Self-care: Rule #4

4 – Always supply local needs first (and only then think of exporting products – first to nearby cities, then to others).

If clergy in the Episcopal Church have heard any lecture over and over again in our training, it’s the one(s) about self-care.  Boundary-setting.  Financial fitness and planning.  Sabbath.  Attentiveness to health.  Family time.  Friendships “outside church.”  Spiritual direction.  Therapy.  We even have a pension-fund sponsored program called CREDO in which we are periodically invited to be on retreat with other clergy so we can remind ourselves of our deepest beliefs and make changes to live in alignment with those beliefs.

This need arises because of something called clergy burnout.  And, if we’re honest, it also arises out of a fear that our clergy will resort to addictive behaviors or boundary broaching relationships if they are not mindful of self-care.  And if you’re reading this and you’re Episcopalian, you know how much the addictions of the clergy are in the spotlight right now.

E-TypesNameI teach something called the Enneagram – which is a way to help us look at the map of our personality in an objective way and develop an awareness that can be exceedingly helpful and self-forgiving.  There’s more info about it here.  And one of the things I’m aware of about my personality type is that I have trouble balancing the needs of others with the needs of self.  There are others who have the same trouble.  Some tend to overfocus on “other.”  Some tend to overfocus on “self.”  My personality type (the 9) is special in that it tends to overfocus on both, resulting in the experience of being overwhelmed and so, it (the personality) just gives in and disappears from sight, neglect becoming its sin of choice.  It’s “fun” to live in that place.  Please note the sarcasm in that last statement.

Garfield fieldSo, self-care.  Yeah.  It’s not as easy as one might think in the church.  So, if you’re a 9 and a priest, it’s basically the biggest challenge we face.  And what comes right after it is self-judgment because we believe we just can’t do it, which is just not helpful for anyone (it results in the breathless cycle shown below).

What does all this mean for church and community?
I’ve determined it has to do with breathing.  Stay with me a bit longer.

The push and pull between self-care and care of other is like breathing.
Warning: tortured metaphor ahead.  I blame it on all those years I spent playing trumpet/bugle and running around on a football field.  Breathing is mightily important to both.


breathing 2One of the things I’ve observed about the Episcopal Church is that when a congregation is blessed with a self-aware priest and a self-aware deacon who truly understand their roles, the Body of Christ breathes quite naturally and with great capacity.  The priest’s role is to continually bring people together and point people to Christ in the Sacrament.  The deacon’s role is to continually send people out and point people to Christ in the world.  In and out.  Breathing.  If the Body of Christ isn’t breathing, it isn’t alive.

See, I told you it was a tortured metaphor.  But, frankly, I think it’s a very helpful one.  So, you’re welcome.  Always happy to serve… (or not… my 9 is overwhelmed).

deep-breathIn congregations where there is only a priestly presence, that person is charged with doing both – bringing together and sending out.  This can be exhausting.  It’s doable, but it’s not the best use of these roles.  I would like to say that’s what our time as a transitional deacon trains us to do, but let’s be honest, the transitional diaconate is a vestige from a time when clericalism was the rule of the day and it undermines the sign that is the true deacon, the vocational deacon (tangential soapbox is now put away, thank you for your indulgence).

And so this is how the clergy are signs – symbols for the congregation.  I believe this is our liturgical role and our role as members of the laity (yes, clergy are members of the laity too).  Not as holders of power, but as bearers of important and necessary symbols to the life of the Body.  This is why self-care is so incredibly important in the church.  Because we can so easily cross the boundary which is the difference between our self and our role as symbol.  Clergy forgets our primary role as symbol and we make it all about what we believe we aren’t getting – we make it all about ourselves.  And, we’re back to clericalism, a truly unsustainable model.

The good news is this tortured metaphor I’ve been working with, this breathing, is something we can all experience.  And we can all return to.  We know it intimately.  We know it as the Word of God.  The expression of the life-giving force that becomes incarnate form.  And it’s why the laity is so so SO important in the life of the church and why clericalism is so dangerous.  The laity holds the space of both/and.  The laity IS the breath of the Body of Christ.  The laity is the symbol of the Incarnate Word.


When we hold our breath, we cease to thrive.  And when our physical death comes to us, as my time as a hospital chaplain taught me, it’s a matter of which organ stops first – the lungs or the heart.  When the heart stops beating, it no longer supplies blood to the lungs and they stop.  When the lungs stop breathing, they no longer supply oxygen to the blood and the heart stops.


breatheBreath is life.  It’s that simple.  This is how we were created.  This is how were are fearfully made out of the elements of the earth.  And that breath feeds the heart, our organ of perception.  We perceive Truth through the lens of the heart.  We perceive that we are the Beloved of God and are utterly connected to the whole of God’s creation. So, what is it that helps us to breathe?  It’s the both/and of self-care and care for others.  It’s the breathing of the priestly symbol and the deacon symbol.  It’s ensuring that, as we care for others, we are attentive to self at the same time.  And as we care for self, we are attentive to others at the same time.  That neither are exclusive of the other because of this crazy, boundless interconnected web that is the whole of creation.

When church is functioning well and missionally-oriented, I truly believe the members of that congregation know instinctively how to be mindful members of their community because they have incorporated the symbols into their being.  And those same members learn from the community and come back and teach the church.

And the breathing thing happens quite naturally and with great capacity.  This is baptismal ministry at its essence, at its best.  Baptismal ministry is not the raising up of people because a congregation is not able to afford a priest, as some believe.  That’s a form of clericalism.  Baptismal ministry is something ALL congregations have a responsibility to live out.  Baptismal ministry is the breathing of the Body of Christ.  It is the bringing together AND the sending out, all of which, are encompassed in our baptismal vows.  Without this understanding of baptismal ministry, the church is simply unsustainable because it’s inwardly focused on institutional survival.

Are you breathing?

About Michelle Meech

I want to unfold. I do not want to remain folded up anywhere, because wherever I am still folded, I am untrue. -Rainer Maria Rilke
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2 Responses to Self-care: Rule #4

  1. Josephine Borgeson says:

    What I learned about breathing out, first from learning to lead hikes, and later from voice lessons: if you focus on breathing out, breathing in will take care of itself. As an analogy for our life as Christians: if we focus on mission, church will take care of itself. I really do believe this, but am looking for some others who give it more than lip service to try it out!
    And, in the spirit of Wendell Berry, I do think mission begins locally, and then, when we find our best opportunities, often connects globally.

    • Phina, that is such an important part of the metaphor. As brass players, we were always focused on breathing in by using our diaphragm. But, really, most of the work of a brass player is breathing out. That’s where mission always is – in the breathing out. And I agree with you 100% – if we focus on mission, church will take care of itself. It’s a hard understanding to live into for the church but I think, especially in post-Christendom, we have to embrace that call. There are some glimmers of hope in the church – mostly in church plants because they don’t have the hard work of turning the inwardly directed ship. They can just begin fresh with mission – local mission. Thank you for being in the conversation!

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