A Guide to Ministry Self-Care (Richard Olson, et al) -- A Review

A GUIDE TO MINISTRY SELF-CARE: Negotiating Today’s Challenges with Resilience and Grace (An Alban Institute Book). By Richard P. Olson, Ruth Lofgren Rosell, Nathan S. Marsh, and Angela Barker Jackson.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. X + 232 pages.

I don't remember talking that much about self-care in my ministry classes during college or seminary. We talked about caring for others, but not much about ourselves. Topics like days off, vacations, sabbaticals (especially sabbaticals) weren't at the top of the list of topics. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention, but I don’t remember putting a focus on such things. We also didn’t talk much about proper boundaries. Things have changed over the past thirty years, with more and more conversations are taking place regarding setting proper boundaries and caring for one’s self. Younger clergy seem more adept at raising concerns about work hours and conditions, pay and time away. All of this is rather new for clergy, as well as congregations. Having a guide to the various issues in one’s hands would have been helpful thirty years ago, but it continues to be a need as we navigate the realities of ministry. Fortunately, such a resource has appeared in A Guide to Ministry Self-Care, which invites we who are clergy to negotiate the challenges of our day with “resilience and grace.” Those two words are very important for the process of self-care.

This guide to self-care was authored by a quartet of scholar/practitioners affiliated in some way with Central Baptist Seminary in Kansas. The book emerged out of a class on stress and ministry self-care taught by Richard Olson, Distinguished Professor of Pastoral Theology at the seminary, and his colleague and successor Ruth Rosell, associate professor of pastoral theology. Olson had been teaching a course on self-care for a number of years before Rosell joined him. As they formulated their class they realized that while books existed that covered various elements of clergy self-care, "none seemed to offer the breadth of self-care, nor did they address the varied and changing milieu in which religious leaders now work" (p. ix). Feeling the need for such a resource, they decided to create their own resource, inviting along the way two others who had been their Doctor of Ministry Students to join them in the project. This book, which appears part of the Alban series now published by Rowman and Littlefield is the product of this collaboration. The authors acknowledge that there is no one-size fits all program of self-care. They also acknowledge that while there is gender balance among the authors, they are all white. However, they have consulted with colleagues, friends, and students who are not white to get their input and provide some additional depth to the book.

The book is comprised of fourteen chapters divided into two parts. Part I speaks to the need for self-care. Part II focuses on "Strategies of Self-Care." In part one they address the changing landscape of ministry, using the imagery that Phyllis Tickle used to speak of a five-hundred-year rummage sale for the church. The idea is that every 500 years or so the church goes through massive transitions. The consensus is that we’re living amid one of them. There are other images as well that could be used to describe the current situation, like a perfect storm, that helps describe the concerns of many congregations and clergy. The reality is that since the 1960s the church has been undergoing massive changes, and that these changes including diminishing numbers in membership and finances are affecting clergy significantly. Diminishing respect for clergy is also part of the equation. Of course, these aren't the only challenges. The reality, however, is that clergy are experiencing significant stressors. 

Building on this foundation, the authors describe the need for self-care in different contexts, from parish clergy to hospital chaplains. Each is different, with different needs. In the midst of these various needs, they note that clergy face both burnout and compassion fatigue. I know about burnout. It’s a common conversation piece among clergy. As for compassion fatigue, their discussion of it was quite revealing. Compassion fatigue is a form of stress, that differs from burnout in that it relates to clergy over-exposure to trauma in the lives of those we’re called to minister to. After a while we can become fatigued or numb by it all, and that can affect spiritual, mental, and physical health. With stress being a major concern among clergy, especially those who have been led to believe they must work seventy hours per week (or more), they address its effects on clergy lives. Clergy are, for instance, more prone to obesity than the general public, as well as heart disease. Clergy are more susceptible to mental health issues, including sleep disorders and depression. We’re more susceptible to suicide than the general public. In these early chapters we’re invited to acknowledge its presence. In part II the authors go into greater depth on ways of dealing with stress.  

Part II is composed of ten chapters, which begins with a word about resilience and ends with a "theology of self-care." Resilience speaks of surviving and thriving in the face of the challenges that come our way as clergy. They define resilience as the ability to bounce back and coping well with our realities. This starts, they note, in five ways, starting with letting go of victim thinking, and then moving on to the reduction of anxiety by controlling "intrusive thoughts and images." From there, they suggest engaging in "constructive self-disclosure" (finding a trusted person to share with one’s feelings and concerns). From there creating a narrative of the stressors. Finally, articulating life-principles that allow one to live with an openness to the future. Granted this isn't easy, but a necessary starting point. With this as the starting point, they move to spiritual self-care, relational self-care, physical self-care (remember clergy are often physically unfit), developing inner wisdom, experiencing laughter and play (it's good to laugh some), finances (always a stressor for clergy), intellectual (continuing education, etc.). With these covered they address what they term "basic steps." These include increasing "skills in advocating for a balanced life with needed self-care." In other words, be assertive in your needs. Be "more effective in time management;" step three is using "self-care creativity in engaging media" (email, social media, etc.); finally, they suggest clergy "write and follow a self-care covenant." Another way of putting this is developing a "rule of life," which includes a person who keeps one accountable. Have I done these things? Not very well. I'm hoping younger clergy are being more intentional than some of us long-termers. They conclude by inviting clergy to develop a theology of self-care that begins with grace and hope. With this I agree.

There is profound wisdom present in this book, wisdom that emerged from years of ministry and teaching. Richard Olson is now in his 80s. He spent years in pastoral ministry, and like many of us, struggled with stress and such. His wisdom is combined here with that of younger colleagues, bringing to our attention helpful words that might make for a healthier future in ministry for many. I believe that part of the value of this book is found in the conversation among the authors as they wrote. They assigned different parts of the book to those most equipped to write that section, but they all contributed their thoughts and ideas. This, therefore, a really helpful book that should be on seminary reading lists. I will be putting it on our clergy renewal list for the region, which I serve as chair of the commission on ministry. It should be read by all clergy. While the authors are all American Baptists it is ecumenical in its breadth, and really reaches beyond Christian clergy, as we all face similar situations in ministry.  With this as a source of wisdom, perhaps clergy can negotiate these challenging times with resilience and grace, so that we might finish the race in good health—spiritually, mentally, and physically.


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