One of the most important, yet often overlooked, aspects of pastoral ministry is self-care. As ministers, we need to take care of ourselves, so we are in the right frame of mind, the right place in our spirituality, and we are physically able to help people. Self-care is one of the tools that is vital to pastoral ministry, and I only wish it was given more time if any, at seminaries as minister candidates prepare for service.
As a general rule, ministers are givers, and we give until we cannot give any more and that usually leads to burn out. What many congregations do not understand is the stress that is placed on ministers especially in churches with shrinking number and a population that is aging. On top of that, we face problems with our health or the health of family members that only adds to the stress. Our parishioners are also under stress from their lives, and that lands at our feet as well, and we continue the cycle of caring for others and not caring for ourselves.
I am a fire chaplain and also work in disaster recovery. This is an aspect of ministry I never thought I would be involved in but one I am glad I did say yes too. It has added a dimension to ministry that most ministers never get to see. Sure I saw a lot of things I wish I never saw and been to places that have seen better days, but helping someone after a disaster, or being with that firefighter outside a burning building is a wonderful ministry. But all of this requires training and retraining.
I was recently involved in a one day class to refresh and renew my skills in the delivery of Critical Incident Stress Management. Without going into all the details, CISM is a process that focuses on the incident at hand, deals with the aftermath of that incident, from a psychological perspective, and allows the participants to return to their daily routine more quickly with less likelihood of experiencing PTSD. There is a one on one and a team approach to the delivery of CISM, and it requires a honing of the necessary skills from time to time. One aspect of CISM is the self-care of the team.
And often overlook aspect of psychological trauma work is the vicarious victimization this is when people are traumatized by an event by being involved from a distance with through a family member or event watching the events over and over again on television. News saturation can cause trauma in an indirect way even hearing about an event can traumatize someone and this why self-care of the CISM tram is of vital importance.
Sitting in class, I called to mind all of the times that Jesus withdrew to a secluded place to pray. This usually happened after a rather stressful moment in his life. After healing many people or teaching for an extended period, he would withdraw from the others and go and pray. He would come back to them refreshed and ready to face another day. Jesus had to do this, and he is the Son of God, so a mere mortal like me needs to do this!
What this withdrawal does is refocus us or bring us back to our center. When an event is unfolding there really is no time to process fully what is going on and what has happened. We are in the thick of it and need to focus all of our attention on the task at hand. We are on auto-pilot, and our training takes over at this point. But what happens when we switch the auto-pilot off? This is when withdrawal becomes necessary.
Self-care involves knowing our limitations and knowing our triggers. None of us like to admit that we have limitations especially those of us involved in ministry. We want just to keep going, but if we do, and take no time for refreshment, we will burn out and then we are of no use to anyone. Learning how to say no is critical in the sort of work ministers are involved. But knowing our triggers, the things that might set us off, is also important.
I am not saying that we all need to pray more, although that is not a bad thing, that may not be your thing. Prayer works for me and that is great you need to find what works for you. What is it that relaxes you and centers you, know what that is and then do it.
We all need time to process the things that we experience and that time is different for each person. Some can bounce right back while others need a little more time, but to take time say a day every few months, to withdraw for a few hours will go a long way in helping to keep us on track.