Have you made your self-care plan for election day?

I was utterly unprepared for the impact – mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically – of election day 2016. I was away from home, taking a weeklong course at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta as part of my Pastoral Study Project grant. I became more anxious through the day, despite the class focus on discernment. As precincts began reporting and the outcome became clear, I started furiously doing push-ups in my guest room. I was hardly able to drag myself out of bed the next morning to join the other zombies who couldn’t believe what had transpired.

Though next Tuesday’s election is a midterm, it is perhaps the most consequential one of my lifetime. I expect it to be a hard day, so I’m going to be proactive about my self-care. I have blocked off my calendar for the day, because I don’t anticipate being my most focused self for coaching calls. I will bookend my day with barre class, which makes me feel stronger in body and mind than anything else I do. I have signed up for a Get Out the Vote phone banking shift so that I will know I am contributing to civic engagement. I will play with my son after he gets home from school and eat dinner with my family, which will help me stay grounded in my most important relationships. I will offer prayers of thanksgiving and petition throughout the day in quiet moments. Somewhere in there, I will cast my ballot. And in the evening I will watch the results, holding in my heart and brain the reminder that though God calls us to join in justice-making, our ultimate hope is not in human processes.

If you anticipate that election day might be anxious for you (no matter what your political persuasion), how do you need to plan for your self-care? Here are some prompts to help you start your strategizing:

  • How do you want it to be with your spirit on election day?
  • How do you hope to show up for your loved ones, the people in your care, and your larger community, both on election day and in the days that follow?
  • What do you need to say no and yes to in order for these things to happen?
  • What can you use as a touchstone throughout the day, whether a word, a verse from scripture, an image, or an act?

Whatever happens on election day, let us seek out connection with others, be generous in our thoughts and with our resources, align ourselves with the most vulnerable, and continue to partner with God in bringing about God’s reign.

Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash.

The ministry of absence

The death of a loved one. A financial catastrophe. The disappearance of a child. A sexual assault. The anticipation of a life-altering diagnosis. A journey into the unknown. These are some of the situations in which pastors and other caregivers are called to provide a ministry of presence – an embodiment of God’s love for those who are lonely, hurting, or anxious – because words are insufficient and our ability to do something is limited.

In the pastoral life, much emphasis is placed on this ministry of presence, and for good reason. Christians are people of the incarnation, in which God put God’s own body on the line so that humankind might feel the divine breath, touch the divine’s clothing, and experience the divine washing our dirty, smelly feet. Through Jesus God was born into the world, moved about the world, and was murdered by the world, yet came back from death to show off scars and cook fish on the beach for friends. Jesus was fully present to us, and in being so he demonstrated God’s own desire to be close to us.

And yet, we can’t always be present. Sometimes the reasons are logistical; time and geography do not permit. Sometimes the reasons are that we have multiple pulls on our ministry at the same time. And sometimes the reasons are that we have nothing left to give at that moment. At this point self-care becomes an imperative rather than merely a good idea. Many of us resist self-care, though, because of critical voices that come from within us and beyond us and because we follow a Christ who made time for others, even when he desperately needed to catch his breath. We equate self-care with selfishness, and we talk ourselves out of it.

It’s time to reframe self-care. Last week at Nevertheless She Preached, I was introduced to the concept of a ministry of absence by Jaime Clark-Soles, professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology. The term, however, was coined by Henri Nouwen. Nouwen believed that pastors had become so available that there was not enough space for the Holy Spirit to move in the lives of God’s people. In other words, parishioners have become dependent on pastors rather than on God, and pastors have become too eager to get their needs to be needed met by responding to every care request. Occasionally making ourselves scarce not only gives our bodies, hearts, and egos a rest, then, but also allows our people to strengthen their relationships with the God who wants good for them.

In a faith centered on incarnation and a vocation born out of that faith, how does a ministry of absence compute? The reality that Jesus is no longer physically with us provides a good start. He was raised from the dead, he had a few meetings with the disciples to boost their confidence for the work ahead…and then he ascended. He took off into the clouds before the disciples thought they were ready to discern and do on their own. They had a lot to argue about and figure out, and they did it with the help of the Holy Spirit. They likely wouldn’t have done it at all if Jesus had still been hanging around. For one thing, the Spirit did not descend until Jesus ascended. And Jesus’ presence enabled the disciples’ dependence, whereas his absence activated their boldness. That boldness built the body of Christ here on earth, through which the incarnation lives on, spreads the good news, and cares for the least of these.

There are times to minister through your presence, and there are times to minister through your absence. Prayerfully consider what your indicators might be that one or the other is called for, then go forth in faith that the Spirit will fill whatever space you do not.

[This post is the first of four upcoming reflections inspired by Nevertheless She Preached.]

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash.

Fatigue’s impact on trust

Recently I was coaching a pastor who was two months into a new call. She was excited about her church and its mission potential. She was also enjoying getting to know the people, but she was having trouble trusting them. She was a bit befuddled by this, because there was no overt reason for this hesitation. She hadn’t received any hurtful criticism or significant pushback. When I asked what the lack of trust was about, she thought for a moment. She then named relational fatigue as a key factor. In this pastor’s case, she had taken a full month off – a typical fallow period – before diving into her new ministry. And yet she was recognizing that she needed more time to tend to her (understandably) tender heart after leaving behind parishioners that she loved.

This pastor had just provided perhaps the most powerful testimonial for taking ample time off between ministry positions. We often cite physical and spiritual exhaustion as the primary motivators for spacing out calls. But bringing closure to relationships with people we’ve walked alongside during their personal milestones, with whom we have dreamed and argued, and who have been present for our own ups and downs is hard, good work. It can be overwhelming to think about opening ourselves up to knowing and being known by a whole new congregation. And yet, the bedrock of strong connections is trust, which we do not lend or receive without the willingness to make ourselves at least a little vulnerable.

This is not to say that it’s easy to take long stretches between ministry positions. Personal financial pressures are real. Churches that have been in long search processes are eager for the uncertainty to end and the settled pastor to arrive. (Search teams in particular are known to apply pressure to be on site as soon as possible. After all, the team members know the incoming minister best and are most excited about her arrival!) The pastor herself is looking forward to a fresh start in a new setting. But before committing to a start date, consider not only what you need in terms of every manner of recovery, but also what time frame will allow you to enter the system with a readiness for mutual belonging. This is a mindset – a heart orientation – that attends to the long-term missional and financial health of both clergy and congregation.

If you are already in place and find yourself reluctant to trust even in the absence of conflict, then self-care is in order. When we are unable to risk exposure, whether we are new in a call or ten years into our tenure, we need time to rest. We need space for introspection. We need opportunities to view or create beauty. We need relief from the relentlessness of ministry. Because if we have not tended to our own inner lives, we will not be able to offer a quality of presence to others. And if we withhold, then we do not build trust and do not forge or maintain relationships that make bold ministry possible.

In the case of my coachee, we strategized ways to create space and clarity within her current personal and professional realities so that she could increase her capacity to trust. If you find yourself turning inward in your ministry setting, what changes do you need to make so that you can be the pastoral leader God has called you to be?

[Note: my coachee graciously granted me permission to share her story.]

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

Bookending the day

Your alarm goes off. You groan and bury your face in your pillow. Is it morning already?

Your fatigued body slumps into bed, and you can barely work up the energy to pull up the covers. Meanwhile, your brain is on overdrive, trying to process everything that happened during the day and all the tasks that await you tomorrow.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Real rest can be hard to come by, making for a slow start to the day. Real exertion of every variety – part of the deal in ministry – is hard on the body, mind, and spirit, making for a fitful entrée to much-needed sleep. It’s a vicious cycle.

Starting and ending the day with intentionality can help you frame your day more positively (thus giving you energy) and end your day with gratitude (thus sending you off to quicker and more satisfying rest). These bookends don’t have to be lengthy or cumbersome. They just have to work for you. Here are some suggestions.

Starting the day

  • Breathe deeply for 30 seconds before getting out of bed
  • Do a 5-minute interval workout
  • Decide on a focus word for your day that you can repeat to yourself as needed
  • Smile at yourself in the mirror
  • Speak aloud a sentence prayer as you cross the threshold of your home or office
  • Refuse to look at your phone until you get to work
  • Read a short devotional at your desk before you turn on your computer

Ending the day

  • Utilize the examen
  • Pray in color or doodle or write in a journal
  • Identify a way you helped someone or grew as a person or pastor that day, then name and give thanks for a way someone helped you
  • Mindfully stretch out your weary body and remember that you are wonderfully made
  • Tell someone you love them, whether in person or by technology
  • Create a short ritual of letting go of undone tasks or unmet expectations for the day
  • Meditate for a couple of minutes or do a body scan once you’ve gotten in bed

You cannot control all the events of your day. Bookending your day with intentionality can help you control your responses and their effects on you, however, thereby enabling you to release what is not yours to worry about and guarding your body, heart, and mind from an unhealthy level of exhaustion.

What would you add to these lists, and what might you try to frame your day in a new way?

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash.

Coaching toward vacation

I have army-crawled toward vacation many times, so mentally and physically depleted that I wasn’t sure I’d cross the threshold before I collapsed from exhaustion. Those were hard starts to time away. They involved at least a couple of days to decompress and to get some semblance of energy back before I could really enjoy my respite. Then there was the anticipatory grief of re-entering “real life,” which cut short my fun on the back end and made me already start pining for my next vacation. This pattern held whether I was in a call I loved or one that made me want to hide under the covers.

Our beach trip three weeks ago was different. Beforehand, I had picked up several new coaching clients that I was eager to get started with. I had some projects I was looking forward to. I was feeling creative in my writing and planning. I was far from depleted. Still, I was glad to listen to crashing waves and spend concentrated time with my family. And I was ready to come back to work afterward.

This easy entry to and exit from time off is what I hope for you so that you can truly enjoy your hard-earned breaks, whether you have a grand adventure planned or intend to hole up at home with a stack of novels. Here are some coaching questions to help you work toward this reality:

  • What must be taken care of before your mind can let go of work?
  • Which of these tasks belong only to you, and which can others take on?
  • How far out from vacation do you need to start tackling your list to give yourself enough time, pacing yourself so that you don’t start your time off in recovery mode?
  • How will you give yourself grace if all the to-dos aren’t completed before your break?
  • How might you ritualize closing up shop so that your heart and mind grasp that you are on respite?
  • How will you acknowledge and then let go of work concerns as they (naturally) come to mind during your time away?
  • How can you celebrate the end of your vacation and reorient toward work so that you are ready to get back to it?
  • What will help you remember that you don’t have to do all the things on the first day you return to the office?

May your vacations be restful and rejuvenating. The church and world need you – particularly in this cultural and political moment – to be at your best.

Thanksgiving challenge

For some of us, Thanksgiving is a time for gathering with family, eating more than we should, and falling asleep in a recliner in front of a football game. For some of us, Thanksgiving is a time of stress, knowing we’ll be sharing space with people we love but with whom we disagree passionately. For some of us, Thanksgiving is a lonely time, spent apart from dear ones. For some of us, Thanksgiving is a work day, full of meeting others’ needs.

Whatever your Thanksgiving looks like, I invite you to read through the list below and join me in a challenge that expresses gratitude for all that we are and all that we have through self-care, connection, service, and resistance.

  • Take a nap.
  • Read an article, watch a video, or listen to a podcast from a Native American point of view.
  • Tell someone three specific reasons you are grateful for him/her/them.
  • Challenge a fear-mongering or prejudiced statement.
  • Fully embrace your pledge not to listen to Christmas music before Advent – or play your list of favorite holiday tunes on an endless, joy-inducing loop. (I’ll be doing the latter.)
  • Eat something delicious.
  • Engage in an act of community service or make a donation to a service organization.
  • Jump in a leaf pile.
  • Stay out of the shopping fray on Thanksgiving Day.
  • Have a conversation with someone who knows and loves the whole of you – and about whom you feel the same.
  • Help with the cooking, the dishes, or the trash.
  • Move your body, whether by participating in a Turkey Trot or simply by walking around the block.
  • Thank God for your life, your call, and your people.

Countering loneliness

In chapter three of Braving the Wilderness: the Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, Brene Brown cites a startling statistic. The odds of dying early are increased by the following factors:

  • air pollution = 5% more likely to die early
  • obesity = 20% more likely to die early
  • excessive drinking = 30% more likely to die early
  • loneliness = 45% more likely to die early

Yikes. I know a lot of pastors – single and partnered, extroverts and introverts – who are seeking meaningful connections they haven’t yet found. I’ve been there many times myself, even as a person who loves her alone time. The boundaries and ethics that have been drilled into us for good reason by seminaries and judicatories often mean that we keep parishioners at arm’s length. (The paradox is that appropriate self-revelation is the key to building trust with a congregation.) Our personal theology and politics can cause us to feel estranged from the people we serve and even from many in the larger community. And the odd, demanding hours of a minister’s vocational life, not to mention the assumptions people have about clergy, make it difficult to cultivate connections outside the church.

We have some significant hurdles to overcome, but the 45% more-likely-to-die-early stat makes it plain that loneliness is a life or death issue. It’s also a matter of theological integrity; we serve a God who seeks us to draw us ever nearer not just to the divine heart but also to one another.

So what can we do to push past the loneliness? Here are a few thoughts:

Know how much connection you need to feel emotionally healthy. Typically (perhaps stereotypically), introverts need a few deep relationships while extroverts value a wide range of friendships.

Identify and share what makes you feel understood and embraced in relationships. What you need to feel seen and close to someone varies from one person to the next. (That makes it important to consider this same question about others.) Gary Chapman’s work on the five love languages has been extremely helpful to me in this vein.

Look for places and people where you note commonality. For example, join a club or a team. Volunteer for a cause. Go to an art class. Look for ways to expand on or dig deeper into that shared interest with those you meet.

Prioritize people. It’s so easy to get buried in tasks. Step back occasionally to remember the purpose behind the task, which is often human-centered. And when faced with the option between nurturing a relationship and checking off a to-do, choose the former as often as possible.

Know your warning signs. How do you know when you’re lonely? What happens in your heart? What changes in your body? How does your calendar look different? When these alerts pop up, step back and reflect on what is happening.

What would you add to this list?