Self-Care for the Long Haul

May 6, 2020

by Rev. Laura Merrill, Assistant to the Bishop & Director of Clergy Excellence for the Rio Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Attempting to write a piece on self-care for clergy during a pandemic is an exercise in dodging multiple pitfalls. The resulting word needs to not pile on more expectations in an environment of overwhelmed overworking. It should not provoke irritation by suggesting the obvious or sounding tone-deaf regarding the challenges of the day (“Just let your kids indulge in a little screen time while you take a half-hour to pamper yourself…”). Nor should it leave people feeling worse or less capable than they already do. 

This, therefore, is not a list of boxes to check on your proper self-care agenda. There are many good lists already out there. This is, instead, a set of assumptions and questions that I hope will lead to a word of life-based on reality, experience, and the promises of God. 

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;  I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;  and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

--Isaiah 43:1-3a, NRSV

First of all, know that you are good and beloved. Start your self-care from a place of gentleness. For real. Just as you filter the snippy or short-sighted responses of people around you, knowing they’re under stress and doing the best they can afford yourself the same grace. Between the carbs and the short temper, the social media and vices of every sort, you are not alone, but in good company. None other than the Apostle Paul admitted, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19). This time is hard for everyone, and the normal ways we’ve managed ourselves have largely been thrown out the window.

Then just notice. Think about what feels out of whack in your life, at least regarding the things you can actually control. Where are the pressure points for you, the places where you’d like to think or act differently? 

Wonder to yourself about what you need most, right now, and what might change the rhythm of your day. What do you already know about yourself? Do you routinely need re-grounding in your body when things get hard? Do you need quiet or solitude? Laughter with a friendly face? A walk around the block, by yourself? A nap? A particular spiritual practice?

Think about how you’re spending your work time. Did you rush in with high adrenaline at the beginning? Is that pace sustainable, or is something going to have to give?

Look for choices. You are a finite resource, and you cannot do everything. Despite all that feels out of control in your life and in your mind and heart, think about where the places of choice might exist for you. Is there something you started doing during the initial rush that has stopped being helpful? What would be lost if you let go? 

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.--John 10:10

What’s likely to give you life today? How do we choose life-giving things, when they’re not always our first choice or impulse under stress, or when circumstances make it hard? What might help interrupt a difficult behavior loop?  What would work for you as a prompt or reminder so that you can choose something life-giving every day?

Who is in it with you? In this time of social distancing, there is a subtle pull toward isolation. Who might you check in with (by phone, video, or even email), to help you with the choices you’d like to make? A partner, buddy, spiritual director, or counselor? If you’re carrying worry about the health or survival of your congregation, how can you speak this out loud in a safe place? We all know better than to go it alone, but sometimes when we’re stressed, we don’t notice the ways we’ve pulled away from others. Take note. Who is on this journey with you? How can you draw them in? 

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

–Matthew 11:28-30

There’s no one right answer to any of this. Maybe you’ll take stock of where you are and decide, even if it’s not pretty, you’re actually ok. Hallelujah! Or you go in and out of ok, day by day or hour by hour. The point is to allow yourself to engage in self-reflection, in a spirit of love. Often, just allowing your heart’s truth to come to the surface is very healing. If you find the truth uncomfortable or embarrassing, that’s all the more reason to let it out, rather than leaving it to fester inside you. 

There are a lot of very good recommendations on how to take care of yourself during a time of quarantine at home. Take a walk, eat a vegetable, sleep when you feel sleepy. Use the oddness of our extended time at home to take breaks as you need to. I heard someone say to treat yourself like you would a toddler—with patience, kindness, and forbearance. I also heard my bishop say that runners recognize an important truth—if you wait to drink until you’re thirsty, you’ve waited too long. Take care of yourself regularly, now, with an eye toward the long haul.

In all things, love. However, you can manage it, leave space to hear God’s word of grace and love for you, and listen for the prayer of your heart in response. And remember that you are not alone.

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