Sometimes it can be hard to think about our own self-care or ‘well-being’ amid the passion and needs of ministry.
You’ve gone into the mission field knowing that there would be sacrifice and hardships, but isn’t that part of the call of discipleship? You are surrounded by both the needs and opportunities of those around you, seeing the urgent need for them to know the love of Christ, to have their hearts changed and minds renewed. As you look around, you can see the burdens of poverty, relational breakdown and many other challenges that seem so much more significant than your own. Does thinking about your own ‘self-care’ seem selfish or excessive when you are surrounded by such gospel opportunity and need? Is it hard to know how to fit it in?
We all want to be busy serving the Lord in the place where He has called us, but so often we can feel weary and drained as we give out to others. It can be so easy for our busyness to squeeze our time so that our relationships, our walk with the Lord, our joy and peace are all affected.
As we serve, are we preparing our lives to be sustainable for the long-term, setting principles that will facilitate keeping ourselves refreshed and effective for the Lord during the pressures of ministry? I think this is the essence of what ‘self-care’ should be.
There are many books and articles about self-care within ministry which will be helpful to read (see the end!), but we are keen to highlight some handy principles to think through and apply in your situation.
- You are human! We live and speak the gospel in a fallen world and this has an effect on our bodies, both physically and mentally. Our bodies are frail, portrayed as dust (Psalm 103:13), we are jars of clay and not iron (2 Cor 4:7). God has created us with a need to rest and has commanded us to do so.
- Hardships have an effect on us (2 Cor 11:24-30) – It is draining to spend time with people pastorally, dealing with conflict, facing gospel opposition, along with a wide array of other challenges in a cross-cultural setting. This frailty causes the need to depend on God and live in humble dependence on Him for our power and strength.
- We are in a spiritual battle (1 Peter 5:2) – Our Christian service will face opposition and attack in different forms.
What can get in the way of sustaining good self-care?
The unfinished nature of Christian ministry
You are surrounded by need and it is easy to feel the immensity of the struggle, with the false perception that all depends on you. This however can swamp you with feelings of increased pressure, anxiety, despair and failure. God doesn’t call us to be “successful” but rather fruitful, growing in our Christ-like character. Maybe the question here is not “what am I achieving?’ but rather how am I building? (1 Cor 3:10)
We have a desire to be accepted and needed
It can be easy for our value to become tied to our performance and accomplishment in ministry. We are imperfect, so it is helpful to acknowledge this fact and not expect perfection from ourselves. Our identity and value before God come primarily from who we are, not from what we do and it is helpful to remember that it is the approval of God that really counts. We are serving the Lord Christ and not our fellow man (Col 3:23-24).
Fear of Failure
This is tied to the above point. How much are you driven or swayed by the expectations of others? We are justified in the eyes of God not by our own efforts, but through faith in what the Lord Jesus has done for us – a gift of grace. This is not altered by our failures. Rather, let our inadequacies throw us onto the Lord in humble dependence on Him.
Can’t say no?
Both Jesus and his disciples needed to make choices so that they could fulfil God’s purposes. There is a sense of needing to be wise with what we say yes to, to ensure that we choose actions which give priority to those things that God has called us to do.
Principles of Self-Care
Rest – Daily Rest/Sabbath Rest/Annual Rest
God has provided sleep as a way for our bodies to restore energy and heal. We are called to healthy sleep patterns in the knowledge that the Lord builds the house. (Psalm 127:2).
God has also established a weekly pattern of rest, within the context of a working routine. To be able to take a day off for refreshment and worship reveals a faith that God understands, knows and cares about what has been accomplished, being able to leave what is left undone with Him. Participating in this shows a dependence on the Lord to supply your needs as you rest in Him and model this to those around you.
God instigated days of holiday for the Israelites, which incorporated refreshment, reflection and worship.
Working in Partnership
Throughout Scripture we see the pattern and importance of close friendships, with people working and encouraging one another in their gospel ministry. We see this also with Jesus who spent time not just in giving out to others but also with people who were described as his friends. Having a network of support helps provide encouragement, enjoyment, challenges our perspectives and helps to carry our burdens.
If you are single this is especially vital. Look for opportunities to link up with other households locally, so that you can participate in being part of a wider family. You will be a blessing to them as much as being blessed by their relationships. If you are married, seek to open your home for this opportunity.
Nurture your marriage and family relationships
It is easy for the family to be affected by your pre-occupation and tiredness, along with challenges of time. How are you building your marriage and deepening your relationships with your children?
Realism in Ministry
Ultimately it is God who convicts people of sin, draws them to Christ and brings growth to the Church. Whether fruit is borne or not is up to God and He is the One who measures ‘success’. We are used by God in his grace to sow gospel seed and nurture growth and maturity. Simultaneously we need to remember that our worth is not dependent on what we have done or will do, but rather that we are chosen and redeemed by God.
Remember that whilst the work may remain unfinished, faithfulness in our tasks and God’s faithfulness in his work are accomplished every day. Our labour in the Lord is never in vain (1 Cor 15:58).
Taking time out for reflection, prayer and study
At times good things need to be laid aside in order that the better may be pursued (Luke 10:41-42). There needs to be intentionality in setting regular time aside for personal prayer and refreshment with the Lord. Without this we become shallow and empty and our work is worth nothing unless it is connected to Christ (John 15:5). When the apostle Paul speaks of bodily weakness and hardships he refers to the inner renewing which is so vital to our perseverance and hope (2 Cor 4:16).
Prayer is an expression of our weakness and reliance on God, but also seeking to avail ourselves of His resources and to receive His strength and wisdom.
Brain says ‘Self-care knows nothing of slackness or laziness, but will prove to be a means by which we can rest long enough to be able to reflect upon the great purposes of God revealed to us in the Bible. This time for reflection, and purposeful drinking from the deep wells of living water, will enable pastors to remain fresh for the work of ministry. Out of these wells we will be able to refresh others. Refreshed people are able to encourage one another and reach out to others. Refreshed people will want to feed more and more upon Christ by allowing God’s gracious Spirit time to change them.’
Time to lament
There are many disappointments and frustrations in Christian ministry and also areas of personal hurt and grief. We live and are part of a fallen world. Scripture points us towards a loving and compassionate God who desires us to pour out our hearts before him (Psalm 62:8) and approach his throne of mercy and grace (Heb 4:14-16). Jesus draws alongside us in our pain and struggles and we see evidence of Godly grief over the state of our sinful world (Isaiah 5:4, Luke 19:41).
Time for Enjoyment
We are made as creative beings – in many different forms! Do you have an outlet and appreciation for this? God has given us so many good things to enjoy and surrounds us with beauty in His creation. How can you glorify Christ through this aspect in your life? It can help to look at your leisure activities and ask yourself how/if these refresh you e.g. exercise outdoors; music, reading, art, gardening, etc.
- Do you protect your day off and take it regularly? What does this look like for you (and your family)? How can you develop this?
- How do you find refreshment and enjoyment?
- How intentional and regular are your times of prayer, study and personal times with the Lord? Do you unburden your heart?
- Where are you finding your worth and value?
- How do you handle success or failure? Disappointments?
- What has God called you to? Where has he gifted you? Are you seeking to attempt everything, rather than those things that you can responsibly undertake? Are you able to say no?
- Do you have a good network of support which encourages, listens, challenges and spurs you on? How can you develop this?
Practical Strategies to Implement
- Make intentional and regular times to be still before God – for your own spiritual nourishment as opposed to the needs of others.
- Read books that are spiritually refreshing for you on a personal level and not just books that are aimed at ministering to others.
- Establish a network of people that can be a support to you. Both Jesus and Paul show evidence of having more intimate times with friends. Have a friend that you can be accountable to, where you can discuss how things are going on a personal and not just ministry level – where they can ask you about your spiritual walk, your relationships, your rest.
- Let go of the compulsion to prove yourself. Admit your limitations and aim to honour God rather than your own ego. Remember God’s grace.
- Take stock at regular intervals regarding your patterns and motivations.
- Be intentional about winding down at the end of your day, leaving daily concerns with the Lord.
- It can help for your day off to be regular and known by those around you, so that people learn to respect this. It may help for you to plan this day to be away from your locality so that you are not disturbed.
- Seek to take regular holidays and breaks.
- Careful use of your diary – plan in times for exercise/prayer/family time/study. Whilst crisis needs will crop up we don’t need to respond instantly to every issue and have a choice of what is important and essential. Planning our work can ensure that the hours we have available will be used most effectively. Be aware of your personality and situation and how this might affect the times you are best able to focus on study/admin/pastoral needs etc.
- Are there activities that you could pass onto others? Do you need to ‘prune’ your ministry so you can focus on your priorities?
- It can be helpful to set clear goals for your ministry, to help in prioritising tasks and focus your time.
- Where possible, plan for stress-laden activities to be followed by non-stressful ones. It takes time for our bodies to adjust to the changing levels of adrenaline which is increased during stressful tasks but then dips as our bodies recover. Interestingly it has been found that we are at our most creative when our bodies are at a low state of arousal!
- Make a list of activities that can become periods of ‘time out’ for you. Plan these into your diary.
- Enjoy little pleasures each day to split up challenging tasks – such as a walk. Caring friendships and humour are a great antidote to activities or relationships which are draining.
- Intentionally set aside both quality and quantity time with your family. It may help to reflect on the time you have with your family. Look at last week and note when you spent time with them. How much of this was quality time as opposed to just ‘being there’? Learn to relax and be refreshed with your family. Quantity time will enable the relaxed atmosphere for quality engagement to take place. Guard and cherish each opportunity for this. It is helpful to carve out special times with your children and not to break promises of time commitments with them.
- Going the Distance: How to stay Fit for a Lifetime of Ministry; Peter Brain; 2006; Matthias Media.
- Serving without Sinking: How to serve Christ and Keep your Joy; John Hindley; 2019; the Good Book Company.
- Take Care of Yourself: Survive and Thrive in Christian Ministry; Pablo Martinez; 2018; Hendrickson Publishers.
- The Imperfect Pastor : Discovering joy in our limitation through a daily apprenticeship with Jesus; Zack Eswine; 2015; Crossway.
- The Meaning of Marriage; Tim and Kathy Keller; 2013; Hodder and Stoughton.
- 7 Myths about Singleness; Sam Alberry; 2019; Crossway.
- Zeal without Burnout: Seven keys to lifelong ministry of sustainable sacrifice; Christopher Ash; 2019; the Good Book Company.
Podcasts & talks
- CCEF podcast on self-care
- CCEF podcast on rest
- Prioritising our walk with Jesus – Richard Underwood (UFM Family Conference 2018)
- Sustaining & developing our devotional lives – Richard Underwood (UFM Summer Conference 2020)
- Handling Conflict in Ministry – Richard Underwood
- Online retreat (x4) by Pauline Wilson, Biblical counsellor and UFM volunteer:
- Stewardship of Self for Cross-cultural Workers: Biblical Bases – Ron Koteskey & Marty Seitz (CCW)
- Avoiding Burnout – Dr Michael Jones (Global Connections)
- Taking a Sabbath – Nicky Brand (OSCAR)
- Stress management – Thrive Worldwide (OSCAR)
- Three ideas for an overburdened ministry – Ed Welch (CCEF)