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

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