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The myth of self-care

There is a myth about the nature of self-care that seems to be deeply embedded in the way people think about this topic. The myth is that my wellbeing is my responsibility alone, and your wellbeing is your responsibility alone.

The topic of self-care has, for many years, received a great deal of attention in pastoral circles. We have seen it as a major element at many conferences. It appears regularly as a topic in continuing education programs. It is part of many seminary programs. It seems to be something that denominational leaders regularly bring to the attention of the pastors they serve.

But there is a myth about the nature of self-care that seems to be deeply embedded in the way many people think about this important topic. The myth, which shows up in the term itself-- self-care--is the notion that wellbeing is a solo act, something each of us does (or does not do) all on our own. The myth is that my wellbeing is my responsibility alone, and your wellbeing is your responsibility alone. The American ideal of rugged individualism has even seeped its way into our deeply-held assumptions about our own wellbeing. This view leads to a common conclusion: if a pastor is not thriving, it must be his or her fault. "Make better choices," these pastors are told, "and your wellbeing will improve. Continue to make bad choices, and your health will deteriorate further."

Such a view belies a deep truth: each of us lives and works embedded in various social environments. Our wellbeing is shaped in significant ways by the other people with whom we interact, the social contexts that are part of our everyday lives, and the physical and cultural environments in which we live and work. It is this social element that is often overlooked. I am not suggesting that there is no "self" in self-care: each of us has a great deal of control and responsibility for our own wellbeing. But, our wellbeing is also socially constructed. Whether or not we can stick to our diet is impacted by the eating and dieting habits of those other people we regularly interact with. Our capacity to engage in spiritual practices is shaped significantly by the degree to which our family and coworkers engage in those practices. We can handle stress much better when we have high-quality connections with family, friends, and co-workers. There are hundreds of ways that, each day, our wellbeing is shaped by other people.

Our research finds that several different kinds of social support have significant effects on pastors' wellbeing. For example, we find that some social environments are so toxic they will undermine the wellbeing of even the most self-reliant, determined, self-controlled, highly-skilled pastors. Several relationships have a powerful impact on pastors' wellbeing, but among the most important is the quality of the relationship between a pastor and the parishioners of the pastors' local church. High-quality relationships between a pastor and her congregants are almost always associated with high levels of pastoral wellbeing. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true: strained, tense, or caustic relationships between a pastor and his congregants are almost always associated with low levels of pastoral wellbeing. This is true even among those pastors that seem to have everything it takes to thrive: excellent skills, high levels of self-control and willpower, strong spouse and family relationships, and a deep commitment to their call to ministry. In other words, congregational relationships seem to impact wellbeing over-and-above what the pastor him- or herself can do. Pastors cannot simply "deal with" or "get over" poor congregational relationships. Our research very strongly indicates that the pastors' wellbeing is also the congregations' responsibility, just as the pastor bears significant responsibility for the wellbeing of the congregants they serve.

We have much more to learn about how different relationships impact pastors' wellbeing. At this point, our data show that relationships of many kinds have a strong impact on clergy wellbeing. Other important relationships include friendships with other pastors, social support from denominational and judicatory leaders, high-quality mentoring, friendships outside of work, and great family support. We need to learn more about the characteristics of great relationships between pastors and parishioners. We need to understand how such relationships impact both the pastor's wellbeing and the parishioners' wellbeing. Even so, the data from our research and many other studies confirm that wellbeing is a community affair. We are social beings: while our wellbeing is determined in part by the life choices we make, it is also impacted by the kinds of social support and relationships that are a part of our everyday lives. Rather than using the term "self-care," perhaps we could think more about ecosystems of wellbeing. Each of us has some responsibility for the wellbeing of those we live, work and interact with. We also have some responsibility for those people outside our immediate spheres of influence. Jesus admonished us that each person's wellbeing is sacred, and honoring the well being of each other is a sacred responsibility we share. Jesus was way ahead of researchers in this understanding. He spent most of his time caring for others, and he urged us --'Love your neighbor as yourself'--to do the same.

Matt Bloom, PhD

Note: the data mentioned in this piece refer to the Flourishing in Ministry ongoing study on clergy wellbeing, whose results are discussed in Professor Bloom's latest book "Flourishing in Ministry: How to Cultivate Clergy Wellbeing." The book is available on Amazon.


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