Self-Care Myths

HiRes

Big-Foot–Truth or Myth?

Which of these self-care myths tend to plague you and your fellow pastors?

1. Self-care is easy. It seems that pastor self-care should be relatively easy. If the pastor takes a vacation frequently enough, burnout will not happen, right?

Answer:

For most secular individuals, self-care is relatively easy–they simply take a short vacationFor pastors, self-care represents a much more complex issue. Pastors face 10 to 50 times more stress than most secular individuals, and the stress persists 24 hrs/day, 7 days/week. In addition to all the normal stress of a public occupation, pastors often face the vicarious stresses brought by the crises of those in the congregation. So pastors often discuss the need for “balance.” This usually means that pastors readily recognize their need to balance their life style issues with ministry issues. They seem to intuitively know that an out of balance lifestyle promotes burnout.

Pastors who neglect balancing their life and work domains may suffer burnout as a normal result of ministry. A Cajun living in the swamp summed up the problem well, “It’s hard to remember your objective to drain the swamp when you stand in alligators up to your waist.” Many pastors fight so many alligators on a daily basis that trying to focus on  “balance” seems out of the question.

C. R. Snyder (from the University of Kansas, Handbook of Hope, 2000) has identified nine domains in life that, if effectively balanced, help to eliminate burnout and promote an environment of “thriving.”  Naturally, vacations represent an important burnout prevention tool, but if a vacation represents your only self-care tool, you may grow increasingly susceptible to burnout. Vacations are fun and temporarily relieve stress, but they fail to  stimulate the production of important brain chemicals that prevent burnout. As our extra margin of these chemicals dwindles, we tend to only see the alligators, and we forget about the “balance.”

We invite you to read about this important research on balance (the nine domains) in our webpages on Balance.

2. Spiritual health happens automatically for those in the ministry occupations. Planning and completion of ministerial tasks fails to build a relationship with God. That is, accomplishing ministry tasks never supplants the need to pursue spiritual health.  Spiritual health represents a continuum, a never ending process of building an ever deepening relationship with God. Salvation merely starts the process. Like any other relationship, an ever deepening relationship with God takes consistent time and persistence.

3. I don’t need relationships, I only need preaching skills. Christian maturity grows from relationships with God, self, and others. Relationships provide the backbone for spiritual health and emotional health. When a pastor neglects the development of relationship skills, he or she fails as a pastor and develops an extreme susceptibility to burnout and failure.

4. I only need a Sabbatical rest.

Many ministers expect a Sabbatical rest to prevent and help them to recover from burnout. Since a Sabbatical rest temporarily removes stress, it may postpone burnout. For the most part, however, it represents one of the least effective and therefore one of the most costly approaches to recover from stress and burnout. Worse yet, it almost totally fails to prevent burnout. Burnout (a form of clinical depression) results from the gradual depletion of several important chemicals in the brain, including serotonin and norepinephrine. A huge body of recent research (Nemets, Stahl, & Belmaker, 2002; Peet & Horrobin, 2002; Nemets et. al., 2006; Kuller (2002), Rosenthal (1993), Kripke (1998), Tuunainen, Kripke, & Enco (2004); Blumenthal et al, 1999, 2001; Elkin et al, 1989; de Mello, de Jesus, Bacaltchuk, Verdeli & Neugebauer, 2005; Just & Alloy, 1997; Dimidjian et al, 2006; Wells & Papageorgiou, 2004) shows that six specific lifestyles (see our Burnout Prevention webpage for a discussion of these lifestyles) build and restore the chemical balance within a short time period. Although a Sabbatical rest removes the stress, temporarily, it fails to implement any of the lifestyles needed to stimulate the production of these chemicals. The feeling that you need a Sabbatical represents a primary symptom of an impending burnout. By itself, however, it fails to restore the chemical balance needed for physical and mental health. After the Sabbatical ends and you return to your job, almost all the same stressors still remain and you still have no additional skills to deal with them. A Sabbatical rest helps temporarily, but generally fails to provide a sustainable option for those in high-stress positions, especially ministry.

5. Burnout represents a spiritual failure.

This belief shows a lack of information about burnout. That is, burnout simply represents the lack of some very important chemicals (serotonin and norepinephrine) in the brain. Thus, it fails to represent spiritual failure any more than a case of the common cold or the “flu.” Due to the lack of these chemicals, the affected individual feels numb to almost all emotions. Prayer normally includes an emotional connection to God in addition to a spiritual connection. Thus, when a pastor feels emotionally numb, his or her prayer life may feel dead. Regardless of emotional numbness, God still hears the prayers of every Christian and responds. Thus, a numbness of your emotions never represents a spiritual failure any more than a physical handicap represents a spiritual failure. Spiritual closeness and growth result from connecting to God, not from the presence or absence of your personal emotions, including numbness. That is, spiritual failure results from a failed relationship, not emotional numbness.

Many pastors feel ashamed of the stigma associated with burnout, more commonly called depression in the secular world. In the Bible, Job almost certainly experienced burnout including major depression. Yet, God honored him but chastised Job’s friends. I feel no stigma associated with Job, only esteem. After all, Job refused to quit on his relationship with God.

To learn more about building resilience against burnout and depression, please see our webpage on Burnout or see our book, Rebound From Burnout: Resilience Skills for Ministers. This book provides the most comprehensive prevention and intervention skills available to address pastor burnout. You can order a copy of this book, available at www.createspace.com/3854604.

6. I can ignore science and simply study the Bible to prevent and recover from burnout.

Some of my minister friends say that they plan to ignore medical science and simply study the Bible and use prayer to prevent and recover from burnout. Which is right?

Several issues seem apparent in the above statement:

First, those who ignore medical science may be looking at the wrong issue. The question isn’t whether or not God will answer my prayers to protect me from burnout. Sometimes He answers prayers in a way that I expect, and sometimes not. That is His decision, not mine. God is not some cosmic butler who jumps to the whim of my every prayer. I never control Him.

The important question is whether we should use medical science at all. Throughout life and ministry, I choose to use medical science in addition to prayer. Medical science has never invalidated my faith. The application of medical science merely represents rational self-care.

The bigger issue is whether or not I am willing to test God. While being tested in the wilderness, even Jesus refused to test God. Regardless my faith in God, I choose to avoid testing Him or risking the ministry to which He calls me.

Second, a huge number of factors affect susceptibility to burnout, and genetic factors are significant. So, two individuals exposed to the same stressors often react differently. You may be one of the fortunate few with a genetic resistance to burnout. However, are you willing to risk your ministry on that expectation? Is this something that is OK to risk?

Burnout results from the physical depletion of several chemicals in the brain. Medical research has revealed specific lifestyles that stimulate the brain to replenish those chemicals. Coincidentally, many of the burnout resistant lifestyles supported by medical science seem to promote the same lifestyles adopted in the Old Testament . So in this case, the Biblical examples and recent medical research seem to support each other. This isn’t a case of either or, but both are almost identical.

Third, I want to accomplish as much ministry work as possible. I can allow myself to grow susceptible to burnout by violating medical science, or I can make myself increasingly resistant to burnout so I can work even more and accomplish more. Personally, I love ministry and plan to do everything I can to enhance my ability to accomplish even more. Because I want to increase my effectivenes as much as possible, I choose to use a computer, take daily vitamins, build resistance to burnout, and pursue every avenue of technology and science possible that can increase my ministry effectiveness and longevity. And, I choose to pray continuously. How about you?

7. I don’t care about burnout because the Lord will return before I burn out.

A minister expressed a thought that seems to make some sense. He said, “I don’t care about burnout because the Lord will return before I burn out.” So, what’s so bad about burnout if the Lord is going to return soon, anyway?

Indeed, the Lord may return during our lifetime. However, no one can predict the time of the Lord’s return, including whether it will occur during our lifetime or 100 generations from now. Three issues seem apparent in the minister’s statement, above:

  • The minister’s prediction seems to conflict with Jesus’ statement that no one can predict the Lord’s return. Indeed, the Lord MAY return during your friend’s lifetime, and He may return a thousand years from now. The time of His return remains totally unknown and unpredictable. We only know that each day brings us closer to His return, but we cannot reliably predict His return during our lifetime.
  • The minister’s statement may serve as a form of fortune telling. The Bible includes a lot of very negative statements about fortune-tellers. Meanwhile, a few ministers squander the potential of long-term ministry to justify a short-term frenzy of overwork and poor health management, all while trying to fortune-tell what remains unpredictable.
  • Regardless of the Lord’s return date, we can pursue a Biblical principle of honoring His temple (our bodies) so we can serve Him and others for as long as possible. I believe that the principle of loving God AND others serves as the most appropriate principle relative to self-care. That is, if we truly love one another, then we will want to serve others for as long as possible.

At face value, it looks like the minister might be using his theology about the Lord’s return as an excuse to justify poor self-care. The real issue proably isn’t about the date of the Lord’s return so much as a theology that justifies poor self-care and wraps it in a theology that appears super-spiritual.

The state of the science on burnout now makes it almost totally preventable. Ministers no longer need to flirt with burnout to enable additional ministry. New research from the University of Kansas shows that with just six well-researched lifestyles in place, we can actually work harder and longer even while reducing the risk of burnout. Please click on our “Burnout Prevention & Recovery” page to learn more.

8. The pursuit of ministry justifies burnout. One minister said, “One day less on earth due to premature death simply provides one more day with the Lord.”

Such a belief fails to recognize the value of life, the joy of ministering for the Lord for as long as possible, and the joy of mentoring other humans in their spiritual walk. We minister out of love, not only out of duty. So, love compels us to minister for as long as possible. God calls ministers to serve, not to die (or burn out) prematurely. Since the human body serves as His temple, an unselfish love will compel us to keep using it to further His kingdom for as long as possible.

A belief that, “The pursuit of ministry justifies burnout.” fails to acknowledge truthfully that another day with the Lord seems almost meaningless when compared to eternity, while another day serving Him in ministry provides eternal benefits to His kingdom.

To learn more about how ministers can prevent burnout and increase resilience, please see our webpage on burnout.

© 2013 Nathan Davis

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