Last week I shared a slice of the ongoing conversation within the ReNew team on how our clients seem to be faring– the ones we invite out of the trenches to pause, catch their breath, take a step back from the daily pressures of their roles as community and spiritual leaders. They are the pastors, nonprofit leaders, Christian educators and therapists, volunteer church leaders, chaplains. They are the spouses of these dear caregivers, often behind the scenes but contributing just as much and making it possible for their partners to serve in more visible public roles. They are likely in your daily lives already: they teach your children, help you through crisis, encourage your own spiritual health, run the shelters where you volunteer, lead the support groups you attend, and do much good in the community. They are busy, active, kind people just like you– raising a family, working jobs, running kids to soccer and cello lessons, caring for aging parents, cheering for the Packers, trying to live meaningful lives in a complicated world. Just like you!
So when it comes to emotional and spiritual health, are faith leaders really any different from everyone else? Do they need anything unique compared to those who look to them for guidance in order for them to stay effective in their roles? There is a long and ongoing cultural trend of seeing those in both secular and spiritual authority as very human, equally flawed, cut from the same cloth as the rest of us, and not the demi-gods –or even better people –they were considered in the past. Aren’t their spiritual needs the same as everyone else’s?
Yes, and no. Yes, ministry leaders are first regular people with the basic needs, fears, questions, self-doubt, and joys we all have. They understand and empathize with us because they are us. And just as we each need someone wiser to teach and walk with us in our faith, so do they. But consider the expectations we still have of our Christian leaders: perfect judgement, 24/7 availability, endless compassion and energy, concise solutions to complex relationships, engaging as a communicator, great admin skills… the pressure to be all things to all people is intense. Making strategic decisions to steer their church or nonprofit through financial or cultural challenges is especially dicey when a “wrong” move could offend key supporters who might defect if opinions differ. So they work extremely hard to wear all the hats, keep up with the chaos, and always smile.
Those in vocational ministry are largely there because they do care deeply for others. They have big hearts and are acutely aware they have made big commitments to pour into others’ lives sacrificially. Those demands often mean their own self-care gets perpetually set aside. No one can run consecutive marathons, yet that is exactly what pastors, chaplains, etc. do. It doesn’t make rational sense to expect that but it is still the norm. Too often the symptoms of that neglect start leaking out as resentment, addictions, bad decisions, a heart that feels bone-dry, a crumbling marriage and family, depression. When the signs become too great to ignore, a vacation for physical rest is not enough. Where does a spiritual leader find soul care? How does a pastor heal from the wounds received while guiding a congregation through hard financial decisions? After praying with dying patients and grieving families, who helps the chaplain carry their own grief? Where can a missionary suffering with secondary trauma from working with refugees get help? The public nature of their roles makes the honest admission of their needs feel quite risky, and for good reason– there are cases where churches send their exhausted pastor off on Sabbatical, and fire them while they’re gone.
There are safe havens for spiritual leaders to be cared for with the same depth of compassion, wisdom, acceptance, and encouragement they give others so freely. ReNew is one such place! I love being with these leaders to give them a space to be brutally honest, to grieve, to question, to not have to perform or impress, to be poured into, to be held if they need to collapse. I have had such healing spaces provided for me, and it has made all the difference in the person I am becoming, in what I can now offer others, in the quality of my relationships, in the choices I make. As I press into this role, you can bet that I am also finding my own mentors to feed my soul, to help me stay connected with God and my own heart. I need to walk the talk, not just for my own sake but for those who guide others. I need care for my own soul as I nurture others.