Is Self-Care Selfish? Stewarding Your Personal Life for Long-Term Ministry

Self-care sounds like man-centered psychobabble. It feels inherently selfish, contradicting biblical concepts such as self-denial and self-sacrifice. Why would a ministry-minded Christian pay special attention to himself or herself?

Let’s learn what self-care is, then see if any part aligns with Scripture. Perhaps it belongs on the trash pile of worldly philosophies. Or possibly common grace has made mankind instinctively conscious of a healthy practice.

Understanding Self-Care
A helpful definition of self-care is “the self-initiated behaviour that people choose to incorporate to promote good health and general well-being.”[1] Simply stated, self-care is taking responsibility for your personal health and well-being.

Areas usually in focus are physical well-being – diet, exercise, and sleep; mental/psychological well-being, especially how one deals with stress; and relational well-being – harmony and satisfaction with family, friends, and others. As Christians, we add one more, spiritual well-being – communion with God and spiritual formation.

The Need for Something Like Self-Care
Two questions arise when relating self-care to people in ministry, particularly pastors. Does pastoral life increase the need for self-care? And is self-care a legitimate pursuit for a Christian in ministry?

“Self” denotes the care of one’s own person, but it also emphasizes the individual’s initiative in performing this care. One practicing self-care doesn’t wait for a medical professional, family member, or other outside entity to look after his well-being.

In the case of a pastor, he doesn’t rely on his deacons or his doctor to tell him he needs to cut back on seventy hour work weeks, eat more whole foods, and go for a bike ride with his family. He takes charge of his habits, schedule, and priorities. He orders his life to fulfill his pastoral role while maintaining personal health.

Herein lies the problem for pastors. The very nature of their vocation is to serve others. Their time and energy are poured out every day for church members and anyone else who seems to need assistance. One text message can disrupt a day or even a whole week depending on the degree of calamity it conveys.

Stressors are primary contributors to the need for self-care. A normal ministry week can produce vast fluctuations in a pastor’s stress levels. You can probably identify with this list from Faithful and Fractured: Responding to the Clergy Health Crisis:

Twelve hour workdays; supervisory relationships requiring managerial and delegation skills; unpredictable schedule; people seeking help with serious problems; unable to take extended breaks from ministry work, or guilt feelings when you do; numerous meetings; expectation of availability to church members; enlisting and overseeing volunteers; leading well; conflict resolution; working without appropriate skill set; working with political forces in the church; taking criticism; performing sacred work[2]

Here’s another list of stressors that Christian leaders experience:

Poor diet; poor exercise habits; career uncertainty; role ambiguity; role conflict  (between church expectations and personal or family needs); role overload (too many real or imagined expectations); lack of opportunities to ‘derole’ and be yourself, for a change; loneliness; time management frustrations; life-change stressors; temptations of all kinds (sexual, despair if your church isn’t growing, jealousy of the success of others, anxiety over financial problems, anger)[3]

On top of all that, Sunday’s coming!

A helpful resource that identifies areas of a pastor’s personal health needing attention, as well as recommended solutions, is Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving. Regarding the need for self-care, the authors say, “If we combine the expectations of this role with the fact that most pastors are people-pleasers, we can understand how ministry can feel like a never-ending treadmill of trying to satisfy others whose expectations cannot be met.”[4]

In the past two years, a new source of stress has arisen in ministry. I don’t have to cite statistics for you to know that anxiety, depression, and resignation from ministry altogether have increased as a result of dealing with COVID-related issues in the church. Even before COVID, according to Barna Report’s The State of Pastors published in 2017, 1 out of 3 pastors were at risk of burnout and almost ½ have faced depression.[5]

Pastors are especially susceptible to work and lifestyle patterns that wear them down physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. And, though many church members are affectionate toward their pastors, they are not likely to realize daily ministry is a threat to pastors’ health and well-being. It would be a very unusual setting in which the chairman of the deacons asks the pastor for a report of his schedule and says, “We want you to sleep more and spend more time with your family. The church needs to hire an assistant pastor. And by the way, this summer we’re sending you on a six-week rest and study sabbatical.”

A typical congregation isn’t aware their pastor is redlining until he’s in the ER with chest pain or suddenly resigns on a Sunday morning. Pastors must take responsibility for gauging their health indicators and maintaining their own routines to preserve and protect their well-being.

Does pastoral life increase the need for self-care? I think the answer to that is pretty clear. What about the second question? Is self-care a legitimate pursuit for a Christian in ministry?

Problems with the Concept of Self-Care
We’re good with terms like self-denial, self-discipline, and self-control. But self-care? It sounds like you’re taking yourself to a spa. Try this on your deacons: “I’m taking a few days off this week for self-care.” Right.

The common wisdom for Christian living, especially ministry, is anything that caters to self is bad. Self is the enemy, second only to the devil. Anything that appeals to self is automatically suspect. Self-indulgent practices are guilty pleasures. Soldiers of the cross endure hardship, and they’d better not be caught reading fiction or taking a nap.

How could self-care be legitimate for one called to the rigors of ministry? This is where a secular term can blur our perspective of a valid idea. Self-care sounds like you’re being soft on yourself, avoiding difficulty, and putting your own needs first. Of course all these are the opposite of biblical principles, especially love, which is giving yourself, not coddling yourself.

A Biblically-Based Perspective of Self-Care
Does self-care have any place in a pastor’s life? Viewed solely from a worldly perspective, it’s questionable. But through a biblical lens, self-care resembles the biblical concept of stewardship.

Viewed biblically, self-care is stewardship of our personal resources and priorities. It is managing the resources God has entrusted to us for eternal benefit. Several Bible texts containing either instructions or examples come to mind. 

The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 teaches us to invest the resources entrusted to us for the benefit of the Master.

According to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit . . . you are not your own. For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. Our physical bodies are a means of glorifying God. We should treat them accordingly.

Peter exhorts, As each one has received a gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God (1 Peter 4:10). Each of us is to use our gifts not only in a way that benefits others, but as good stewards of what God has graciously entrusted to us.

Jethro guided Moses to radically alter his leadership style or he would burn out and hurt the people he was supposed to be helping (Exodus 18:13-23).

Jesus took his disciples on a self-care retreat. And He said to them, “Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat (Mark 6:31).

Paul told Timothy to pay careful attention to his personal life in order to have an effective public ministry in 1 Timothy 4:16.

He also told Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:23 to treat physical health issues and prevent them if possible.

And notice in 3 John 2 how one leader prays another would be both physically and spiritually healthy.

Here is a helpful definition of biblically shaped pastoral self-care: “The wisdom to ensure, as far as humanly possible, a wise and orderly work that conserves and lengthens a pastor’s ministry.”[6]

Resilient Ministry identifies pastoral self-care as “the ongoing development of the whole person, including the emotional, spiritual, relational, physical, and intellectual areas of life.[7]

I especially like how Nathan Foster describes it as “attending to and respecting the limitations and needs that God has designed for humans . . . respecting and attending to our human limitations and needs is simply caring for God’s crowning creation, the human machine.”[8]

The secular concept of self-care is the world’s recognition of what Christians already know. God endowed His creatures with sufficient yet limited capacity to serve and glorify Him. We are responsible to manage our lives in a way that sustains a lifetime of effective ministry. As one pastor quoted in Resilient Ministry said, “It’s about burning on, not burning out.”[9]

Stewardship is taking responsibility for maintaining areas of your personal life so you will burn on rather than burn out. You manage your life for long-term ministry. You see the need for it, you take the initiative, you make choices, and you live accordingly.

The term self-care can be legitimately used, but should be seen as a form of stewardship. It definitely requires a God-focused rather than a self-centered perspective. Consider these distinctions between self-care and stewardship:

Take care of yourself.Take care of yourself for long-term service to God.
Eat, sleep, and exercise to maintain physical health.Take care of your physical body with nutrition, rest, and exercise because it is the temple of God and for the purpose of long-term ministry.
Set boundaries to protect your personal life.Set boundaries to ensure you invest appropriate time in all priorities, relationships, and responsibilities for the glory of God.

For example, rather than allowing church members’ needs and expectations to determine a pastor’s daily schedule he establishes a reasonable plan for using time throughout the week. He prioritizes personal devotion, family time, exercise, and a date with his wife as well as sermon preparation, discipleship meetings, and hospital and homebound visits. A true emergency may alter his plans, but he works the usual requests for his time around the priorities he has established.

Balancing Servanthood with Stewardship
Servant-leadership is a biblical concept often associated with ministry, but it must be kept in balance. Some pastors think that because we are supposed to be servants, as Jesus taught in Mark 10:42-25, we should be available to anyone at any time. Other people’s needs or expectations take precedence. This concept has been instilled in us, possibly resulting in a diminished view of stewardship. Herein lies a tension in a pastor’s life – balancing servanthood and stewardship.

According to a servant mindset, pastors feel they must always be available to respond to needs, and whatever they’re doing is secondary. However, pastors need to understand and practice stewardship as well, proactively managing their time, energy, and abilities to honor God, serve others, and sustain long-term ministry.

As I thought through the tension between servanthood and stewardship, I developed the following comparison:

Horizontal (others) and vertical (God)Vertical (God)
Need-focusedResources-focused – what has been entrusted to me and how should I use it
Puts others first, before yourselfPuts God first, above all – I am accountable to God first
RespondsTakes responsibility – not always responding to others’ needs
GivesManages, invests – How should I invest my time, gifts, energy?
ImmediateLong-term, eternal
Please peopleGive account to God
My time is yours – “open door”My time is God’s
May be motivated by pressure, guiltMotivated by wisdom – making wise choices, not based on guilt
What others seeWhat God knows – not controlled by expectations, real or perceived
Almost always says yes; hardly ever says noOften says yes; sometimes graciously says no
Lets others set agendaSets an agenda that includes others

Servanthood and stewardship are taught in Scripture, so both are valid approaches to life and ministry. It seems to me servanthood fits within stewardship. Culturally, a household manager (“steward”) was one of the servants. So a steward was in the position of a servant. His overall role was a steward. He carried out his responsibilities as a servant by being a good steward. Servants can be wise stewards, and stewards can be faithful servants.

Is self-care a legitimate pursuit for a Christian in ministry? If we’re not talking about self-indulgence, but stewardship, then yes. A pastor should ensure he rests adequately, eats healthfully, exercises regularly, grows spiritually, and prioritizes time and energy for his marriage, family, and other relationships. He should steward his personal resources for long-term ministry for the glory of God.

[1] Exploring the Meaning and Practice of Self-Care  by Mills, Ward, & Fraser

[2]Faithful and Fractured: Responding to the Clergy Health Crisis by Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell and Jason Byassee, 1-16

[3] Stress and Burnout in Ministry by Rowland Croucher

[4] Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving by Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald Guthrie, 62

[5] The State of Pastors: How Today’s Faith Leaders are Navigating Life and Leadership in an Age of Complexity, by Barna Group, 11

[6] Going the Distance: How to Stay Fit For a Lifetime of Ministry by Peter Brain, 24

[7] Resilient Ministry, 61

[8] Selfish Care, Self-Care, and Soul Care – What’s the Difference? by  Nathan Foster

[9] Resilient Ministry, 61

A Pastor’s Antidote for Comparison

Comparison eats at pastors. We tend to to measure other pastors, categorize them in our minds, and rank ourselves accordingly. This leads to viewing other pastors and their ministries through a lens of either condescension or envy.

Peter had a problem with comparison. When Jesus predicted the disciples would abandon Him at His arrest, Peter claimed, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33). Peter believed himself to be a better man than James, Matthew, Andrew, John, Thomas, and the rest of the twelve. We know how that turned out.

This comparison reflex did not go away when Peter reconciled with Jesus and was commissioned to spiritual leadership. We know this because, as usual, whatever was on Peter’s mind came out of his mouth. The exchange between Jesus and Peter is recorded in John 21.

After reestablishing fellowship with Peter (“Do you love me?” “Yes, I love you.”) Jesus oriented him toward his new calling (“Feed my sheep”). Peter’s shepherding vocation would take him down a hard path to a painful end. “ ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ This He said to show by what death He was to glorify God. And after saying this He said to him, ‘Follow me’” (John 21:18-19). Although Peter may not have fully understood it then, Jesus was predicting Peter’s ministry would lead to prison and an agonizing death.

As they walked and talked, John lingered close by. He enjoyed a unique closeness to Jesus. As John recounted this event, he called himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved, the one who also had leaned back against Him during the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’” (John 21:20). John enjoyed the privilege of being positioned in the number one spot near Jesus during the Last Supper and sharing very personal conversation with Him.

I wonder if the details of John’s proximity to Jesus are included to highlight John’s intimacy in contrast to Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. For some reason, Peter compared himself to John. Whether he was thinking of John’s privileged relationship, or just because he was in view, Peter blurted, “Lord, what about this man?” (John 21:21).

We all have our comparison traps. Other churches in your community have full parking lots and hold multiple weekend services while your membership has plateaued or is declining. Your friend from seminary days gets invited to speak at national conferences and your only outside speaking engagement is the local Rotary club luncheon. As you hear a bi-vocational pastor describe the struggle of meeting the demands of a full-time job, church responsibilities, and a growing family, you feel pity from the vantage point of your fully paid pastoral position with support staff. Or envy if the circumstances are reversed. You visit a church while on vacation and have a running critique going through your head of the facilities, the volunteers, and the sermon, affirming yourself for how you do it better, or wishing you could. 

The possibilities are endless as our naturally prideful hearts evaluate, calculate, categorize, and pass judgment on others or ourselves. We feel the Holy Spirit’s conviction in our hearts about it. How can we put off this unholy attitude?

Attack the comparison mentality with the truth Jesus spoke to Peter. He said, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22). Jesus wasn’t stating that John wouldn’t die (see verse 23). He was making a point.

Jesus said to Peter in essence, “If God in His sovereign plan determines John will be exempt from the natural laws of aging and death, or maybe walk with God and disappear into heaven like Enoch, or a that a fiery chariot will pick him up and drop him off in glory like Elijah, but you, before you’ve even finished out your natural time on earth, will be tortured and executed as a criminal, dying in the worst, most shameful way, the difference is not your concern. You have no right to expect the same treatment as the other guy. Your circumstances may seem inequitably harsh. But I am the Chief Shepherd. Keep your eyes on me. Complete my will for you. You, Peter, you follow me.”

Your ministry setting, the people you shepherd, and the circumstances in each season of your ministry are all part of the Chief Shepherd’s assignment for you. Stop comparing yourself with others. You, pastor friend, keep your eyes on Jesus. You follow Christ.

Notice Jesus’ words, “If it is my will . . . you follow me” (verse 22). Literally the first part says, “If I am willing him.” Several translations say, “If I want him” (NASB, NET, CSB, NIV). Young’s Literal Translation captures the essence – “If him I will to remain till I come, what – to thee?”

Jesus claimed absolute authority over the circumstances of John’s life, even how long John lived, and by implication, over the circumstances and longevity of Peter’s life, and the manner of his death as well (verses 18-19).

Jesus revealed that He has a specific will for individuals and their ministries. He had a sovereignly determined plan for John and a different one for Peter. This reality applies to us as well. Jesus Christ sovereignly determines the circumstances of a pastor’s life and ministry. His will may include what we view as favorable circumstances or unfavorable circumstances. And His will for one pastor and ministry may vary significantly from another’s.

How can you gain control of your comparison reflex? Start with submitting yourself to the sovereign will of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Turn Jesus’ words into a daily prayer: “Lord Jesus, I bow to you and submit to your will for me and my ministry. Help me to not concern myself with the seeming advantages or disadvantages of others. Jesus, I’m following you.”

Then you can rejoice with and pray for others with a sincere heart. “Lord, thank you for how you are blessing my brother and his ministry. Give him wisdom to shepherd his flock through this season of prosperity. Guide him in using his gifts to minister for your glory. Keep Satan from gaining an advantage and tearing down what you are building up.” Or, “Lord, I see my brother struggling under heavy burdens. Channel grace to him for every difficult situation he faces. Strengthen him to fulfill your will for his ministry. Help him to follow you.”

Turn the comparison impulse into a reminder that Jesus Christ is preeminent in the church, it is His right to assign undershepherds where He wills, and each of us is responsible to follow Him.

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