Self-Care is Self-Leadership

If you want to lead well, begin by leading yourself well.

I thought I was a great leader when I was a young pastor. I was fresh out of seminary, read all the latest church leadership books, and knew all the right things to say and do. The problem was, I couldn’t get anyone to follow me!

Of course, that meant the problem was with them, not me. I cringe as I look back on that time in my life and think about the stunted relationships I created. The church was very generous with me and gave me an extra-wide learning curve during my early tenure there.

The big “strategy” of my leadership was being available at all times to everyone who had a need. I defined “need” very loosely. If someone wanted to talk I made time for them. It didn’t matter what they wanted. I took phone calls late at night at home just to have the person making the call complain about the worship service. I met people at the church building in the middle of the day on my day off because that was when it was convenient for them. I drove to the building after dinner if someone needed the building unlocked so they could rearrange their classroom. 

I didn’t realize it at the time but a big part of what was happening with me revolved around my need to be needed. I needed to be the smartest guy in the room, the always-available minister, the leader who was in charge.

What I didn’t realize is that I was ineffective and burning myself out.

I met another pastor in town around this time who taught me a lot. He was a pastor at one of the larger churches in town. The church was known for its innovation, so I was excited to meet him and learn from him because I thought that whatever I learned was going to be the key to help me grow my own church and become an even better leader.

I was a little surprised when we had trouble scheduling one of our early lunches. I had asked John if we could meet for lunch on a Friday but he told me he couldn’t, as it was his day off. I asked about the following week and we settled on Tuesday for lunch.

At this meeting, John wondered how my weekend had gone so I described it to him: Friday was filled with finishing up my sermon and Bible class for Sunday; Saturday morning was taken up with breakfast with another church member, and the afternoon with stopping by the church building to unlock the building for someone and then lock it up again; and Sunday was a full day of its own, with a Bible study and two worship services. 

John asked, “So your day off must have been refreshing, huh?” I assumed he meant I must have taken Monday off, which I hadn’t, so I ignored his question and said something like, “I like to keep busy.”

John humoured me for a while but then circled back. “What day do you take as your day off?” Since he obviously wasn’t going to let it go, I dumped my philosophy on him, explaining how I liked to work and keep busy, I didn’t need a day off, and if church members needed something, it was my responsibility to serve them, regardless of whether it was my “day off” or not. John nodded the whole time I was speaking, then asked me what I do to take care of myself.

I remember freezing when he asked me that question. I had never made the connection between taking a day off and taking care of myself. But as John talked, he shared stories about his early ministry, where he burned out from being a ministry Superman. John earnestly encouraged me to take a day off each week, to communicate it to church members, and to stop being available anytime someone needed something. 

The irony of this conversation is that John was telling me that to be a better leader, I needed to “work” and be available less. I put quotation marks around “work” because, to be very honest, what I thought was work really wasn’t. It was busy-work, designed to give me a level of self-importance that I could carry around like a badge. 

It’s been a long journey to learn this, but I’ve finally learned that self-care is self-leadership. If you want to lead well, it begins with leading yourself well. If you’re running around doing busy-work seven days a week without a break, you probably aren’t leading yourself well. 

Self-care is so important that I’ve dedicated this newsletter to the topic. This is my twentieth article about the subject. I have struggled to learn this. I’ve seen many of my friends and colleagues struggle to learn this. If this is something you are struggling with, I would love to help you.

Are you the leader you want to be? Are you thriving in ministry? Let me ask you my friend’s question:

What day is your day off?

At a minimum, pastors should be doing a few things for their own self-care. These things are:

  1. A daily quiet-time with God. I’ve written about this before, about solitude, silence, and other practices associated with a quiet-time. My recommendation is that you take at least 30 minutes each day, read through a passage of scripture using lectio divina, meditate on it and pray through it, and sit in silence for the rest of your time. This will help ground you each day in God.

  2. Regular long walks in solitude. In my opinion and experience, there is nothing like regular, long walks by yourself to clear the mind, pray, and troubleshoot problems and situations. As I’ve written about before, I have had many sermon outlines come together as I’ve taken a long walk after studying. A long walk will provide you with both physical and spiritual exercise. 

  3. A consistent day off. This one is hard for pastors to stick to. But we have to get to the point where we realize the congregation, and ministry, does not revolve around us. The congregation will still be there even if a few phone calls go unanswered on a Monday or Friday. Church members will learn to schedule appointments with you around your availability. And a day off will let you rest, spend time with your family, and catch up on your hobbies.

If you want to lead well, begin by leading yourself well.

Which self-care practices do you already do well? Which one(s) do you need to begin?

As always, let me know how I can serve you in this.

Love First,

Jeremy

If you’re looking for help and would like to explore working together, we can do so in the following ways.

  1. Let’s schedule a one-to-one call to talk, discover your needs, and decide on a pathway that will be helpful for you.

  2. Read my book, Soul-Care for Shepherds, and schedule a time to talk with me about the chapter or chapters that most struck you.

  3. Enroll in a ten-week-long coaching program based on my book that will walk you through each chapter and equip you with a healthy foundation of self-care habits. 

Let me know how I can best be of help to you!