The subject of clergy care has been much in the news in Charlotte, North Carolina lately. That alone says something about our community. Charlotte is a community of many houses of faith and practice. It is a community where people care about their spiritual communities and their spiritual leaders; so we begin with pretty fertile soil with respect to clergy care.
I thought I would share some thoughts about this topic. By Episcopal Church standards St. John's is a very big parish and yet I expereince little strress and sense little danger of burn out. I work very long hours and go extended periods without a day off and yet I find that my mental and spiritual health is good. How is that?
1. I stay pretty clear about by Whom things change. People and situations get better by the power of God in Christ. Not me. I don't make any better. I don't fix anything. That is an important discovery. I am able to go to bed at night and say this little prayer. "Dear Lord, I did the very best I could, but it really is your world and your people. (Sometimes I confess that I say "Your mess.") I'll hit it again hard tomorrow. Thank you for all you did today."
2. I have modest objectives. I stole this from Fr. Tim in the Mitford series. When I enter the Church every day I say the following three part prayer. As I unlock the door I say "Lord, help me to be a blessing to someone today." At the Font I say - Lord, help me to live into my Baptismal promises today" and at the icon of St. John the Evangelist (our Patron SAint) I say: Brother John, help me to be as fearless as you today." Some days I manage to be a blessing to someone. Some days I live into some of my Baptismal promises and I hope to someday be brave. But I am clear about the objective every day.
3. I pray before EVERY appointment I have during the day; and I have a LOT of appointments. EVERY meeting begins with a prayer. It is not that I am Holy or particulalrly pious - it is that one must be clear about the subject of the work - ALL of the worjk - which in my case is Jesus Christ. If the work is His - if He is the subject of the work - then I'm not. If I'm not - what is to stress about?!
4. I am very generous to my parish and they are very generous in return. I was clear that this was my expectation as they called me and I have reinforced it with every Sr. Warden since. I expect - demand of myslef that I am very generous to the parish and I expect generosity in return. Each side is faithful. I am not taken advantage of. Being taken advantage of is a huge sorce of stress for any worker - no matter the vocation - but it plagues ordaiined ministry. Mutual generosity is the cure.
5. I take care of myself on my terms. A day where I have cruised through the campus, said hello to the staff, had a cup of coffee and left is less stressful than a day away worrying about it; so that is what I do. In other words - be an adult. I am better with a week at a time away than 2; so I take a week come back for a day and go again. I am thrilled to work until 9 or 10 and if a cigar at 3 and a scotch at 6 help me break away for a bit and relax - it is a call I am prepared to make. I have a friend in Holy Orders who changes his socks mid-day through the day. He says "nothing feels as good as fresh, soft socks." Figure out what works and do it. That may be to pick your kids up from school and to be home for dinner. Go home for dinner. Be a grown up.
6. I believe in making a committment to a people and a place. My first cure was 6 years, then 8 and now my last stop. Because I expect to be with people a long time, there is no rush. I am Rector for life - so I can wait until next year or two years from now and do things in a way that brings less stress to me and to others. Clergy who are always waiting to be moved or for a better call live with a bunch of stress. A call elsewhere would be a genuine surprise.
7. Finally - I'm a realist. This helps. I know what it is to work for corporate America; which is to say that I am aware that many, many of my parishioners work as hard as I do. Some do it for even less than I do. I am aware that there are "stay at home Moms" who never get a day off or a vacation. I am aware that my staff works very hard too, and few if any of them will ever experience a Sabbatiical. The advantage of wearing a clerical collar every day is the reminder that we are called, in Holy Orders, in some measure, to be besats of burden - to work hard, to stay at the plow. Not everyone is called to that. But if you knelt before a bishop, had her hands placed on your head and took in the words of consecration - you signed up for a long haul behind the plow. Whining does not make the ground softer or the plow lighter. God in Christ will do the planting and growing - just worry about the plow.
8. Finally - really finally - I decided with each parish I have served to love God's people. All of them. All of the time. There are some who make me shake my head. Some make me ponder. A few make nme cuss out loud. But I love them all. A hand full of my flock are close personal friends who I will love and care for for the rest of my life. I respect the boundaries I should respect. But I reject what I was taught as a young priest: "Friendly with all - familiar with none." I think that construct would disgust Jesus. As I hold you in my arms while your beloved dies - we have moved beyond mere "friendly". I have also learned to allow my flock to love me - even those who do not always like me. The need to love one's spiritual leader is real. Again, we must honor boundaries, but within the realm of appropriate; our life together as priest and people is a love relationship - designed to last a very long time. I do not pray for and serve these folks so that I will love them but because I already do. The stress of loving (another way of saying "ministry") is made light by the joy of being loved.