Who will pastor the pastors?
This has been a hard summer. We’ve had mass shootings, anniversaries of mass shootings, young men killed by police and police killed. We’ve had international incidents of mass killings. Not to mention what might be happening in our families, churches, and communities.
People are grieving; they may be angry and afraid; they are feeling pressed by trouble on every side. Christians all over are struggling to declare the “but we are not” parts of these sentences:
We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.(2 Corinthians 4:8-9, NLT)
Pastors are pressed to organize responses to what is happening, to speak words of wisdom in person and from the pulpit, to call for justice, to influence their community leaders, and to minister to their hurting and often divided people, all while worrying about their people’s safety.
Is it any wonder pastors are telling us they’re tired? Weary down to their bones, with migraines, ulcers, bad back flare-ups, short tempers, and despair they don’t dare admit.
The Psalmist knows (Psalm 13:1-2):
O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
Which brings up the question:
Who will pastor the pastors?
Self-care gets a lot of talk these days, and there’s no shortage of articles on self-care for pastors. Yes, getting regular exercise, enough sleep, taking vacations, and not neglecting personal Bible study and prayer sure won’t hurt, but many pastors are at the point Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber writes of in Accidental Saints (p.170):
On the outside, my plan looked like “good self-care,” but really, it was just a laundry list of habits I adopted to ensure I could continue to overfunction.... But this strategy manifested itself as pure anxiety in my body. Not the kind where you forget how to walk or take air into your lungs--the ongoing, low-grade kind where you are always afraid...and you feel as if your heartbeats have been replaced with the dun-dun, dun-dun music in horror films.
Lillian Daniel tackles the topic in, “What Clergy Do Not Need: For the sake of clergy self-care, let’s stop talking about clergy self-care.” She says,
ultimately, the notion of self-care does not work because we don’t have in us what is required. Self-care is the Band-Aid we put on spiritual exhaustion, dark nights of the soul, and the disappointment of consecutive losing seasons in a long ministry. It seems odd that as Christians, we would tell one another that the answer to such woes lies in ourselves, and in our own will power and our own resolutions to do better.
The first answer is almost painfully obvious: the Lord will pastor His pastors.
The Psalmist knows what he needs when he gets in that state (Psalm 63:1 NLT):
My soul thirsts for you; my whole body longs for you in this parched and weary land where there is no water.
Try coming to the Lord as you wish your congregation would come to you: without an agenda. Try coming to the Lord without words. Try coming to the Lord in the light of this Scripture:
“I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.” (Song of Songs 7:10, NRSV)
The second answer requires vulnerability: the pastors will pastor each other.
This doesn’t have to mean long sessions or making appointments (although it wouldn’t hurt). Daniel says,
We desperately need community as pastors. We need deep friendships with others who understand this odd and wondrous calling, and where we can tell one another the truth. We need to remind one another of the God who cares for us all, whether we overeat, make too many appointments or plow through our day off. We need one another’s care.
The pastors in the Refresh track of GoH’s Summer Learning Retreats for Clergy have given us feedback already that that’s their favorite part of the program: just talking with other pastors.
Text a pastor friend.
Be frank about how you are feeling and ask how your friend is feeling. Seeking community doesn’t need to be a giant production. It can be as simple as a text.
And if you’re already doing that, you can bump it up a notch and seek out a mentor. Cultivate a relationship with someone who is willing to invest in your growth as a person.
The third answer gets us dangerously close to those (dreaded) articles about self-care: the pastor will pastor him or herself.
That’s not really possible, theologically, since the shepherd cannot shepherd him or herself, but the pastor is an adult who is capable of acting in his or her own best interests didn’t give me the parallelism with the first and second answers. (I’m guessing some of you may have fudged something to keep a verbal rhythm going in a sermon, so please be kind.)
Chronic stress does a number on your body, tightening muscles, interfering with sleep and digestion, causing your breathing to get shallower and quicker. But moving our bodies can help us release those tensions, and leave us better equipped to handle our grief and anger. Regular exercise would be great, but even a one-time event is better than nothing. It might even be fun.
Play a physical game you can lose yourself in: basketball, handball, horseshoes, cornhole, tennis, soccer. Hit the batting cage, driving range, weight machines. Toss a football, a frisbee, a hackeysack.
Take a walk in nature. A walk is always good, but quiet tree-lined paths and lakeside beaches are more soothing to your brain.
Declare a family dance party in the living room.
Stretch. Grief and stress cause our neck and shoulders to clench up, our chests to round in, and our hips to tighten; doing chest opening and hip releasing stretches helps. If you don’t know any stretches, search on Youtube.
Take ten deep and slow breaths, completely filling and emptying your lungs.
During times of pain and grief, we need Jesus, we need each other, and we need to move our bodies. And always, always, we need to pray for each other. Pastors, know that at Gatherings of Hope, we are praying for you.