Ministry and self-care during COVID-19
With COVID-19 responses putting yet more pressure on our ministry agents, the need to practice self-care is perhaps greater than ever. Insights spoke to Uniting Church ministers and deacons about how they’re taking care of themselves during the pandemic.
Self-care is not a luxury or simply taking it easy. As Uniting Church minister Neil Ericksson explained, it is essential in order to stave off burnout and sustain ministry. “Ministry agents need to understand that self-care is not selfish or a waste of time but necessary to keep yourself going,” Rev. Ericksson said.
Rev. Tau’alofa Anga’aelangi is a Uniting Church deacon. She echoed these sentiments.
“Looking after oneself is essential as a responsibility to ourselves and to the community we serve,” Rev. Anga’aelangi said. “Self- care may appear to be individualistic and it may give the impression of being wrapped up in one own self. In this time of physical isolation, we need to be more attentive to our physical and spiritual practices and how it may benefit the communities we belong to.”
Rev. Liam Miller is the Northern Hub New Growth Minister for Sydney Central Coast Presbytery. He told Insights that there was a danger that self-care may become viewed as a luxury in a work-centred society like Australia’s.
“There is sometimes a danger in the framing of self-care, that it can seem luxuriant, a thing one does with a surplus of time. This is false,” he said.
“You need to care for yourself, and you need to do it everyday, every week. We should be careful to not glamourise in ourselves or others overwork (either in working massive hours, forgoing holidays, or taking on extra tasks), all this does is provide witness to one of the (false) gospels of our age—that your worth is tied to what value you can add, what you can produce, what you can point to as having accomplished. You should make yourself jump through a lot of hoops to justify working longer than eight hours in a day, or 40 in a week.”
“Yes, there are occasions where it is demanded… but I think they are far fewer than we tend to believe.”
Rev. Karen Mitchell Lambert is the Pulse team leader. She described self-care in terms of carving out time for her family and herself.
“As a minister, who wants to help people, and a bit creative it is really easy for me to just be consumed with work and not think about anything else. I am trying to make time to intentionally be with my family and take proper time off,” Rev. Mitchell Lambert said.
“So that means binge watching, making things, we have an old boat we have just started back into restoring. I am going for a walk any time I need it and trying to start the day with a time of thankfulness and exercise.”
“In our house when people are getting too caught up in something we have the Frozen song we sing, “Let it go”, I am finding I sing it to myself too, a lot at the moment.”
Professional supervision and self-care
Self-care for ministry agents, then, is similar to that of everyone else, but there are a few key things that are unique to their line of work.
Rev. Andrew Johnson is Ministry Team Leader at Hope Uniting Church in Maroubra. He explained that, while he had a number of fairly standard self-care practices, there were a few that were unique.
Professional supervision is one of these; something that Uniting Church ministry agents need to undertake as one of the requirements of their role.
Rev. Johnson described professional supervision as, “A safe, separate space to be able to re-tell my story and have it reflected back in fresh angles.” “It’s an invitation to scrutiny and accountability mixed with grace,” he said.
“Perhaps the biggest practice for my self-care in ministry is to remember to walk away. There’s a great privilege in being with people in moments of vulnerability and faith, whether that’s around births and deaths, or soul searching moments of wonder. The community of faith is such an important place of connection, but for me it is important to remember that it is the work of the church as whole, and not my task to do it all.” “So at times I need to walk away, and find myself with a coffee on the north end of Maroubra beach and get some perspective; or to listen to my son’s excitement for the school swimming carnival. I need to walk away, not because I don’t care or that the work of the church isn’t important, but to remember that my job is to resource the congregation in its faith, not to do it for them.”
Rev. Anga’aelangi said that, for her, it was important to schedule her day according to her needs. “One of the practices that’s been helpful for me is splitting up my week,” she said. “I write down the activities and tasks that pre-occupy physical time and internal. I prioritise how I can end or start with practices that will complement each other rather giving more weight to only one.”
“I have a list of the groups and communities that I’m involved with. I make sure that I have some type of communication with either one of the group members at least once a week.”
“In these short conversations, we need to make ourselves be fully present in the two or five minutes. I feel this will make a difference for those who are directly affected with self-isolation. It doesn’t require a lot of your time, what we do with those conversation is to honour them as part of our shared stories. We bring those stories of struggle, joy and uncertainty to our prayer. I see this as a spiritual practice that has been fruitful, because the honesty and vulnerability of others is a part of my prayer life.”
Rev. Anga’aelangi said she also prioritises regular exercise and cooking in how she plans her schedule.
Amongst the tension of COVID-19, there is a new situation, where ministry agents need to adapt to new technologies and ways of enacting their ministries. These range from getting to grips with Zoom to ensuring that they can keep in contact with congregation members who have less access to technology. This technology-saturated environment means that ministry agents may need to be mindful of when they ‘switch off.’
Rev. James Aaron is Minister of the Word at North Ryde Community Church. He mentioned that the stationary nature of online ministry and ever-pervasive technology could present challenges to self-care. “Everyone knows that moving, vigorously moving, intentionally moving is really important for mind and body, but now that we are online, we have to add intentional stretching and moving in a more frequent way,” he said. “Do we get up and walk around (not to the fridge), but generally? Do we have a routine, to start the day and finish the day, leaving work on the laptop, clearing the coffee table/ desk/ work space, new for the next day? How are we switching off when we are done?”
Rev. Aaron told Insights that, with his partner and him working on opposite sides of the house, they have designated the kitchen and living room as ‘device free zones’, “So that we switch off between those spaces.”
“All of these things would be useless without prayer, and integration,” he said. “What new things am I learning about the face of God? The Word of God? What new things are being born? What am I learning about my relationships, my congregation, myself that is building on, or going deeper in God, and how am I going to remember them later?”
On the other hand, Rev. Anga’aelangi said that using technology to keep in touch with people she went through formation with had proven helpful.
“We have a chat group on Zoom, where we catch up every two weeks called “Together on Zoom,” she said. “It’s a space that allows us to see each other, you can eat your dinner, have a glass of wine or whatever you prefer. I find it’s a wonderful platform, for us to discuss ministry, sermons, etc.”
Rev. Mitchell Lambert recommends that ministry agents be kind to themselves during the pandemic. “This is new to everyone,” she said.
“Trust that God is doing stuff that you don’t know and may never.” “Doing what you can is enough. Listen to the gentle whispers of the Spirit and follow it!”
Choosing exactly the right self-care option can be a challenge. Sally Yabsley-Bell is a Deacon Candidate. “I once read an article that said ministers have two unhelpful habits to deal with stress: drinking and shopping,” she said. “When I speak to other people in ministry and bring this up I have been greeted with guiltily smiles more often than not. So I try to keep this in mind when I notice I really want to shop. Be kind to yourself.”