The Great Commandment: A Guide for Self-Care and Burn-out Prevention

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By Chanequa Walker-Barnes     Poverty. Unemployment. Homelessness. Poorly funded school systems. Crime. Alcohol and drug abuse. Lack of access to quality health care. Transportation problems. Mental and physical illness. Family breakdown. Teen pregnancy. Cultural diversity and racial tension. Poor infrastructure. Factory and industry closings. Shifting economic centers. Suburban flight and urban gentrification. Continual and rapid transition. Chaos. These are some of the challenges faced by individuals and families living in marginalized communities, who experience a broad array of social, economic, and healthcare needs for which there are few resources. For congregations and other ministries in these contexts, the demands for pastoral care may seem limitless. The typical activities of visiting the sick and shut in, counseling people through transition and loss, and conducting funerals and weddings are multiplied exponentially in setting where illness, loss, and change are the norm rather than the exception. Further, pastoral ministry in these settings often expands to include services to support and sustain people through daily life: food and clothing pantries, childcare and family support service, educational enrichment programs, job training, healthcare clinics, legal aid, offender re-entry services, and community organizing.

Ministers who serve marginalized populations often find themselves pressed on every side. They typically spend more time in pastoral work each week than their counterparts in more affluent settings, much of which is spent bearing witness to stories of trauma, pain, and loss that place them at risk for vicarious or secondary trauma.

Together, the combination of comprehensive community need, the amount of time and energy devoted to ministry activities, and the personal risk of living and working in under-resourced communities is a perfect recipe for burnout.  Particularly in the early years of ministry, clergy in these settings often fall into a pattern of neglecting their health for the sake of serving.

While their passion for ministry stems from the Great Commandment, they overlook an important element: its assumption of self-love. That we are to love our neighbor in the same way that we love ourselves presumes that self-love is to take place alongside, perhaps even in advance of, love of neighbor.

Unfortunately, many Christians, understand self-love as equivalent to selfishness. Consequently, they suffer a form of survivor's guilt in which they feel that taking time off from ministry to practice self-care is a luxury, and a sinful one at that. Instead of taking time to rest in the delight of God and to nurture themselves and their families, they pour themselves out as a libation to others until there is nothing left to pour.

As a minister and scholar, I know firsthand the continual struggle to practice self-love in the midst of loving God and serving God's people. There is always more good work that can be done.  And repeatedly I find myself capitulating to the powers and principalities that proclaim that effectiveness in ministry is measured by the number of completed tasks and projects or by others' compliments about my work ethic and productivity.  I need regular reminders that the Biblical affirmation of self-love means that knowing, valuing, and caring for myself is as vital to vocational longevity as loving the neighbors whom I serve. I need frequent admonishment to be faithful to the sabbatical disciplines that create alternative rhythms of time and relationship, help me to reconnect to myself and my family, and draw me closer to God.

Read a longer version of this article in the  Fall Issue of Tableaux.   Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes is the Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling and utilizes an interdisciplinary approach in her teaching and research, drawing upon pastoral theology, womanist/feminist theology, cultural studies, and the social sciences. She is at working on her first book, Too Heavy a Yoke:  Black Women and the Burden of Strength, which seeks to heighten pastoral awareness about the inordinate burden that the demand for strength places upon women of African descent and to provide a framework for liberative pastoral care with African American women.