The sky was blue, the sun was hot, and I just wanted to swim some laps in the pool. It’s been a long winter in the northern half of the country, and attending a conference in Orlando was exactly what many of us needed. It’s just that United Methodist gatherings have a reputation for being so packed with work that there is little time for play. Which is kinda sorta what the conference was all about.
Two years ago, our quadrennial United Methodist General Conference voted to add this statement to our 2016 Book of Discipline (¶349.3), “Every clergyperson shall also engage in a six-month process of personal and professional assessment and development every eight years… The process shall include both a formal review and an in-depth renewal opportunity, such as a retreat or a series of coaching and mentoring sessions.”
The national gathering was designed for those who are responsible for creating this assessment process in every conference. Because of my own experience with clergy burnout over the course of my ministry, I have become an advocate for regular personal assessment, evaluation, renewal, and time away for all clergy.
I distinctly remember how irritated I was with a friend many years ago when she kept hounding me with the question, “Are you happy, Laurie?” I was never able to give a straight answer. Which is exactly why I could have benefited from a mandated process that would have given me the permission to stop and reflect. Who am I now? Am I happy? Where is God leading me? How do I need to change in order to sustain effective ministry over the long haul? And what are the next steps that I need to take to be healthy and whole and flourish in my call?
Secretly longing to swim, stretch out on a lounge chair, and reading a novel rather than sit inside, I instead soaked up the words of Dr. Matt Bloom. Bloom, who is an associate professor at Notre Dame and Principle Investigator of the Wellbeing at Work Program, talked about the critical importance of wellbeing. As an episcopal leader in the Iowa Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, one of my primary responsibilities is to encourage the wellbeing of clergy who are servant leaders in our local churches. If our clergy are not happy or well, chances are our local churches are at risk for not being healthy, either.
Dr. Bloom shared four markers of clergy wellbeing: happiness, resilience, authenticity, and thriving. Happiness is a quality of daily life that is connected with our emotional wellbeing. According to the monograph, Flourishing in Ministry; Emerging Research Insights on the Well-Being of Pastors by Dr. Bloom and the Flourishing in Ministry Team, “When scientists measure daily happiness, they assess the extent to which someone is experiencing the presence of positive moods and emotions, and the absence of negative moods and emotions… Of course, there are moments when people are experiencing mostly negative moods and emotions and not surprisingly, scientists refer to these experiences as unhappiness.”[i]
Since I have been asked the question, “Are you happy?” more than once, I freely admit that at times I have deflected the answer (as do other clergy) by saying, “I’m here to serve. It’s not about my happiness.” In other words, answering the call to ministry is sometimes like swallowing a bitter pill. It tastes awful, the stress is excruciating, and our spirits are depleted, but if it helps the church be more effective in making disciples and changing the world, we’ll swallow it without complaint!
“Are you happy?” my friend keeps asking. Often, I’ll reply, “I don’t know.” What makes happiness so elusive for clergy? For starters: the breadth and intensity of the appointment, impossible job expectations, the unhealthy notion that our own needs always come last, and an inability to take adequate time away. What I do know is that when clergy decide to stop working fifteen hour days, spend quality time with family and friends, renew ourselves through vacations, and swim some laps in the pool, we’re a whole lot happier, healthier, and creative. Plus, we make better decisions and are more fruitful in our ministry.
The second dimension of wellbeing is resilience. Resilience is having the self-regulating capacities to deal well with daily life, manage problems, bounce back, adapt, and grow. This self-regulation include self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-control.
Bloom emphasized that the daily life of clergy stresses our self-regulating capacities and drains us in ways that are not sustainable. A good example is the intensity of weekend worship, which may include multiple worship services on different days, church school, small groups, coffee hours, and potlucks. So much relational interaction is demanded of clergy on Sunday that by mid-afternoon, many of us crash and burn, taking a nap, going for a walk alone, or reading a novel. It’s a way of building back our resilience.
The danger, of course, is that when our self-regulating capacities are overtaxed, we can also make mistakes, like “losing it” with a parishioner, over-exerting our authority, or engaging in misconduct. What is it that restores your soul when the stress of ministry is overwhelming?
The third dimension of wellbeing is authenticity. The first five to seven years of ministry are a time when we form our pastoral identities. We discover who we are as clergy and, hopefully, develop good habits of self-care and ways of being that will last for our entire career. What are our strengths, and what gives us the most joy in ministry? Conversely, what ministry tasks are most difficult and draining for us? Conference and judicatory leaders would do well to pay close attention to clergy in their first years, knowing that those who do not get off to a good start may not last in a profession that is not always kind to clergy.
Skill formation, leadership development, mentoring, and coaching play a critical role in early ministry. Likewise, the creation of good habits and strong relationships offer the mutual support that all clergy need. Most of all, ministry out of one’s deepest and truest self enables us to be truly uniquely “us.” If swimming laps is essential to who we are and produces happiness, then swim laps we must, even if it means getting up early in the morning to find an open lane at the community pool.
The fourth dimension of wellbeing is thriving. Thriving happens when we have clarity around core beliefs, self-knowledge and understanding about who we are, a close connection with the divine, and deep connection to community. Thriving also results from the conviction that we have the necessary skills to be successful in our ministry context. In short, we thrive in ministry and life when we believe that we are living well, using the full range of our gifts, and making a difference in the lives of others and the world.
According to the Flourishing in Ministry report, “Thus, people who thrive not only know the meaning and purpose of their life, but they also believe that they are able to spend most of their time, talent, and energy pursuing that meaning and purpose. In other words, thriving people believe the major pursuits and activities of their life – those things in which they are investing their best resources – are virtuous, worthy, important pursuits and activities.”[ii]
Clergy also thrive when they have a chance to take periodic time away from the intensity of ministry to rest, relax, and renew their minds, bodies, and spirits without feeling guilty. When swimming laps, reading a novel, attending a child’s ball game, or going on vacation results in anxiety because we must be neglecting our duties, then it’s time to regain perspective and reassess our life and ministry.
It wasn’t until the last day, but I finally seized the opportunity to put on my bathing suit and swim some laps before leaving for the airport. As I glided through the water during this brief window of freedom, I remembered my friend’s playful nudging, “Are you happy, Laurie?” Yes, yes, and yes! I also recalled these words from the conference, “If we do not tend to our own journey, we cannot take others on theirs. In fact, we can’t probably take them anywhere.”
Are you happy?
[ii] Ibid, pp. 12-13.