Jessica Young Brown: Ministers cannot thrive if they neglect themselves

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Clergy must honor all aspects of their lives to be healthy in ministry, writes a clinical psychologist who focuses on faith and mental health.

My vocation is not at all what I would have answered had people asked the 12-year-old me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Rather, my vocation is a lifelong journey that has been unfolding for longer than I can remember.

I identify as a clinical psychologist who stands at the intersection of faith and mental health. For me, this started as a teenager. I watched my father, a lifelong pastor, battle depression that seemed to be the result of doing the thing that he was undeniably called to do, something that he wholeheartedly loved.

At the time, we didn’t talk about what was going on with him or why. We all knew something was wrong. He took a sabbatical, went to therapy and seemed to recover, but no one ever sat me down and said, “This is depression that is the result of burnout.”

Perhaps even he could not articulate or understand how it was possible to be totally sure of your vocation (and he was) but still need to reckon with what seemed to be consequences of choosing that vocation. Perhaps what none of us could see in the moment is that God does not just call us to a vocational position.

God also calls us to a vocational process that allows us to bring the fullness of our personhood into the way that we do ministry.

When we focus only on position, allowing our jobs to rule us rather than integrating our jobs with the other pieces of our lives, we suffer, just as my dad did. Unfortunately, some of our doctrinal frameworks and theological arguments work against doing ministry from a whole-person perspective.

Parker Palmer, in “Let Your Life Speak,” writes:

“As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern our selfhood but to fit us into slots. In families, schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.”

Too often, we fall into this dangerous trap of believing that the position runs the show. There are templates for doing ministry that don’t account for the individualities of personality, mental health needs and the reality of time constraints.

Some of us have taken too literally the apostle Paul’s description of his ministry -- “I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31 NASB) -- and end up sacrificing ourselves for people Jesus already saved.

Maybe we do things the traditional way, the path of least resistance, rather than recognizing that changing times call for changing methods.

Thriving in ministry requires reflection, creativity and adaptability. It requires that we honor the wholeness of who we are by recognizing that our physical health, mental wellness, relational stability and vocational clarity all serve and support our call. When we over-attend to one element to the detriment of the others, it is difficult to thrive.

Valuing process over position means that being fully engaged in ministry does not require us to leave any part of ourselves out. God does not call us to neglect our physical health for the sake of being available whenever a parishioner calls. God does not call us to forsake family for the ecclesiastical commitment.

God is not interested in a hustle mentality that leaves no space for reflection or Sabbath.

Moreover, valuing process means reckoning with the realities of poverty, injustice, oppression and discrimination as they affect us as individuals and the communities we serve. This framework calls us to be whole, real people serving whole, real people and leading them to see and understand God in new and liberative ways.

Valuing process over position cannot be divorced from who we are as cultural beings. There is something in us, as Howard Thurman famously said, that “waits and listens for the sound of the genuine” in ourselves. It is easy to get distracted by things that are not really us -- things that are external rather than internal.

“There is so much traffic going on in your minds,” Thurman said, “… and in the midst of all of this you have got to find out what your name is.”

What is your name? Who does God say you are? How is God calling you to serve?

To truly know our names, we must connect with God and God’s intentions for us. Even in the face of a hectic reality with multiple demands at play, we cannot do this work without Sabbath, reflection and restoration. We in ministry can no longer view these moments of reflection and restoration as expendable.

I urge clergy to rework and reframe this belief as an everyday practice. Reflection and restoration are not bonuses when we get a break; they are necessities for doing effective ministry.

This work demands that we make time to move toward balance -- to evaluate and reevaluate our priorities and boundaries, and to take care of our emotional health. It is not a luxury; it is an act of stewardship that honors what God has given us.

When we truly connect with how God is calling us (not just where God is calling us), our sense of discernment about our yeses and our nos becomes clearer and our decisions easier to execute.

In this particular moment, when we are called to re-envision church and community in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand to get clear about God’s intentions for us becomes even more urgent.

As we seek to be the church and to be in community in the absence of proximity, we need to know both our personal gifts and the particular space God is calling us and our communities to fill in this new iteration of church.

More than ever, we must know our names. To know our names, the focus must be on the being -- being with God, being with each other and being with ourselves. In our moments of stillness and reflection, God speaks and God directs.