A Pastor’s Relationships: The Need for Self-Care

by Rev. Dr. Jack L Daniel

You are on a plane taxiing for takeoff; the flight attendant takes the microphone and makes the familiar announcement: “In the unlikely event the plane suddenly loses cabin pressure, oxygen masks will automatically deploy from the panel overhead.” She then demonstrates how to place the mask over the face. She concludes by emphasizing that adults should put on their own masks first before helping any children with theirs. Harold Senkbeil, in his book The Care of Souls, uses this illustration to point out the need for pastors to care for their own souls before attempting to care for the souls of others.

On the face of it, the airplane announcement goes against every parental instinct. We always put our children first, and certainly in an emergency. The flight attendant, without getting into a long explanation about the lack of oxygen known as hypoxia, reminds us that in this case, we must put ourselves first. If the attendant were to get “into the weeds” of hypoxia, it would certainly alarm us about the danger of delaying donning our masks. At altitudes above 20,000 feet, hypoxia can immediately cause mental confusion and impair our ability to make simple decisions. It then progresses to a feeling of drowsiness, apathy, or belligerence before causing the loss of consciousness and death.

Perhaps we pastors should periodically get an announcement warning us about the dangers of “spiritual” hypoxia and advising us to make the care of own souls, minds, and bodies a priority. Self-care is care for our whole person, the ongoing pursuit of physical, spiritual, and emotional health. When we ignore self-care, we jeopardize our ability to care for our flocks.

Why Pastors Neglect Self Care

One study cited in the 2013 book Resilient Ministry (Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie, p. 61)          found that 76 percent of pastors are overweight or obese, compared to 61 percent of the general population. Another study cited by them reports high levels of depression among clergy. Gary Harbaugh in Pastor as Person says studies have shown that “Nutrition, physical exercise, and other forms of self-care were at lower levels [for pastors] than for the general population” (p. 47).

Why do we, as pastors, often neglect to properly care for our bodies, souls, and emotions? No doubt there are many reasons, but here are some that seem evident.

1. First, we seem to be hard-wired to prioritize the care of others over care for ourselves. Perhaps it is in our nature, and this is what God used to call us into ministry in the first place. I am sure many of us felt concern for the welfare of others at a very young age. Long before we ever sensed God’s call to ministry, we wanted to help people who were hurt in some way. I suspect that is the case for many people who go into helping professions. We seem to have a shepherding instinct. One of my daughters has a German shepherd who, in the absence of sheep to herd, likes to herd our young grandchildren and, most annoyingly, our pet cat. As pastors, we naturally shepherd people.
2. A second reason may be an overweening need to please people. This frequently makes it difficult for pastors to say no to the demands of others. The danger for us is when our need to please looms too large and becomes an unhealthy co-dependency. We are then driven by that unhealthy need rather than being led by the Holy Spirit. That inappropriate need can override even our need to care for ourselves or our families.
3. A third reason is an unbiblical understanding of Christian pastoral ministry. The modern pastoral ministry job description is unlike most other work in that it is ill-defined and so broad that almost anything qualifies as ministry. Pastors of small churches often function as social workers or home health aides. A friend who pastored a small city church with an elderly population was often asked to drive his parishioners to and from medical appointments, the supermarket, or the airport. In our pastors’ group, he talked about being tired, overworked, lacking time to prepare his sermons, and serving a church that was steadily declining; but defended his “taxi service” as being essential ministry. Ephesians 4:11-13 lays out a simple but profound understanding of pastoral ministry, which is contrary to the way so many pastors function.

We would do well to teach this theology of ministry to our leaders and congregations on a regular basis because the current model of the over-functioning pastor is so ingrained in church culture. When pastors over-function in ministry, their people automatically under-function, which in turn only causes the pastor to do even more to keep the system going. It becomes a vicious circle. In my first church, I followed an elderly pastor who definitely over-functioned. He visited hospitalized parishioners every day until they were discharged, even driving the two-hour round trip to visit in the city hospitals. Members told me he would sometimes arrive at the hospital before the person was admitted and would wait until he or she was settled in a room. In addition, he would visit people in their homes every evening. When I arrived and heard of his heroic visitation ministry, I knew I could not live up to that standard as a young pastor with a young family. I am sure I disappointed people at first, but many later told me that my predecessor had neglected many other aspects of ministry. There was no evangelism, discipleship, or leadership development, and the church had sharply declined during his tenure. The church needed to—and wanted to—take more leadership in restoring the church to health.

  1. Fourth, I believe that many pastors who neglect self-care are functional Gnostics, with a theological dualism of spirit and body. They separate the spiritual from other parts of their lives. So activities like exercise, hobbies, or even family time are subconsciously dismissed as frivolous in light of the many people who are perishing without Christ. Of course, God did not create a dualistic existence. Everything we do in ministry, whether preaching, praying, or evangelizing, is done in the body. Our ministry is only as good as our bodies.

In neglecting self-care, we are rejecting the Great Commandment of our Lord to “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.” It is impossible to love our neighbors unless we first love and care for ourselves. It is like putting on someone else’s oxygen mask before securing our own.

Steps Toward Reversing Spiritual Hypoxia

Here are some things about self-care I learned over the years of my pastoral ministry, often the hard way. I recommend them to you.

  • Write or rewrite your job description. Base it on a biblical understanding of pastoral ministry, and align it with your gifts as well as the needs of the church. Many churches place unrealistic demands on their pastor. This may be because the church is disorganized with no clear sense of what it should be doing and so attempts to do everything. Or it may be that church leaders want a pastor to replicate the ministry style of a previous pastor. Or it could be that an aging, declining congregation is simply too exhausted to take on leadership. Begin praying with your leaders, and guide them through a study of the theology of the church. Let the word of God and the Holy Spirit lead your people to a healthy understanding of the church and the pastorate. I’ve heard it put this way: “Pick your no’s” carefully; say no to those things that are not in your job description.
  • Teach spiritual gifts and shape your church’s ministry around the spiritual gifts that God has given your people, not around the needs that are present. Let your church’s ministries be gift-led, not need-driven. If God hasn’t called someone to take up a ministry, then assume God is saying either No or Not now. Resist the urge to jump in and take it on. Some of the wisest advice I ever got was, “Never push anything you are not prepared to push forever.” Of course, we are prepared to push some aspects of our ministry forever because they are essential to the health and mission of the church. However, if you are not prepared to give ongoing leadership, then think long and hard about launching a new ministry. If you begin leading a ministry with no leader in sight to take it over, you will own it forever.
  • Make a distinction between your role and your person. Don’t confuse your personal identity with your pastoral identity. Remember, “minister” is really a verb, not a noun. It is what you do, not who you are. Long before you were called to be a shepherd, Christ called you to be a lamb of His flock. Ask yourself if you have friends and interests outside your church. Do you have a spiritual life not focused on your ministry?
  • Cultivate a family life apart from your church. Do you have a place of retreat where you can gather your family for periodic recreation, adventure, and nurture? Do you have a regular date night with your spouse? Do you have a backup plan to provide for your family in case you are forced to leave your church unexpectedly? Historically, rabbis were bi-vocational, so the Torah was not the means of their livelihood. This was especially important in periods of antisemitism. In the African American church as well pastors historically had a fallback vocation, partly because congregations were poor, but also to survive in times of discrimination. We trust in Jehovah Jirah, our provider, but we live in a precarious world, and unhealthy churches sometimes act unkindly. Don’t put your family in jeopardy of being homeless or without support. Having a vocation that you could temporarily fall back on and a home where you can shelter your family are important elements of separating your personal and pastoral identities and will give you greater freedom to minister.
  • Have an accountability partner or group. In our highly individualized culture, we think we can manage our lives on our own, but there are many times when our habits, emotions, or compulsions overwhelm us. While it is essential for married couples to have total openness and intimacy in their relationship, I believe it is unwise to burden our spouses with the role of accountability partner. We need someone outside our marriage. I feel blessed to have a pastor friend with whom I have a mutually accountable relationship. Though we first met in seminary, it was actually our shared interest in fly-fishing that enabled us to build and sustain our friendship over many decades. I see him but a few times a year, but we check in once a week. We hold one another accountable for physical exercise, for our spiritual lives, for our relationships, and for godliness and moral purity. He offers the grace, forgiveness, and restoration of Christ to me when I fail, and I to him. My friend is a true gift from God and an important part of my self-care.
In conclusion, let me refer again to Harold Senkbeil’s insightful book The Care Of Souls. He points out in two Scripture passages in which the Apostle Paul exhorts pastors to exercise self-care. In Acts 20:28, as Paul takes leave of the Ephesian elders, he warns, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. . . ,” and again in I Timothy 4:16, “Take heed to yourself and to your teaching . . . for by doing so you will save both yourself and your hearers.” The Apostle reminds us that self-care takes priority over the care of our people and even over our doctrine. Healthy pastors foster healthy churches and healthy Christian families. Pay attention to the care of your own mind, body, and soul. Put on your own oxygen mask first, for the sake of your spouse, your children, your flock, and yourself, and most of all, for Christ.