons” as “sincere, well-meaning saints, but they leave ulcers, strained relationships and hard feelings in their wake.”
5. Confidentiality cache.
Because the pastoral role is not only prophetic but also priestly, a pastor is entrusted with a lot of confidential information that is locked away into a pastor’s mental storage.
The volume of this information can become a heavy emotional weight if it remains in a pastor’s mental inbox and is not appropriately archived.
In light of these factors, how can a pastor preserve good health and promote longevity in ministry by practicing good mental and emotional hygiene?
Each pastor has to identify and adopt hygienic habits that fit his or her context and personality. Here are some practices I found to be helpful in my own pastoral routine:
- Establish and maintain a consistent prayer and devotional life.
- Maintain a relationship with a counselor or trustworthy conversation partner, outside of your church.
- Convene a small accountability group, establish a confidentiality covenant with them and meet with them monthly.
- Read regularly in multiple genres, including biography, history and fiction.
- Pay attention to diet, especially limiting intake of sugar, caffeine and other foods that can trigger emotional swings.
- Develop a regimen of moderate physical exercise.
- Follow a consistent routine for sleep and rest.
- Periodically disconnect from the work of the church, especially from mental labor (problem solving, conflict management), cellphone calls and social media.
- Have an annual physical examination as well as eye examination and dermatology screening.
- Participate in a peer network of pastors who convene with a covenant of confidentiality and who vent and vision together.
- Learn to delegate, equipping and enabling others to employ their spiritual gifts.
- Be alert to seasons when your mental distress leads to dysfunction, manifested by ongoing and overwhelming symptoms of depression, chronic anxiety, paranoia and/or insomnia. Immediately enlist the care of a medical professional. To procrastinate getting care prolongs the process of recovery.
Life in the stained-glass jungle has unique rewards and challenges. Self-care is absolutely essential.
Author Bill Self reminds us, “It takes courage to take care of yourself. One of the hallmarks of a professional is the ability to keep healthy – physically, emotionally and spiritually. You must take responsibility for yourself and not expect others to take the initiative to care for you.”
Practicing good self-care can strengthen and lengthen a pastor’s ministry, empowering a pastor to be mentally sharp, emotionally perceptive and spiritually grounded in all seasons.
Barry Howard is a clergy coach and congregational consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) and a board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics. A version of this article first appeared on the CHC blog and is used with permission. His writings also appear on his blog, Barry’s Notes. You can follow him on Twitter @BarrysNotes.
Pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches. He and his wife, Amanda, live in Brookhaven, Georgia.