3 Problems with the Self-Care Conversation

3 Problems with the Self-Care Conversation May 21, 2019

At the end of an academic year I often find myself reflecting on questions that lurk just beyond the seminary classroom but impinge on the work that we do.  This year one of the issues that I found myself reflecting on again is the emphasis that we place on self-care.  It surfaced as a part of our conversation about spiritual direction and it was there this year, again, in the number of “accommodations” that students requested, including the option of exiting the classroom if conversations became too intense and added time to complete assignments.*

According to Aisha Harris, the language of self-care originated in the 60s and 70s with the medical community and was designed to address the needs of patients.  Focused on the elderly and mentally ill, physicians and others sought ways of addressing the challenges faced by patients who required long term care.  In fairly short order, the strategies that developed there were applied to the challenges faced by those who work in high-stress professions, including EMTs, social workers and trauma therapists.

From there it gained wider cultural and political currency as both cultural criticism and counter-cultural movement.  Harris notes that self-care eventually became “a push to redefine health care beyond just treatment of the individual body gained steam within various movements in the ’60s. Activists saw that poverty was correlated with poor health, and they argued that in order to dismantle hierarchies based upon race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, those groups must be able to live healthy lives.”

In its rapid absorption into cultural consciousness, Yuppies co-opted the concept, emptied it of its political content and made it a part of countless “wellness” schemes.  But in in the years since, it has seen something of a rebirth as a more political and cultural trend, often invoked by minority communities as a matter of “’self-preservation’” and as “’an act of political warfare.’”

With such a complex history, it is difficult to know which stream of the self-care tradition is being invoked at any one time, but I have become increasingly convinced that the concept is particularly problematic as applied to ordained ministry.  I am not opposed to a healthy lifestyle, as such, and I don’t doubt that there are unhealthy social patterns that deserve close examination.    On the plus side, the emphasis on self-care in ministry has addressed issues of burn-out, depression and substance abuse.  It has also led us into closely related conversations about boundaries issues that arise in pastoral ministry.

But, born of therapeutic categories, the concept of self-care is centered on values that are also finally at odds with the demands of Christian ministry:

One: In the template that advocates of self-care use, spiritual balance is only one of several concerns, if it is included at all (sometimes, it isn’t).  The lists that advocates proffer vary: Attention to one’s physical health, the preservation of relationships, and a healthy diet figure on many of them.  I don’t doubt the value of the practices that people list, and I am not at all surprised that the cultivation of a spiritual life – if it has a place – is simply one more way of managing life’s challenges.  That is typically where spirituality figures into the therapeutic world view.  But from a Christian vantage point, those concerns take their place around a spiritually centered life, and one’s relationship with Christ both orders and provides the rationale for other commitments.  It isn’t one commitment among others.  It is the commitment that precedes all the others.

Two: Self-care inevitably revolves around negotiating the competing demands of our personal lives over against the demands of work and/or the needs of others.  In a therapeutic world, without any other perspective, this dyad of competing demands is something that people are required to balance, guided largely by how much we can or should give to the work world.  This is why, recently, there have been intergenerational debates about how much time one should be required to be in the workplace.  Christian life and ministry is grounded in the conviction that, as we live ever more deeply into the life of God, we discover that our life’s calling is availability to the purposes of God.  God’s purposes embrace both our spiritual wellbeing and that of others, but it is the purposes of God in any one moment and not the competing demands of our personal and professional lives that should dictate our choices.

Three: It may be a misapplication of self-care categories, but the way in which some people use it, self-care language often implies that we can be insulated from risk.  Such insulation is not possible in pastoral ministry.  Although it has many dimensions, ordained life is, in the final analysis, cruciform.  It subjects pastors, priests, ministers and deacons to the loss, pain, grief and struggles of others.  With regularity it exposes us to mortality, failure and loss that people in our care experience, and in doing so, it confronts us with the potency of the same things in our own lives.  Under the most extreme circumstances, it has cost people of faith their lives and continues to do so in many parts of the world.  The transactional categories of self-care have no place in a world where those demands are made.

Am I saying that a holistic spiritual approach to life has no place in the lives of clergy?  Hardly.  The goodness of creation and of our own lives — as well as the incarnational nature of the Christian life — provide sound spiritual reasons for a balanced and ordered life.  Even the priority of our availability to the spiritual purposes of God requires the nurture and conservation of the gifts we have been given, in the form of relationships, physical strength and emotional wellbeing.  But those requirements need to be tempered by the inherent risk and sacrifice that is part of the Christian life.

This is what concerns me most about the growing number of accommodations that students request and the growth market in curating the seminary experience.  Preparation for ministry is not – contrary to what people may think – preparation for an isolated and insulated safe space.  It is not a space that can be curated or where the demands it makes can be controlled.  People will die on your day off.  The broken and bleeding will make their way to your door, and Sundays happen whether we are ready for them or not.

What seems to be missing, then, from our conversations about the ministry is a candid contemplation of the demands both our faith and a vocation to ordained life require.  This far into my experience of ordained the words that matter more and more are availability and resilience.  Availability to the purposes of God – resilience born of the confidence that we risk everything, knowing that it all finally depends upon God.  Seminary is a good place to explore the lived meaning of those words.


*I am aware that such requests are often necessary, particularly when they are grounded in identifiable psycho-somatic struggles.  Increasingly, however, the conversation about self-care and about the obligation of academic communities to make allowances for accommodations have crowded out countervailing questions.  Among them are these: Can classrooms insulate students from difficult questions and serve their purpose?  Can students learn what they need to know without navigating uncomfortable conversations? And this: If students require accommodations, what do they also need to do to prepare themselves for a work world where, by definition, the demands of ministry will take them into spiritually and emotionally demanding places?







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