When Mitch Randall recently wrote about the need to care for hurting ministers, I deeply resonated with firsthand and secondhand experiences of those hurting needs.
I pastored congregations from the late 1950s through the late ’90s. Then, I taught in seminary, including stress management and self-care classes.
In my years as a pastor, huge waves of change swept over the world and church.
Sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell speak of the ’60s as a “perfect storm” that impacted all institutions, religious or otherwise in their book, “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.”
There was the growth of the baby boomers, expanding drug culture, the pill, relaxed and changing sexual norms, the birth of the internet, the Vietnam War and protests, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. as well as John and Robert Kennedy and more.
Some turned to more conservative religious options to find guidance through this malaise. Others abandoned church altogether.
One of the impacts of all this change was the growth of the religious “nones,” which has risen from about 5 percent in the 1970s to 23 percent or more today. Furthermore, respect for clergy is declining as survey after survey reports.
Others speak of this present age even more drastically.
In his book, “Facing Decline, Finding Hope: New Possibilities for Faithful Churches,” Jeffrey D. Jones talks of the church’s “500-year rummage sale,” akin to previous 500-year rummage sales of the Protestant Reformation and the splitting of the church into East and West.
In such a time, everything is questioned and prone to change. Jones suggests this is why “ministerial leadership today is so difficult, why answers are so hard to come by, why hard work is not producing the results we are accustomed to, why tension and blame abound.”
Congregations, agencies and institutions are shrinking, and too often ministers are blamed.
While new strategies for church and mission are needed, there is a prior need for healthy and resilient ministers. Presently, many ministers are in pain and may feel alone in all this.
How are ministers to become these strong, healthy, spiritually grounded leaders?
A couple years ago, I recruited a team to study this problem and possible solutions.
They were my Central Baptist Theological Seminary (CBTS) teaching colleague Ruth Rosell and two successful CBTS doctorate of ministry students, Angela Jackson and Nathan Marsh.
We realized that for ministers to stay strong and joyful, they would need to find and practice what offered them renewal and rest. But how will this happen?
Two things must be true: (1) the employing congregation, agency or institution must believe this is important and make provision; (2) the minister must claim this and be intentional in choosing and practicing whatever self-care will sustain, renew and restore.
The congregation – or other entity employing a minister – will need not only to extend many of the kindnesses Randall mentioned in his editorial, but also specifically designate time, money and expectation that the minister will use these resources for renewal and growth.
The pastor or priest will need to let go of illusions of being indispensable, discover what renews and then have the discipline to practice these self-care activities.
We discovered that once these two steps are taken, there are dozens of doors to sustaining self-care.
We organized these possibilities into seven broad categories: spiritual, relational, physical, inner wisdom, laughter and play, financial, and intellectual.
We report our findings and insights in our book, “A Guide to Ministry Self-Care: Negotiating Today’s Challenges with Resilience and Grace.”
A number of self-care strategies have enriched me personally.
They might be small, like a few hours of basketball or tennis, reading a book of humor or jokes, playing in a concert band or a day of solitude to reflect, pray and, perhaps, write.
Two larger events were transformative.
In my late midlife, I was tired, discouraged and unsure if I wanted to continue in ministry.
I took a two-week course with Richard Bolles, in which he demonstrated his life-career planning by guiding us through that process.
I discovered I loved much about ministry – creative worship, proclamation, counseling, planning retreats and educational activities. However, administering building, budget and fundraising bogged me down.
When I told my church board about this, they responded, “Why Dick, those are the things we appreciate about your ministry. As to the others, you never were very good at those. We can handle them.” And we had more good years.
The other event is the one sabbatical I had. For three months, I visited southeast Asia – Indonesia, Singapore, Myanmar and Thailand.
I made new friends, led pastor’s retreats, spoke to seminary classes, listened and observed. I came home so enthused and refreshed that church members said they wished they’d sent me sooner!
I pray that the promise of Isaiah 40:32 will be claimed again by an ever-growing number of congregations and ministers: that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength … mount up with wings like eagles … run and not be weary … walk and not faint.”
Following 40 years in parish ministry, he taught for 18 years at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas where he retired in 2016 as distinguished professor of pastoral theology. Olson is the author or co-author of 20 books, including Celebrating the Graying Church: Mutual Ministry Today, Legacies Tomorrow (Rowman & Littlefield / Alban, 2020). He lives with his wife in Madison, Wisconsin.