Managing the Tension: Self-Care and Self-Emptying

Managing the Tension: Self-Care and Self-Emptying

This post is part of an ongoing series about grappling with paradox, contradiction, and mystery as it relates to church leadership in today's world. Find the rest of the series here.

"In the event of an emergency, please put on your oxygen mask before assisting others.”
–every flight attendant on every airplane

Almost every personality test I take tells me I shouldn’t work in a people-related field. For those familiar with Myers-Briggs, I’m an INTP. “Solitary, eccentric, and independent,” as one description puts it. I’d imagine those who know me best would say that sounds about right. Recommended career paths: research scientist, architect, and forensic expert.

Personality assessment folks seem to think I’d fare better with disembodied human tissue samples than living human souls.

As a minister, I suppose this should alarm me more than it does. It’s a conversation I used to take up regularly with God, especially when I was discerning my call to ministry. Two ministry degrees and eight years of professional ministry experience later, arguing about calling feels like a waste of breath. At this point, for better or worse, I’ve eschewed conventional wisdom and put all my eggs in the ministry basket.

All that to say, when it comes to managing the polarities of “self-care” and “self-emptying,” I struggle more with the “self-emptying” pole. To clarify terms—by “self-care,” I’m referring to the habits, practices, and disciplines that help keep our hearts and souls “filled up” and centered on God. By “self-emptying,” I’m referring to the habits, practices, and disciplines through which, as my friend Sylvester likes to put it, we “pour ourselves out” into others. Sylvester is one of those ministers who is definitely a people person.

I love people deeply, but I am not naturally a “people person.” Just the other day a woman in our congregation was telling me about her two teenage sons, both of whom had helped lead parts of our Sunday morning worship service (and both of whom did an excellent job, by the way). “One of them can’t get enough of being in front of people and the other would rather hide in a corner than be out front,” she told me.

Strangely enough, I relate to both of them, although you’re more likely to find me hiding in the corner than racing to the pulpit. I joked to my wife the other day, “I think my favorite part of preaching is finishing the sermon and sitting back down.”

I’ve noticed that many, perhaps even most, ministers seem to have the opposite struggle. I am always inspired, encouraged, and challenged by ministers who lead their ministry from that deep sense of self-emptying love that compels them toward excellence in pastoral care. I am convinced that any strengths I have cultivated in the areas of pastoral care can be chalked up to God, whose “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:19). But most ministers I know seem to gravitate naturally toward the self-emptying pole of ministry.

And this is for good reason! Ministry is filled with self-emptying action. When Jesus wants to demonstrate true leadership to his disciples, he takes off his clothes, wraps a towel around his waist and washes their feet. “I have set you an example,” he says, “that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).

As someone whose native spirituality leads me more toward self-care than self-emptying, it’s easy for me to recognize the ways that too much self-emptying can be disastrous for ministers, especially in the long term. After all, if it confirms my bias and keeps me comfortable, it must be true, right? To mix metaphors a bit (which I have been doing gleefully throughout this post) as a minister, you need to “place the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others who may need your assistance.” We can only offer that which we have received.

How can we offer forgiveness and absolution if we ourselves haven’t received forgiveness and absolution? How can we offer grace if we ourselves haven’t received grace? How can we help people come to know God if we ourselves spend no time cultivating our own relationship with God? How can we help people learn to pray if we haven’t learned how to pray? How can we presume to speak for God if we haven’t spent time listening for God?

The polarities of self-emptying and self-care provide one of the more difficult tensions to manage within ministry. Because, deep down, a lot of us in ministry have to admit we’d really like for God to enlist us in God’s plan to save the world. That’s why we said “yes” to this gig in the first place. The great news is: God really wants us to be part of God’s world-saving plan! And God really can use your “pouring yourself out” to assist in that saving effort in others.

This is why, the longer I’m in ministry—and I do realize I’m only just beginning—the more and more I appreciate the metaphor of midwife. This may not be a common metaphor for ministry. But as Naomi, my friend and fellow minister, recently reminded me, it’s on pretty solid scriptural footing. Scripture uses the metaphor of midwife to describe God’s own ministry (Ps 22:9-10; Isa 66:9). A minister is someone who assists God in the process birthing new creation in the life of a church. A minister is someone who attends to what God is forming and reforming within another person’s life. The minister helps facilitate the dying to self and the being born in Christ that is the regular rhythm of Christian spirituality.

But this starts with the minster’s own life. Living into the spiritual rhythms of self-care and self-emptying—being filled and pouring ourselves out—can make us useful partners in God’s ministry of birthing new creation in the lives of God’s people.

What do you do as a church leader to manage the poles of self-care and self-emptying? How have you seen church communities live into the rhythms of self-care and self-emptying? How do spiritually healthy leaders help create spiritually healthy communities?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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