Following Jesus to healthier ministry

Living in an age plagued by self-centeredness — and conscious of the steadily decreasing clergy/parishioner ratio — many priests today would consider a serious reflection on self-care to be overly indulgent. While I occasionally have encountered pastors who seem overly invested in days off, vacation, taking time for themselves and pursuing a variety of hobbies and social interests, the vast majority find it difficult to meet the many needs of their people without sacrificing time, plans and even prayer.

Attention to duty is admirable, but ignoring basic human needs eventually takes a toll. More importantly, Jesus Christ himself set a standard for self-care that a priest endeavoring to follow his lead should consider.

Taking sufficient time to rest and pray is essential for us to minister to others.

Jesus as a Model for Self-Care

Jesus Christ, the exemplar par excellence of self-denial, dedication, humility and Christian virtue, also taught by example the importance of healthy self-care. In every Gospel, we read accounts of Jesus leaving his disciples in order to pray. He regularly went to a deserted place and took time to be by himself.

Consider Mark 1:32-37: “When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him. Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’”

In addition to teaching the disciples the importance of prayer, Jesus also told them to rest after they had returned from a journey of announcing the Gospel: “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.’ People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat” (Mk 6:30-31).

In the story of the miracle of the loaves, just before Jesus announced that he was the Bread of Life, John writes of Jesus taking time to be by himself: “Since Jesus knew that they were going to come and carry him off to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain alone” (Jn 6:15).

Matthew recounts a similar story of Jesus taking time to be by himself, though he is later drawn back to serve the people: “When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick” (Mt 14:13-14).

Finally, all of the Evangelists speak of the Garden of Gethsemane as a crucial moment before the crucifixion of Christ. As Luke writes, “Then going out he went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. When he arrived at the place he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not undergo the test’” (22:39-40).

The disciples knew that Jesus regularly took time to pray in this garden, where he found the strength to do the will of the Father.

How Stressors Affect Us

Everyone experiences stress. Even eating causes stress to our bodies. It is a surprise to many people to learn the rumbling noises coming from their stomachs before a meal are not due to hunger. Rather, they are signs that the body, which prefers equilibrium, is preparing the stomach for eating by introducing chemicals to digest the food it anticipates it is about to get. While we need the nourishment, the digestive process itself is stressful for the body, and the body responds.

Another common example is exercise. Though overall very good for our bodies by introducing higher levels of adrenaline, exercise also stresses our bodies. Work out too much or stay up for long hours at night and your body produces too much adrenaline, which has a negative effect on the body.

Stressors impact our physical, emotional and spiritual health.

Many people mistakenly think of psychosomatic illnesses as a false sickness that is “all in a person’s mind.” However, the term refers to the effect of stress and worry on a person’s health. Common psychosomatic illnesses include high blood pressure, headaches and peptic ulcers, but research shows that stress can contribute to even more serious illnesses, such as cancer.

We cannot eliminate all stressors, but we can learn to manage them as much as possible. Part of self-care involves learning to recognize and cope with stressors so their impact on our lives is negligible.

Stressors appear in two forms: internal and external.

External stressors are those that come from outside us — external situations that are rarely under our control but that we need to cope with anyway. These include weather, health of family members, local and world crises, the economy, one’s living environment and a host of other influences.

For a priest, a transfer from one parish to another causes one of the biggest fluctuations in external stressors. Imagine being moved from pastor of a medium-size parish without a school and good financial support to pastor of a large parish with a struggling school and located in a poor economic area of the diocese. The workload changes. The demands on one’s time increase exponentially.

Interestingly, a change in the opposite direction — from a more complex parish assignment to a simpler one — also produces stress.

Even a pastor who seeks a move to a smaller parish may experience stress, as he feels less useful in his more sedate life. He may miss the routines, longtime friendships and the energy of the larger parish.

This emotional stress is an internal stressor — it comes from within. Internal stressors affect how we cope with external stressors. Common examples are historical events that continue to influence us emotionally: the death of loved ones, trauma, family issues and past struggles and sins.

Managing external stressors involves doing what we can to adjust to our environment, to change it, or to accept it — often easier said than done. Internal stressors require thoughtfulness, prayer and possibly turning to friends and peers for help, or even consulting a spiritual director or counselor.

Manage Stress or Stress Will Manage You

Unfortunately, priests often reach out for help and advice after they have allowed the stress to go unchecked for too long.

When priests come to me, we talk about the presenting crisis itself, but then we explore how they have been addressing stress in their life.

The accounts vary, but the underlying themes are the same: They were overeating (or undereating), oversleeping (or not getting enough sleep), drinking a bit more, doing less exercise, missing prayer and failing to see a spiritual director. Often, their blood pressure and weight had climbed too high. Their effectiveness as priests and administrators had gone down because of the cumulative impact of the stressors they were facing.

I have seen many priest crises that could have been avoided had the stress been better managed along the way.

With this in mind, I developed a process to help priests and religious manage common stressors, as well as those stressors particular to their way of life, drawing on both human and spiritual resources. This stress management process has four stages: self-care inventory, self-care analysis, self-care goals and self-care accountability.

Self-Care Inventory

The self-care inventory examines six areas in the life of the priest: physical health, emotional health, social support, ministerial environment, spiritual health and leisure. The following are some questions to ponder, along with spaces provided to jot notes as you take into consideration your own habits as you assess areas such as physical health, emotional health, social support, ministerial environment, spiritual health and leisure:

Physical health

❏ Eating: How much do I eat? How little? Do I eat healthy food? What about junk food? Do I eat three meals a day? Do I snack too much at night?

❏ Sleeping: How much do I sleep every night? Do I wake up rested or still tired?

❏ Exercise: What do I do for exercise? How often do I exercise? When was the last time I exercised?

❏ Substance use: Do I smoke? How much and for how long? How much alcohol do I consume on a weekly basis? What is my family history of substance use? Do I use any illegal drugs or abuse prescription drugs? Has anyone suggested that I have a problem with substance use?

❏ Medical care: When was my last medical checkup? Do I have any chronic health issues? Do I monitor such issues and follow my doctor’s advice?

Emotional health

❏ How often do I acknowledge or pay attention to my feelings?

❏ Do I struggle with depression or anxiety?

❏ How do I care for myself when I feel discouraged or upset?

❏ Do I hide my feelings from others or express them?

❏ Am I able to express my feelings in an appropriate manner?

Social support

❏ Name your main supports: people who know you well and whom you trust.

❏ How often do you correspond with these people or speak with them on the phone?

❏ How often do you visit them in person?

❏ With whom can you share your deepest feelings and concerns, and how often do you do this?

Ministerial environment

❏ What is my attitude toward my work or ministry? What do I enjoy? What do I dislike?

❏ Am I able to balance my time in the parish?

❏ How do I get along with the parish staff? Is it a collaborative environment?

❏ What is my practice when it comes to doing projects? Do I start right away or put off starting? Do I leave projects to the last minute? Do I think I have a balanced approach?

❏ What is the quality of my relationship with my bishop? How honest am I with him?

❏ Is my relationship with the presbyterate supportive?

Spiritual health

❏ What are my prayer practices? Am I regular with them? If not, what gets in the way?

❏ Do I bring the challenges and disappointments in my life to God?

❏ Do I bring the affirmations and joys in my life to God?

❏ Do I have a spiritual director? How often do I see him or her? Do I find the relationship supportive of my prayer life and my relationship with God?

❏ Am I faithful to praying the Liturgy of the Hours and celebrating daily Eucharist?

Leisure

❏ What are the sources of joy and pleasure in my life?

❏ How often do I engage in these? Regularly? Too little? Too much? Do I think it is balanced?

❏ How consistent am I with time off?

Self-Care Analysis

The above inventory provides an opportunity to brainstorm about the various areas of life that can be sources of personal support or, alternatively, sources of stress. After writing out the responses, review them with these questions in mind: What are my areas of strength in self-care, and what are areas that need more attention right now?

It is important to approach this process with a perspective that is both objective and balanced. Rarely is the news all good or all bad. In reflecting on both strengths and weaknesses, a priest needs to weigh the effect of his behaviors on his overall level of stress and answer the basic question: Am I managing the stress, or is stress managing me?

If stress has the upper hand, then it is important to consider the various resources available to help augment those areas that need more attention. The solution may be as simple as changing certain routines and setting a few simple goals.

Talking with a trusted friend (who is objective) or adviser about your self-assessment may be helpful to obtain objective feedback and a different perspective.

Self-Care Goals

The next step is coming up with specific long-term and short-term goals for improving self-care. To be effective, the list of goals should be very short, and each item should be attainable and measurable. It is not uncommon to look at the results of the self-care inventory and conclude that 10 things need to change! However, 10 goals would probably result in 10 failures.

Let’s suppose a priest realizes that he needs to 1.) lose weight; 2.) lower cholesterol and sugar levels; 3.) be more faithful to the Liturgy of the Hours; 4.) return to an hour of meditation a day; 5.) re-engage a longtime priest friend; 6.) confront a staff problem; 7.) take a regular day off; 8.) drink less alcohol; 9.) exercise three times a week; and 10.) call his mother weekly. Instead of listing these 10 goals, I recommend choosing two short-term goals that are quite doable — for example, scheduling a medical checkup and committing to 15 minutes of silent prayer a day. Next, list one or two long-term goals. These might be reviewing the self-care inventory in one month, when two more short-term goals are chosen, and sharing the self-care analysis and goals with a spiritual director.

Self-Care Accountability

Going through this process can be quite eye-opening, but to sustain the effect, a priest needs to be accountable to someone in addition to himself.

It is vital to include in long-term goals a time to speak about self-care with a spiritual director, counselor or mentor. One’s friends also can be helpful resources as long as they are honest and challenging in their feedback.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, taking sufficient time to rest and pray is essential for ministry, as modeled by Jesus Christ. The priest is fortunate who has the wisdom to be held accountable for this particular act of fidelity to Christ.

Father David Songy, OFM Cap, is a clinical psychologist and president of Saint Luke Institute, the international treatment and education center for Catholic clergy and religious.