Healthy Christian Self-Care: Taking Care of Yourself without Being Selfish
I often find too much of a demand on my time and energy from those I love and other good things. I remember an especially taxing week when I felt so drained I was ready to run away from home. Standing by our kitchen window while taking in a glimpse of the serenity God gave us in nature, I said to my hubby, “Let’s run away.” So, we hopped into our single-engine plane to explore a beautiful area at the shores of Charlevoix, located on the Straits of Mackinac and mouth of the Grand Traverse Bay. We spent the day riding loaner bicycles around while taking in the sights. It was precisely the refreshment both of us needed. That day filled me up to give out more for those who needed me most.
I’ve had similar feelings as a wife, mother, caregiver, and partner in ministry. “Mommy, he hit me! WAAAAHHH!” wailed one of my daughters. My hyperactive son was springing from the sofa, pretending to be a superhero. My daughter was the unwitting villain he attacked to save the planet. In the meantime, my toddler daughter climbed up on the back of the sofa, and if I didn’t see this, she would have climbed the drapes, too. Later, I heard, “HOWL! MOM!” I found my son in his bedroom with a scorch mark up the wall from an outlet with a broken nightlight and tiny shards of glass all around him. He decided to arc the prongs to see what happened. Well, he found out. I carefully tiptoed through the broken glass to pick him up and remove him from danger. I removed the damaged nightlight, then thoroughly cleaned up the glass and the scorch mark. My nerves were frazzled from this and much more. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to be whisked away. We didn’t have a plane nor the beauty of the Great Lakes in our back yard. I also didn’t know how to care for my own needs amid chaos at that time. All I knew how to do was pray, “God, I am SO TIRED!” when I crashed into bed. If we aren’t careful, burnout and resentment will take hold.
The Effects of Unhealthy Christian Views on Self=Care
Misconceptions in the Christian community abound when it comes to self-care. “Put others first.” “Don’t be selfish.” And “Take care of others before yourself.” It’s no wonder Christians feel guilty about taking care of their own needs! These statements cause pastors and ministry leaders to give out in their ministries yet become disillusioned and frustrated. In a 2005 study done by Lifeway Research, 13% of pastors surveyed dropped out of pastoral ministry due to “conflict, family, burnout, moral lapse, and poor fit.” (Lifeway). Thankfully, today, these stats are becoming less common than in the past. According to Christianity Today, fewer pastors are dropping out of ministry (CT Today) Seminaries are doing a better job teaching work/life balance in ministry while congregations are learning to care for their pastors and families better. The seminary my first husband and I attended taught work-life balance and feeding of one’s own spiritual needs. Some of the graduates in his class did drop out due to burnout, infidelity, and church abuse, but the number was four out of sixteen due to the older mindsets of rural churches. This tiny group does not represent the larger pool of pastors in our country. Unfortunately, the average person in the pews still has the notion of “selflessness to the max” drilled into them from a very young age. It dies hard. We need to stop feeling guilty about taking care of ourselves so that we can serve God and others effectively.
Looking to God’s Word for Refreshment
Read: Philippians 2:3-8
Focus Verse: Mark 12:30-31
This notion that Christians are supposed to serve God and others so selflessly that they neglect their own needs and interests causes us to extract our needs from others out of desperation. I’ve witnessed this in several ways serving in Christian ministry. This selfless servant concept creates rescuers who always live in emergency mode. It leaves burned out disillusioned Christ-followers on the brink of losing their families. Neediness builds and the ones who are supposed to serve suck the life out of those who need them most. I’ve worked with these well-intentioned souls in martial arts ministry, church ministry, and fitness centers. They comfort eat, gain an incredible amount of weight, causing them to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and gall bladder disease. We were never designed this by our heavenly Creator to live like this.
If you look at our passages, we are shown a balance. The people during that time lived in a self-absorbed culture, much like people do today. It was essential for them to look from a different perspective to gain balance in life. God, self, others. What? Yes. God is always first. Our own basic needs and personal interests next. Then the obligations and interests of others. We could flip the Philippians 2:3-5 passage to read, “Look not only to the interests of others but also to your own.” Our best example is how Jesus conducted His ministry. Read about the life and ministry of Jesus in the four Gospels. Yes, He worked tirelessly in ministry, but He also took time out to eat, sleep, bathe, visit with friends, and of course, go to quiet, lonely places to pray. We would do well to follow His example.
One of the critical lessons my first husband and I learned in seminary is to how to protect our own needs and the needs of our family. Every need people brought to us was always presented as an immediate crisis. My husband’s pastor-mentor taught him that when needs are brought to us in our personal time, especially in the middle of the night, is to ask yourself, “Will it cause me to cry uncontrollably, laugh hysterically, or drive me to my knees?” If the answer is “Yes,” then it’s time to get up and serve. If someone was on a suicide watch or death watch, we were up. If someone went to the hospital by ambulance and we were called, we were on our way to sit with the family. If a baby was born, we got up early to support the new parents. Although we were met with resistance and scorn because we set healthy boundaries, our marriage flourished and our children grew up sane. The people who received our ministry were changed for the better. We still love the Lord with all of our hearts, minds, and strength when other pastor’s families walked away from the church and Jesus Christ. This should hold true for you, too.
Living life and loving people can suck the life out of you if you let it. God intends for you and your family to flourish, setting the example for others to follow.
First, your ministry, or service to the Lord, is not the same as nurturing your relationship with Him. It comes after, yes after, your relationship with Him, your own basic needs, and your family. Who you are in Christ and what you do for Him are two different things. A healthy, strong relationship with God needs to be the hub of all other areas of your life. Spend quality time with God often in prayer, bible study, worship, and reflection on His interactions with you and those around you. It’s difficult to serve Someone you barely know. Your zeal to serve Him will be refreshed.
Second, meet your own basic needs and have some personal interests to keep yourself healthy. If you don’t, you will short your family and extract your needs from those who depend on you. Eat healthily, exercise, get enough sleep, set some downtime into your day. Take up a hobby that you can set aside when you are truly needed. Find ways to simplify your schedule and your space to open up your time. When you are able to take in what you need, you will have more to give to others.
Third, protect your family so they will also flourish and find joy supporting you in what God has called you to do for His Kingdom. Nurture your family relationships with some of that time. It is indeed vital, and everyone at home will realize fulfilling your call in ministry—vocational or during secular employment—needs their support.
Fourth, serve God and others with joy. Ministry should never be drudgery, but an amazing opportunity to share the love of Jesus with others. What a wonderful privilege to be a part of God’s work in the lives of people around you!
When you put every role you fill in its proper place, you will be able to easily say, “It is well with my soul.” May God bless you!
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