Self-care is a key to staying fresh and creative in ministry over the long haul according to Jim Somerville.
I’ve been an ordained minister for 20 years, which means that when Easter Sunday comes around this year, I will climb the steps to the pulpit, look out over that beautiful, bonneted congregation, and breathe a heavy sigh. How will I make fresh for them this year the ancient story that begins every year with the same words: “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb”? (John 20:1). While experience is an asset in almost every area of ministry, the experience of trying to preach an original sermon on Easter Sunday can be daunting. And it’s not only preaching. How do you stay fresh in all those other exhausting aspects of your ministry year after circling year.
Let’s start at the very beginning. When I was first ordained, it wasn’t hard to be fresh and creative. I was still in seminary. I was learning something new almost every day. The only problem was translating it into language that could be understood and appreciated by the gentle dairy farmers in the church I served in rural Kentucky. But over the course of time, some of the freshness began to wear off. Even in my “part-time” student church, I was putting in an average of 55 hours a week while trying to manage the workload of full-time graduate studies. In those five years I never took a regular day off. By the time I graduated, I was exhausted.
And so, when I went to my first full-time church, I vowed to do better. I got some help from my new secretary whose husband, a pastor, had already suffered two heart attacks. “When are you going to take your day off?” she asked. “Um…Thursday?” I answered. And from that day forward, that’s how it was. If I showed up at the office on Thursday, she would demand to know, “What are you doing here?” She helped me learn the discipline of a regular day off, and it is a discipline. But over the years the habit of taking Thursdays off has become so much a part of my weekly cycle that I can feel my body shifting gears on Wednesday evening, relaxing into the next 24 hours. If someone tries to make an appointment for Thursday, I look at my schedule and see that it says, “Previous Commitment” (as every Thursday does). “I’m sorry,” I say. “I have a previous commitment.” And when they beg me to make an exception, I repeat, “I’m sorry. I have a previous commitment.” Usually that does the trick.
One of the other good disciplines I have acquired is the practice of taking a quarterly 24-hour retreat. It helps to get away from the desk for a time, away from the ringing phone; it helps to look at the big picture and remember why I answered the call to ministry in the first place. In the summer and winter I often go to a nearby monastery, where I get to chant with the monks in the choir and eat with them in the refectory. In the spring and fall, just because I enjoy it, I usually go to a state park and camp. Sometime during those 24 hours I take the time to re-work my weekly schedule, and as I build in time for the practice of ministry, I also try to build in time for self-care. So, right along with blocks of time designated for counseling, administration, and pastoral care, I set apart blocks of time to exercise and rest, to read and study, to love and laugh, to worship and pray. I want to throw my whole self into my work — heart, soul, mind, and strength — but it’s hard to do that if there’s nothing there to work with. Self-care is as important as anything else that I do; it’s what keeps me fresh.
As for being creative, I think the elements of imagination and play are crucial. As I prepare to preach, I like to reserve a couple of hours early in the week just to “play” with the lectionary readings for the following Sunday, before I ever look at a commentary or think about how I might preach those texts. I look for the odd word, the interesting moment. I try to picture the scene and imagine what situations gave rise to it. I like to talk to other preachers — ideally have coffee with them on Monday morning — and talk about how we might approach those texts on the following Sunday.
Along with that, I like to keep a few books going at the same time: a novel, a work of non-fiction, something related to my profession, something not at all related. I like to watch movies, visit art museums, listen to music. I pay attention to the way other people create. I write poems and songs of my own. I dance with my daughter in the living room. I give myself license to play.
Walter Brueggemann would insist that the pastor/preacher is primarily a poet, from the Greek word poieo meaning “to do,” or “to make.” We pastors and preachers make things out of words; we build worlds of imagination and then invite our congregations to take up residence in those worlds. Jesus called his “the Kingdom of God,” but each of us, in his or her own way, is committed to forming “a community with an alternative, liberated imagination, that has the courage and the freedom to act in a different vision and different perception of reality.” And that, says Brueggemann, is “the central task of ministry.” (Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile, Fortress Press, 1986, p. 99.)
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