Is taking care of yourself the same as being selfish? Does being a dedicated leader require that you take on a punishing, super-human load?
This is a word to those engaged in pastoral ministry—but it applies to leaders in any field. It was inspired by a recent comment I heard made by a successful executive. He was lamenting how poorly he is taking care of himself, and how that is affecting his own well-being, his family, and his work.
Does being a leader mean that you stoically press on under intense, relentless pressures when your body is sending you warning messages to slow down? What does it look like to appropriately care for self, yet avoid being self-indulgent?
One of the five findings of the Pastors Summit research, is the necessity of Self Care for fruitful, enduring ministry. The famous Scottish pastor, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, was a powerful young minister, preaching eloquently and genuinely to congregations in Edinburgh and Dundee. Sadly, he died at the age of twenty-nine. This was in part due to a weakened constitution through overwork, excessive busyness, and chronic fatigue. This should sound all too familiar to those in leadership in the church, public service, or in business. M'Cheyne said,
The Lord gave me a horse to ride and a message to deliver. Alas, I have killed the horse and cannot deliver the message.
It's said these were his words as he was dying—the "horse" was a metaphor for his body.
Pastors, who are meant to model healthy living for others, are terrible at taking care of themselves. They have a high sense of calling—they work tirelessly in a job that is never done. They are most often deeply sincere, and aware that eternity hangs in the balance of their work. They are called to lay down their lives for others, and to be willing to suffer. But, at what cost?
Life and Health
Jesus was hard-pressed by the needs of people; he was often under great pressure. But he took steps to rest, to retreat, and to recover, to pray alone, to sleep, and - apart from his long fast - to eat regularly. He lived simply. He walked everywhere. In all of this, Jesus does not come across in the Bible as a frenzied, driven personality. He was exceedingly focused upon accomplishing the work that the Father gave him to do, but was also exceedingly present to the people all around him, as though he had all the time in the world. This is the very picture of true leadership. Yet, it is a tension we often struggle to maintain.
From Jesus’ example, we can see that self-denial is not synonymous with abusing our health. It is not self-destruction. It is denying the "god of Self”. Loving ourselves as we love others does not mean being "selfish". It means being a good steward and caretaker of the only bodies we have to fulfill God’s purpose for us on earth. It does not mean being self-centered. Rather, it is casting away our idols: the idols that promise us value and meaning through our achievements, possessions, or net worth.
Self-care is about taking our physical limitations seriously. It is about appropriately caring for – and being a wise steward of – the vessels God gave us. It is simple, but powerful to choose to exercise, eat well, and provide ourselves with adequate sleep. In this way we cultivate a calm heart - we're able to lower the anxiety in the room rather than add to it! We have energy to be an effective servant of Christ and to love others well on this earth.