At this time of year, many of us clergy open our calendars after summer vacation and are flooded by feelings of excitement and exhaustion, aspiration and anxiety, determination and dread. We anticipate what the new congregational year will hold for us, and deal with expectations placed on us by others and ourselves as well. Faced with these expectations, it is easy to lose one’s own sense of self and give up too easily on resolutions for our own well-being. This moment of returning can be the beginning of a downward spiral, or it can be an opportunity to lead from a new, more health-giving place.
I lead a workshop for rabbis called “The First 100 Days of Your New Rabbinate.” Rabbis often arrive in a new congregation just before the High Holidays. Congregation members (many of whom only attend services at the High Holidays) listen critically to the rabbi’s sermon at this crucial moment. It is an audition—with all of the accompanying expectation and nervousness.
This summer I’ve worked with a few clergy during their sabbatical time. As these pastors transition back into their congregations, each is clutching newfound insights or convictions. Each wonders how soon their good intentions will fade, how soon they will be sucked back into the rapids of congregational leadership. Each asks, “When I return, can I lead from a different place?”
“Doing” My Self-Care
Recent research on clergy health, reported by Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell and Jason Byassee in Faithful and Fractured, indicates that clergy rank first among professions in satisfaction with their work. Paradoxically, clergy also carry stress, depression, and mental, spiritual and physical health challenges as others in the general population.
Mindful of the possibility of burnout, clergy have been taught to focus on “self-care.” Self-care is important but it is often not enough. We all know clergy who cling to their self-care practice as if it were the wild card in a poker game. They are ready to play that card when it is absolutely needed. But self-care practices—conjured up suddenly in times of stress—are no substitute for ongoing practices of self-nurture and self-sustenance.
Other clergy approach self-care as yet another list of things to do. Inevitably, they cannot always “do” self-care, and as a result feel guilty or resentful. Clergy feel the burden to “do” self-care on top of meeting all the expectations from their congregations, colleagues, and denominations.
To be good stewards of the profession of ministry requires more than simply doing more or better self-care. Leading from a different place requires us to examine to look much deeper than self-care. It requires us to look more deeply at the wellsprings of our call to ministry.
Self-care is Not Enough
In my work with clergy, I use some recent psychological resources on self-compassion (not just self-care). I’ve discovered that, like many in the helping professions, clergy can give compassion more easily than they receive compassion from others. Moreover, clergy often do not cultivate self-compassion when it is needed most.
There are unexamined narratives in the life of a clergy person that require not just doing something different in their religious leadership, but also leading from a different place.
In my clergy leadership coaching, I use a comprehensive, 360-degree assessment tool. Using this tool, clergy recognize how their Reactive Tendencies may influence their Creative Competencies as a leader—and also their own well-being. Would it surprise you that some clergy score high on “pleasing”? The tendency to please others is not consciously thought out, but arises “reactively” from unexamined narratives and assumptions. It can affect decisiveness and other competencies important for the clergy role.
To Lead from a Different Place
In a recent coaching conversation, I was impressed with how well a pastor had lined up his whole church year in advance. He had themes for each month laid out neatly in a liturgical calendar with sermon topics, scriptures and organizational tasks. The sequence made logical sense; it was ambitious and hopeful.
However, this same clergyperson was complaining about how sick he had been, how fatigued he was feeling, and how often he was having to cancel meetings because he just could not keep up.
I told him I was impressed by his comprehensive and integrated plan—but added that there is a difference between a march and a dance. In a march, we’re leading a parade. We need to get everyone lined up and in order. Everything must be on schedule. We need to leave at a specific time in order to arrive on time. A march can be exhilarating—and exhausting.
In a dance, one has a general sense of purpose. Choreography brings out the creative capacities of dancers. As a leader of a dance you build on others’ movements, add to it, highlight certain phrases, and respond to what shows up. You can feel inspired (“in-spirited”) when mutual responsiveness leads to discovery and makes space for accomplishments that were not pre-imagined.
As leaders, we all need a mix of “march” and “dance.” One is not better than the other—but in order to be more resilient in our leadership and to foster our own well-being, most of us need to cultivate a broader repertoire.
A Time for Taking Stock
As we enter this new congregational year, it is a good time to take stock of our own tendencies and make course corrections—not just in what we “do” as leaders, but in how we see our role. We can lead from a new and different place.
In the Jewish calendar, as the summer fades into autumn, the month of Elul is a time before the solemn work of the High Holidays. It is a time when Jews are encouraged to look within. In launching launching a new congregation year, we can all ask:
- What guiding expectations and narratives do I want to cherish?
- What expectations and narratives do I want to let go of?
- What do I want to do more of?
- How can I bring more compassion to my work (even to myself)?
- What wants to emerge in me, in my leadership and my congregation this coming year?
- How might I approach this work less as a “march” and more as a “dance”?
During Elul, Jews are encouraged to turn inward to prepare their hearts for renewal and rededication. One of the meditations for Elul in a new Reform Jewish prayer book helps with this “accounting of the soul”:
- Reach deep—
- Into the sanctuary of the heart.
- Reach beyond—
- To infinite and the eternal.
- Reach deep—
- With every quiet breath.
- Reach beyond—
- Summoned by the ancient, ringing blast of the shofar.
This meditation reminds us that we can return within ourselves and lead from a different place.