If you've flown at all in the past thirty years, you've heard the safety instruction before takeoff: “Be sure to adjust your own mask before assisting others."
It's a key leadership principle, and one that is tragically and commonly neglected: ensure your own ability to survive and function before trying to help others. Otherwise, you're taking the chance that you will be immobilized and thus unable to help anyone...because you didn't help yourself first.
So, pastor, leader, whoever you are, please take care of yourself. Put on your own mask before trying to help others. See to self-care, first and foremost, or you may well fail yourself and all those whom you are trying to help. I suggest at least the following:
1. Take time off. Look, I know you're indispensable. I was once, too. Or so I thought. But taking at least one day of REST each week is not only wise, it is God's command. If you're smarter than God, work seven days a week. Otherwise, work six.
2. Spend time with your spouse and family. This is not the same as #1. Your ministry to your spouse and children is PRIMARY; everything else is secondary (see this post for more on that). If you neglect your family for the church, then you are an example to neither. If you lose one, you lose the other. If you are not taking care of your marriage and family, you have no business leading the church (1 Timothy 3:4-5, 12).
3. Get a shrink. A dear friend and coach would ask me and my co-pastor repeatedly, "Are you seeing a shrink yet?" He eventually nagged me until I engaged a professional Christian counselor....before I thought I needed one. Within a year or two, I was unspeakably glad for it.
4. Diet and exercise. Why are so many of us pastors (myself included) overweight and out of shape? Why do we ignore the teaching of God's Word, which commands us to treat our bodies respectfully, as temples of God? I know we're busy. I know we eat on the run. I know stress triggers overeating. I know. But an essential element of self-care is proper diet and exercise. I am ashamed that I have not shown the people of God the kind of habits that are worthy of a steward of the King. I plan to do better. We all should.
5. Get a life. So many of us in the ministry have NO life outside of our own church or denomination. I recently heard a family member of a faithful pastor couple say, "They don't even know anyone outside [their denomination]." This is not healthy. Every pastor or ministry couple needs a life--whether it's a hobby, a group of friends, or some other pursuit that helps them escape, emotionally and mentally, from the demands and stresses of ministry.
6. Cultivate key relationships. In addition to a "shrink," I consider three relationships to be critical for self-care, regardless of how long you've been in ministry and how experienced or accomplished you may be. They are: (1) a mentor or coach, (2) an accountability partner, and (3) a close friend. These people need to be people other than your spouse, and preferably not someone who is a member of your church. At various times in my ministry (and more so in recent years), I have thanked God for such people in my life. I seriously don't know where I would have been without them. If you don't have such relationships (and research indicates that about 70% of pastors say they don't have any close friendships), make it a priority NOW to begin developing them.
7. Pray. No, seriously. I'm not just giving a nod to some obligatory "spiritual" perspective here. I really mean it. A shocking percentage of pastors go about their life and ministry without a deep, fulfilling prayer life. I've done it myself. But these days, I know that daily prayer has been my most important and influential form of self-care...easily. Don't neglect it. If it's not a habit for you, if it's not a reality, make it one. If I knew thirty years ago what I know now, I would have cancelled ALL ministry until I could have honestly said I had a robust prayer life. Seriously.
These forms of self-care are not exhaustive, by any means. I could list more. But these seven are crucial, no doubt about it.
What about you? What are your self-care commitments? What would you add to my list?