By Curt Keller
A few years ago, my wife and I were in Florida for a little vacation trip and for a one-day conference. We rented a car after arriving and as we were leaving the hotel to go to the conference the tire pressure light was on. I did not want to take the time to take care of the tire, as none of the tires really looked low. The result of that poor decision was that I had to change a flat tire on the side of an interstate. (Luckily there was a spare in the trunk.) We arrived at the conference with plenty of time to spare allowing me to wash up before meeting and talking with people. Not taking care of the tire could have had a worse outcome and it would have taken less time to stop and put some air in it than it did to change it.
We often behave like that in our lives. We can put things off until a problem develops that will be much more inconvenient or dramatic than simply caring for it. As clergy, we are often tempted to put off caring for ourselves until we develop some bad problems. We can be so focused on caring for others we forget about ourselves. We can spend so much time at the church we find that there is little time for other things. If we make the church the entire focus of our lives, then we risk burning out when it does not go well. Caring for ourselves is not simply taking a vacation each year or going to bed early once a month. Caring for ourselves is a lifestyle choice which can prevent physical, emotional and spiritual problems down the road.
We probably all know that we are complicated organisms and our physical health, mental health and spiritual health all intersect. Many of us have probably mentioned this to parishioners or used it in a sermon. However, many do not live as if they truly believe it. As a United Methodist Church clergy person and as a Marriage and Family Therapist, I have talked with many people who had problems because they did not take care of themselves. It could have been one of many things, perhaps they let their health go, eating poorly or not being active. Perhaps they did not take time for fun with family and friends. Perhaps they did not tend to their spiritual side. Then as what lacked attention began to slide other parts of their lives were affected. Not caring for our body will affect our mental and spiritual health. Not tending to our spiritual and mental health will take a toll on us physically. And with neglect of ourselves, poor decisions in various situations can be made. Some burn out in their jobs or relationships which can include their relationship with God.
The first step is to realize that it is not being selfish to take care of yourself. It is also realizing that no one else can care for us. Caring for yourself will give you the strength to care and be there for others. Taking care of yourself can help you make better decisions, thus eliminating the time needed to try to put out the fires that poor decisions create. Taking care of yourself should also increase efficiency in work, providing yourself with more energy.
Taking care of our physical health does not mean that we need to become triathletes and work out 15 hours per week. It can mean finding an adequate amount of physical exercise for ourselves and a proper diet. We can use the excuse that it is difficult to eat properly when people bring donuts and cakes and pies to the church. However, we have many other times to eat and if we eat appropriately at the other times that piece of pie or those chocolate chip cookies that are brought to the church should not ruin our overall healthy eating. I am a swimmer and plan on swimming between 450 and 500 miles this year – or about 10 miles a week. (I am currently several miles ahead of pace.) I am also a vegetarian. I try to get adequate sleep. These work for me. They may not work for you, in fact I know most of you reading this will think being a vegetarian is not a good diet. Don’t do what works for me, do what works for you. Find physical activity and a way of eating that is healthy for you and that you truly become a part of your lifestyle. Make sure you get adequate sleep. (Without adequate sleep our brains will not process information we received in the day properly.) You should easily be able to find resources on taking care of your body.
Taking care of mental health can seem complicated, but should not be. Sure, we may think that we are so busy or under so much pressure that caring for our mental health is almost impossible. Sleep is important here as it is in caring for our bodies. There are many things we can do to help us relieve stress. We can spend time with friends and family. I think it is important to have friends outside the church and fellow clergy so that the time can truly be spent away from work. We can have activities we enjoy doing. Swimming for me provides not only good physical exercise, but my masters team provides me with some socialization that helps my mental health as well. You may have interests in doing various projects or hobbies that allow you to relieve stress and recharge your emotional batteries. You may find relaxing with a good book to allow you to not only relieve stress, but to stimulate your mind. Discover what works for you in strengthening your mental health.
Your spiritual health also needs constant attention. (I know some will criticize me for not placing this at the beginning of the article.) As clergy, we may often see this as one of our strengths. That does not mean that it does not need constant attention. There are many ways to work on this. We can experience corporate worship, group studies, individual study and devotions. We have ample opportunity to pray and focus on our Lord. Make sure you take time to keep up on your spiritual health. Remember, that our conference and districts provide many opportunities for us to grow spiritually. (We are part of the United Methodist Church, that is what we do.)
How much attention we need to give to the various parts of our lives depends on us. We are all different. I have owned several different cars in my life and each one would have different levels of care to run properly. Some of us may need to spend more time focusing on physical health issues than others, some more on mental health issues than others and some more on spiritual health issues than others. At any given time, the balance of our focus can change. Knowing ourselves if vital in our well-being. Be willing to seek help if it is a difficult task. Our clergy assistance program has people who can help us do that. Yet we need to take responsibility for caring for ourselves and seeing that the aspects of our lives are in proper balance. Good luck in doing this.
(The Rev. Dr. Curt Keller is pastor of Forrest Hill UMC in Peoria, Illinois River District and a board member for the Office of Pastoral Care and Counseling.)