Ministers need time off–not only for their physical and mental health–but also as a spiritual practice of honoring their body, says a Harvard Divinity School teacher who has written a book exploring the relationship between bodily care and practices of faith.
“Take a day off. That’s your assignment,” author Stephanie Paulsell told ministers at a recent Baptist Center for Ethics-sponsored conference.
Paulsell is author of Honoring the Body: Meditations on Christian Practice by Jossey-Bass. The book is one title in The Practices of Faith series, which focuses on integrating practices from Christian tradition with everyday life.
Recovering Christian practices is a way to “participate in an argument over how best to live as disciples of Christ,” Paulsell, a Disciples of Christ minister and former senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Divinity School, says in the book.
“Christianity has been decentered in our culture,” Paulsell told a group of ministerial leaders invited to a recent two-day seminar near Williamsburg, Va., sponsored by BCE with a grant from the Louisville Institute. “There’s a lot we can’t rely on in the way to used to.”
Some Christians focus on beliefs in addressing moral and ethical issues, she said, while others emphasize virtues as a way of shaping character so that individuals will act in certain ways. “Then there is this evolving understanding of Christian practices themselves having a history that can be recovered,” she said.
Focusing on the practices, Paulsell said, provides “a way of entering into the Christian life that doesn’t have to choose between issues and virtues.”
Paulsell said when she was first approached about writing an essay on the Christian practice of honoring the body, she wasn’t sure there was such a thing.
“We had separated the body into parts of spirit and body, and we had hierarchized the spirit over the body,” she said. Christians have often “denied the goodness of the body and its pleasures,” she added, and “animosities toward particular types of bodies often get nurtured in Christian communities.”
But Paulsell said she discovered quickly in the process “a treasure at the heart of our Christian faith” with regard to honoring the body. “We have a God who created everything, including our bodies, and pronounced it good. We’ve got God coming to us in a particular body in a particular place. We’ve got a body resurrected from the dead and moving among his friends eating and drinking,” she said.
The message that “the body is sacred and worthy of wellness” isn’t heard in the medical community or glamour magazines, Paulsell said. “We don’t hear this message often enough in church, either.”
Paulsell described the relationship between body and spirit as a “difficult friendship.” When experiencing pleasure, humans perceive the body and spirit as being one. When a disease like cancer enters the picture, however, the body can seem like an enemy.
Paulsell considers the “key insight” of her study that, “It is through the vulnerability of our bodies that God has placed each of us in human care.”
“God has not made anyone so invulnerable that they do not have to be cared for at some time in their life,” such as in infancy, illness or death. God’s purpose, she said, is “We are made in such a way that we need each other.”
Paulsell said the sexual-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church offers a tragic example of “the way we as Christians have failed to embrace embodiment.”
Had Church leaders been more concerned about “how precious our bodies are in the sight of God” than with defending a religious institution, she said, the revelations about abuse by priests might have been handled differently.
“It’s not the fact that there are pedophiles in church that is shocking,” she said. “Sadly, I think there are pedophiles in every profession. It’s the lack of, for lack of a better word, aghastness; the lack of horror from church leaders who knew this was happening.”
“If we were in the Christian community making the body visible, if we were celebrating the body, if we had practices that honored the body… there would still be tragedies, but they wouldn’t be covered up like this, and they would not be allowed to go on for decades.”
Starting “from a place of care and protection” for the body also shapes the way Christians think about issues like adolescent sexuality, she said. Rather than just telling teenagers to abstain, “We would say ‘What I long for you is to experience deep sexual pleasure as a committed adult. There are all sorts of choices you can make that will compromise that choice.'”
That approach is “to speak less out of fear and more out of hope and out of the goodness of embodiment,” she explained.
Even regarding controversial questions like gay marriage, Paulsell said, “To start that conversation from a Christian practice of honoring the body is different than starting from the first chapter of Romans.”
“It’s a new entrance into the questions that beset us,” she said.
Paulsell said honoring a day of rest is difficult for ministers, because, “We work on the day everyone else has a Sabbath, and our work is never done.”
“Ministry is hard because you absolutely need to take a day off, but if somebody dies you absolutely have to interrupt that day off.”
Practices involving eating and drinking also too often revolve around ministers’ busy schedules, she said.
“We’re often in our cars driving around. We’re eating on the fly. We’re often eating food that is not good for us, because it’s all we have time for.”
“If we are offering thanks for every meal, if we are being mindful of where our meals come from, I think we are less likely to eat the burger in the car when we are riding between hospitals.”
“That is the blessing of this practice,” Paulsell said. “It shapes our life in ordinary ways so when the extraordinary thing happens we are ready.”
Paulsell challenged churches to step in when ministers become overworked.
“I think there are too few congregations who will come to the pastor and say you need to take a day off,” she said. “Two days off; I think that’s the model, so you have a day you can catch up to do your laundry and mow the lawn, and so you have a day for spiritual renewal.”
“I would like for you to have a day of replenishment for yourself—guilt free—attending to your spirit,” she described as her wish for ministers.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.