The second Great Commandment, according to Jesus, is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Many religions and sacred texts echo the same sentiment.
In my coaching with church leaders, I discover pastors and church leaders that hold to the commandment. Pastors love their parishioners. They love people in general. It is part of their calling, to love as Christ first loved them. Unfortunately, they are not always so loving toward themselves. Pastors tend to be their own worst critics. They blame themselves if their churches are not growing. They work long hours and are on-call 24/7/365. Holy days, like Christmas and Easter, are joyous celebrations spent with family for most; for pastors, they can be long, stressful work days.
Here are 12 suggestions for pastors to practice loving themselves the same way they love others:
1. Take your day off. No emails, no phone calls, no sermon preparation. Get out of town if necessary. Do something you enjoy, just for you. Focus on your family, your pets, your friends, yourself.
2. Take all of your vacation. Again, really take it. Do not respond to calls and emails. Maybe even refrain from social media. Read for fun, no study or sermon prep. Even if you take a stay-cation, do the things you want to do that have nothing to do with your ministry.
3. Take all of your continuing education time and funds. Pastoral ministry is one of the few vocations that allow for continuing education. Take advantage of it. It will improve your ministry and be a gift to your church. It is also good for you, particularly if you use your time to learn something new or focus on aspects of ministry for which you are most passionate. There are many ways to spend continuing education—programs, courses, retreats, conferences, independent study, study travel—are some examples. I have clients who spend a portion of their continuing education stipend on coaching, counseling, or spiritual direction. Use it while you have it.
4. Get a coach, counselor, or spiritual director. I know a few pastors who have all three, which they use for different purposes. Lectionary groups are great for sermon prep and mutual support, but a professional can help you focus on specific needs and goals. They also give you a level of confidentiality that you cannot get anywhere else.
5. Put yourself first. You need quiet time to listen to God and pray. You need to eat and sleep well. You need to exercise and spend time in the fresh air. Pastors get so occupied with the needs of others that they neglect their own needs. Remember the safety instructions from your last flight: Put your mask on before assisting another.
6. Be true to yourself. Preach and teach what you believe. Do the things that you believe God is calling you to do even if your parishioners don’t agree. This is easier said than done, but you will be a much happier person if you are authentically you.
7. Be open to others’ ideas. Authenticity doesn’t mean pig-headed. Listen to what others can teach you and be willing to change. Try to understand the point of view of other people. It will make it easier to love them, and for them to love you.
8. Forgive yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. Admit when you’re wrong or you messed up. Ask forgiveness of others when appropriate. Note what you learned from the experience. Forgive yourself. Move on. Too many pastors beat themselves up for past mistakes, or for not being perfect.
9. Forgive others. Holding onto anger, hurt, and grudges only hurts you. Forgiving others allows you to move on and focus on the present and the future instead of dwelling in the past.
10. Don’t compare yourself with others. You are the only you, and there is no one else like you. Likewise, you can be no one but yourself. Comparing yourself with others is self-defeating. Instead, focus on your uniqueness. What do you offer than no one else can? Celebrate what makes you, you.
11. Seek rhythm, not balance. Life is not balanced. At times, we have to set aside what we want to do for what we have to do. This happens often in ministry. No one dies or gets sick on our schedule. Instead of striving endlessly for balance between work and home life, try looking for rhythms and flow in your days and weeks.
12. Accept that life is hard sometimes. Sometimes you just have to get through it. And you will get through it. The full version of Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer is perhaps the best way to state this.
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as [God] did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that [God] will make all things right
If I surrender to [God’s] Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with [God]
Forever and ever in the next.