When I was invited to share at a Moses Project retreat last January, I was given the impossible task of sharing all the things I wish I'd known when I was serving as a church pastor. Having learned a few things through my transition to ministry as a mental health counselor, I have plenty of “if I'd known then…” moments. However, as I thought back over those many experiences, a few clear themes emerged. If I were to step back into that role, I would take my own experience more seriously, practice being more compassionate, and embrace being the pastor God made me to be.
I entered pastoral ministry with a simplistic understanding of boundaries and self-care. I thought of both as rules guiding us to do good things and to not do bad things. The problem with this understanding, I discovered, was that the good things and the bad things were not always as straightforward as I had hoped. Despite my best efforts to be a good pastor, wife and mom, I never figured out a way to do all the good things I thought I should be doing. Sometimes my attempts at good things went badly or I got frustrated that other people weren't trying hard enough. I often felt like a failure, even when people said nice things (and especially when they said not-so-nice things). I feared I was a disappointment to God. As you might imagine, I had a lot of feelings along the way, but I tended to either ignore or dismiss them to get on with trying harder to be the pastor I thought I should be. Looking back, I’m painfully aware of how prevalent shame and judgment were for me.
Since my vocational transition, my focus in creating healthy boundaries has shifted to focus on discerning what needs are actually mine to meet. Too often in church ministry, I believed all the needs were mine to meet; sometimes others reinforced that. I judged myself by an impossible metric, and my body and spirit paid the price. Ignoring my experience didn’t change that. Practicing self-awareness opened up new possibilities as I learned about my needs and my limitations. It empowered me to take seriously my responsibility for responding to my own needs as a means of expanding my capacity to respond to the needs of others in healthy ways. Self-awareness has also helped disentangle my needs (e.g to be helpful, to be appreciated…) from the needs of those I seek to support. It gives me the opportunity to be intentional in what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. As it turns out, self-awareness makes a difference not just to me but to my ministry.
We can all learn a lot through self-awareness, but this practice is often uncomfortable and sometimes painful. Self-compassion allows us to acknowledge our experience and to respond with kindness. It moves us away from shame and judgment and connects us to a sense of care. Compassion reflects a desire for wholeness that is often natural to extend to others. Self-compassion invites us to respond to ourselves in the same way we would respond to someone we love. I think it calls us to see ourselves as God sees us. As we learn to do this, self-care shifts from another obligatory set of behaviors to concrete ways of caring about ourselves, body, mind and spirit.
Together, self-awareness and self-compassion give us space to be more fully ourselves. For those of us in ministry, this means embracing our unique God-given gifts, graces and limitations and bringing ourselves to the role of pastor. Wherever and however you are in ministry, my prayer is that you find life and joy in bringing your authentic self to the work to which you are called.
To learn more, explore Dr. Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion ( https://self-compassion.org/ ) and Brené Brown’s work on shame and compassion, particularly her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. To foster a self-compassion practice, check out Insight Timer or Calm apps. For personal growth, consider work with a therapist or spiritual director.