I’m not really a fan of the term self-care.
Not only does it sound trendy, which is generally a bad omen for any idea, but trendy often describes something that is a passing fad, an idea or concept that someone thought up and got people to follow (perhaps by creating some a 5-step recovery plan), and they may be trying to make a buck off of it.
I prefer to ask the rather bold and perhaps too-direct question: “Why the heck do youth pastors seem to have such a hard time taking care of themselves?”
I apologize that this question does not have the political correctness or gentleness of asking: “Why do so few youth workers engage in self-care?” However, I believe something as basic and critical to our well-being as taking care of ourselves deserves directness rather than trendy euphemisms. There’s no need to linger on years of accumulated excuses and rationalizations, right?
To offer a bit of background, I am a pastor’s wife—actually a seasoned youth pastor’s wife. I think I’ve earned that title (not that I’m excited about the age that seasoned implies). My husband and I have been married for 35 years, and he is a lifer in youth ministry. He never has felt called to anything other than working with students; and though the journey has led us from the Midwest to California to the East Coast and included many adventures—and a few misadventures such as setting a church van on fire—it has been challenging, agonizing, rewarding and wonderful…sometimes all at the same a time.
I think I safely can say we have figured out a few things—not everything, that’s for sure—but a few things that may be helpful to others. Our seasons in ministry have included being newlyweds (moving halfway across the country after having been married only six months) and serving at a crazy-hard church in California. We had a couple of years without children when we did everything in ministry together. We experienced being a family with two demanding little ones, and then went on to manage our children’s school-age and adolescent years while their dad was their youth pastor. We are now empty nesters with two successfully married children and two amazingly cute grandsons. We have been at our current church for more than 25 years, where we’ve been blessed with years of fruitful and challenging ministry.
We really are asking two questions here: First, why do youth pastors often not do a very good job of taking care of themselves; and what are some things you need to do to turn that situation around?
Why Can’t We Take Care of Ourselves?
A major problem from which many things stem is a lack of honesty about our vulnerabilities and shortcomings. We need to know our weaknesses. We don’t need to announce them from the front steps, but we do need to know what they are and guard ourselves against succumbing to them while gaining strength in our areas of vulnerability. If I go the orthopedist and don’t tell him where I am hurting, he will not know where to begin the assessment process or what type of physical therapy to prescribe.
Why is being aware of our weaknesses so critical to our well-being? Well, without guarding and protecting ourselves, we will stumble and potentially take a ministry and the faith of dozens (or more) students down with us. This sounds cliché and something we ought to consider automatically, but we also will lead lives without the joy and fulfillment God intended. We have to be honest, look at ourselves honestly, and honestly assess where we are.
Second to a lack of honesty is the vulnerability of falling into the trap of feeling as if you have to have everything figured out and know all the answers. Somehow this translates to not addressing things such as our physical, emotional and psychological health because we think that as leaders we don’t get to have the normal frailties everyone else has. This also may mean we accumulate and practice bad habits that when left unattended become lifestyles that are not healthy for us or our families. Often, feeling as if you have to have everything figured out means you don’t ask for help or guidance on matters that if sorted out early might not become major issues.
Finally, far too often we use the bad behavior of others as rationalizations for our bad behavior. The most important thing I have learned during these years in ministry is that churches are full of sinners just like me; they are imperfect and will be hurtful and insensitive, most of the time unintentionally, but sometimes intentionally. That is life. That is ministry. That is reality. In order to be healthy in ministry, we must determine our own course and not rationalize our bad choices based on how others treat us or the expectations of ministry. For example, we often have no time to take care of ourselves or our families because the church expects so much of us. We have no time for eating well because of the demands of our job. The church is often so hard and expects so much that we are anxious and borderline depressed. We actually served in a church that thought my husband should use his vacation days to go on the student mission trip. It was not a stretch to want to use their attitude/behavior as a reason for resentment and anger.
The reason I think this is such a toxic sequence and related to taking good care of ourselves is because once we start down this road of rationalizing our unhealthy or bad behaviors based on the behavior of others, we are abdicating responsibility for doing anything differently for ourselves. We essentially are laying the responsibility for what might be going on in our lives at the feet of someone else. We are setting up a contingency for changing our behavior, which is that someone else must change first. Guess what? No one is as invested in our lives as we are; our growth, our self-care, our well-being is first and foremost our responsibility.
Questions that Lead to Health
To start the process of self-care, here are some questions to ask yourself. Ask each question, then give yourself space to contemplate the answer and answer honestly.
• Am I vulnerable to flattery, attention and compliments from the opposite gender?
• Is food my weakness? Is another substance my weakness? Do I use food or another substance to cover or mask an insecurity or weakness?
• Am I overweight and in terrible physical shape?
• Would others say I’m a workaholic?
• Is my schedule out of control? Am I ever at home?
• Do I manage my stress effectively? Would my spouse agree with my assessment of my stress management?
• Do I have any go-to strategies for taking care of myself physically, psychologically and spiritually?
• Do I overindulge in alcohol, another substance or gambling?
• Is pornography an issue for me?
• Am I a perfectionist, which turns me into a tyrant with others and makes me overly hard on myself?
• Am I a people pleaser, trying desperately to please everyone other than myself and my family?
• How would I describe my spiritual life?
• Have I lost sight of who God really is and His call on my life?
After you’ve thought through the questions, make a decision about what you are going to do with each answer. Make a plan to address the areas of your life that need attention. One reason youth pastors have such a difficult time taking care of themselves is they not only don’t ask themselves hard questions, but they don’t answer them honestly or move forward and strategize to do something about their answers.
Turning Things Around
The number one lesson I’ve learned throughout my ministry career is: Be honest with yourself; and if you are married, be honest with each other. Pretending feels OK for a while. We might think we are protecting our spouses from feeling badly, but this does not fix anything. In order to take good care of ourselves—legitimately, in real time, every day—we must be honest and ask ourselves those hard questions. If you know you are not in a good place—there are things in your life that are not being taken care of or an issue is spiraling out of control whether weight, physical or spiritual life, or your schedule—speak up and attend to it.
With a spouse, being honest is not what I call mean honest, which is what some people revert to when they want to hurt each other and shift blame. That is not true honesty, but merely immaturity, which often comes out of great frustration, anger and hurt that has accumulated with time. If you have gotten to that point, pay attention because that is where damage is done to relationships; it is time to reach out to a professional who can help you find your way back to a healthy relationship.
Honesty supported by love wants change and growth; it wants the best for each other. After 35 years of marriage—and 35 years in ministry—we have gotten far better at this than when we started out in ministry. Getting healthy on all levels, engaging in the process reminds us that we are worth that in God’s eyes. So, we do it for ourselves, our families and to honor the call God has extended to us to be in this type of ministry.
In addition to being honest, it is critical to listen—really listen—to the people who care about you. If you are married, ideally you can trust the love, care and honesty of your spouse, trust that he or she will not simply protect you and tell you what you want to hear. If that is not the case, find an accountability person, a friend or a professional who understands ministry and the environment and culture of churches—someone who will tell you what you need to hear rather than what you want to hear.
Giving another person permission to do this feels vulnerable and uncomfortable, but if we have blindspots: Either we simply cannot see, or we are deliberately avoiding truths that are vital in the process of taking care of ourselves. If there are some things that others repeatedly have brought up or tried to tell you, if your spouse has thrown up his or her hands in frustration, set aside pride and fear and listen. All the wisdom in the world is of no use to us and does not result in change or taking better care of ourselves if we refuse to consider it. Yet don’t stop there. Make a plan, strategize and engage in the process of taking better care of yourself.