Clergy self-care requires spending enough time to build and maintain transparent, truthful, and loving relationships with God, with those we love, and with ourselves.

It is Monday morning, and she is exhausted. She had planned to take the day off, but even when leaving the officers’ meeting last evening, she knew she wouldn’t. Driving home, she had begun to rehearse the speech she would give her daughter about missing her basketball game. She told herself Sarah would understand that God’s work was more important. Sarah knows the deal. So why, she asked herself, do I feel like such a failure?

In my experience as a pastor, a doctoral student in psychology and religion, and a consultant to clergy and congregations, I hear a consistent theme running through conversations with clergy colleagues: We are overworked and overcommitted, and we are doing a poor job of self-care. At clergy gatherings we share stories like the one above as though they were rites of passage. We empathize with a colleague’s heavy workload, but seldom do we encourage one another to change behaviors. We infrequently hold one another accountable for spiritual disciplines like Sabbath, personal devotions, exercise, worship, or staying in community. Our club is one in which membership often means having little life outside our ministries, and we believe, at some level, that such a life is as it should be. In congregations and specialized ministries, we often have poor boundaries; we spend little time exercising and playing; we miss out on prime moments with family and friends; and we seldom avail ourselves of the resources offered by the Source of our ministry. These behaviors are often encouraged by the church, by denominational structures, by our culture, and by colleagues. We measure our worth by how much we do, not “how we be.” Why is this so?

He can’t wait until the meeting is over. On the way home, he will stop and have dinner with his friends, and a glass of wine. Well, he will have several, but he will tell his wife he had only one. Last year they talked about his drinking. He confided his concern that he was beginning to rely on alcohol to deal with the stress in his life. Demands from the congregation were incessant; the children were acting out. A few glasses of wine made it feel better. But when he told Elaine, she really lost it. Now he keeps his concerns to himself.

Poor clergy self-care is at the root of many maladies affecting the church. For some, lack of time with loved ones leaves us seeking intimacy and validation from our congregations when they would be better found in our private lives. Needy clergy caring for children and vulnerable adults may cross boundaries, searching for closeness or a reminder of our potency. In other instances, clergy who can’t relinquish a sense of martyrdom and self-sacrifice hinder the growth of others gifted for ministry. Still others work so hard to please congregants and denominational staff that they neglect families, loved ones, and themselves in the name of serving God. Many clergy spend too little time drinking from the well of Living Water, and are spiritually parched and unable to fill the cups of others.

Why are clergy driven to behave in unproductive ways? Reason one: church culture expects it. To be a pastor, priest, or rabbi is to lay all on the altar of sacrifice—to work hard on behalf of self and congregation. The expectations of congregations leave the clergy with unclear boundaries and unreasonable expectations of themselves and others. They must work hard, demand little of others, and live pious and holy lives, for their own salvation and for those they serve. They must keep silent about their fears, their passions, and their failures.

Reason two: clergy expect themselves to be “perfect.” Claiming to be unashamed of the Gospel, they rely not on Christ’s strength but on their own understanding of ministry. They expect to be tired, overwhelmed, overworked, and often underpaid. Consequently they are often joyless. They feel “dead,” angry, and frustrated. Clergy tell themselves that this joyless living is selfless behavior. In fact it is self-defeating and, at its root, is often either a poor sense of self that needs to prove its worth or an aggrandized sense of self that needs to be the center of the universe.

Either way, clergy can be needy. What we need is authentic, intimate relationships with God, with dear friends and family, and with ourselves. A “false self” claims to have no need of love, care, time off, and play. Clergy and their congregations often conspire to keep pastors in this role.

Good-Enough Care
For psychologist Donald W. Winnicott, “good enough” caregiving facilitates healthy personality development.1 The good-enough mother knows what her infant needs and gives it to him. When the hungry infant cries, the good-enough mother appears with the milk-filled breast or bottle. The infant, who at this point does not feel separate from the mother, gains a sense of power and control—“look what I made happen”—and the mother affirms this sense of magic. The mother’s support of this sense of omnipotence creates an environment in which the infant learns to play, to create, and to imagine. By demanding nothing, the good-enough mother places no encroachments on the infant. She holds the baby and mirrors a sense of wonder. Held in the mother’s gaze and arms, the infant develops what Winnicott calls his “true self.” This self feels real, spontaneous, and alive.

The good-enough caregiver knows just when and how to frustrate the baby. She leaves the room for longer periods of time. She allows the baby to cry for longer stretches before coming to comfort him. The baby learns to use objects placed in his way—a pacifier, a teddy bear, a blanket—to comfort himself. These objects are found by the infant and made into something that symbolizes the caregiver. Winnicott calls these “transitional objects” and the widening space between the infant and the caregiver “transitional space.” Soon Mommy can be in the next room and baby feels fine. Playing, he recreates the experience of being with Mommy. Soon, the child can go off to school and feel comfortable. The good-enough mother has opened this ever-widening space in which the child learns to create and to play. Ideally, this space is filled with products of the growing child’s imagination. Transitional space, for Winnicott, is the space in which art, music, math, and religion take place. It is the place of play, creativity, and all “true” living.

The False Self
Sometimes all does not go well. The care given to the infant is not “good enough.” The environment is unreliable—Mom and Dad fail to show up when needed. The infant’s cries go unanswered. The caregiver is preoccupied with himself rather than the child’s needs. The environment is then filled with demands on the child. The child’s sense of omnipotence is threatened prematurely. He attunes to the needs in the environment rather than to his own needs. These expectations or failures feel persecutory to the infant, who has no capacity to reject them. Now the transitional space is filled with projections of another rather than the child’s own creativity. The infant develops a compliant self—a false self. This self does not know how to ask for what it needs. It does not learn how to use transitional objects or how to live creatively. The false self hides the true self’s needs for play, creativity, intimacy, and joyful living.

Implications of False-Self Development
Everybody has a little “false self.” Most of us comply to some degree with the environment. We go to school when we are children and some of us color within the lines! We (in the U.S.) learn as adolescents
to drive on the right side of the road. We compromise in relationships, and we behave publicly in socially sanctioned ways. But the false self can dominate our living. Seeking to please others, we ignore our own voice. We take our desires, fears, hopes, or insecurities and make them secret. We admit to no failures, and display a bravado that isolates us from those we love. We may need to protect our true self to the degree that we become self-destructive or suicidal rather than expose it.2

Many of us who enter helping professions do so out of woundedness. We seek to heal that broken child within ourselves and others. Even those whose childhood was ideal may have internalized expectations from adults that “winning” and “succeeding” mean helping others at the expense of our own needs. We learn early that it is selfish to take care of ourselves. Certainly the church has been less than healthy in its expectations for clergy. To sacrifice, to “lay down one’s life” for another out of love and service, is an ideal we hold—one often unexamined. A colleague tells of hearing a sermon in which the preacher said, “Jesus already died, so I don’t have to kill myself doing this ministry.” Indeed, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection exemplify a fierce love of God, neighbor, and self that could free us to be our true selves in every aspect of life. Jesus’ instructions to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves can be seen as a three-legged stool which, when one leg is out of balance, cannot stand. To be in authentic relationship with God, self, and neighbor is to give ourselves three important resources for good-enough self-care.

Recovering the True Self
O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me.

Psalm 139:1

Authentic, loving relationship with God. The psalmist writes passionately about the love God has for each of us. It is love rooted in God’s knowledge of us. God is everywhere, hemming us in behind and before, knowing the words we will say before we say them. The psalmist feels assured that if we go to heaven, God is there; if we go to the place of the dead, God is there. God knows us intimately because God created us in all of our complexity. We can’t hide from God. Love of God demands truthfulness before the one who made me and loves me. This comfort and a challenge invites me to “get real” with God, to be naked before God, and to reveal my inmost thoughts and fears. Believing that God already knows me, I can be my authentic self. I must spend time alone with God—reading God’s Word, writing in my journal, praying. I may pray as I walk in the park or along the beach. I may sing my favorite spirituals or play my favorite gospel song and feel God’s presence. To have an authentic relationship with God, I need to spend time with God, the source of my strength. God loves me just as I am, and holds me accountable to be who God intends me to be. Loving God authentically means also to worship God and to do that which pleases God, who desires our attention, praise, and adoration. When I worship God, I move out of myself, out of my role as preacher and priest, and into loving God with my time, my gifts, my heart. Clergy need to spend time when they can truly worship. Our loving, authentic relationship with God is the source of all other loving relationships.

Authentic, Loving Relationship with Self
“…But how can I have a baby? I am a virgin”

Luke 1:34b
“…I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to do whatever he wants.”
Luke 1:38a

Mary was young, but she knew a few things. She knew she was a maiden of limited resources. Having known no man, she knew that having a baby seemed an impossible job. She knew that she was God’s servant, and was willing to do what she was asked. She knew also that being asked to serve made her blessed.

I need to know who I am. What are my gifts? My weaknesses and limitations? My resources? What makes me, in effect, me? What makes me laugh? What gives me delight or brings me sorrow? What are my blind spots? When I know myself, I can be authentic. Loving me means not hiding the truth about me from myself.

We clergy need to spend time alone to cultivate an intimate relationship with ourselves. We may need to keep an “artist’s date” with ourselves. We can go to the museum to see paintings, run along a favorite hiking path, or sit in a shop and sip coffee with a favorite book. In these times, we can be mindful of our feelings and sensations, and take time to record them later. Some of us are vaguely aware of unresolved grief, guilt, or pain in our lives. We may need to spend time with a spiritual director, counselor, or therapist to work on these issues. To get to know and love ourselves—to delight in our uniqueness and our particularities—is to cultivate an authentic love relationship with ourselves: one aspect of good-enough self-care.

Authentic Relationship with Neighbor
No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and God’s love has been brought to full expression through us.

1 John 4:12

John’s community truly understood that loving each other, whom we can see, is the only way to express our love of God, whom we cannot see. Paul gives the church at Ephesus clear instructions about the nature of a loving community. We are to tell each other the truth, because we belong to each other. We are to manage anger, not letting the sun go down on it. We are to watch our mouths, and say things that build each other up. We are to be kind to one another and forgive, as God has forgiven us (Eph. 4: 25-32). Paul starts by encouraging us to be honest. To love each other is to be true to each other and with one another. I must cultivate relationships in which I can be truthful. I need a community in which speaking the truth about ourselves is the norm. Clergy need community. Find a support group that studies the lectionary and holds you accountable. Enlist a prayer partner or close friend with whom you can be transparent and vulnerable about growth edges and success. With your spouse or “significant other” share who you really are—your hopes, dreams, and fears. Invite your loved one to do the same.

Clergy are on the front lines, working to build the beloved community. Without a true sense of who we are, whose we are, and what our limitations are, our work will burn us out. Restoring our true selves with good-enough self-care is essential so that God can use us and bless those around us with our ministry. Loving God, neighbor, and self authentically and intentionally is good food for our journey.

1. Donald W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (New York: Routledge, 1971).
2. Winnicott, The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development (London: Hogarth, 1965).