The Bumpy Road to Self-Care

By Lozano Nora

It is already the middle of the second month of this new year, and I am still evaluating last year, and planning for 2016. What can I do better? How can I improve some areas of my life?

This reflection has been prompted in part by a required class that I co-teach every semester: “Personal Dimensions of Leadership.” It deals with 14 topics that affect the leader’s personal life and development. The tone of the class is preventive, and extends an invitation to gain knowledge about each topic, become aware of one’s own vulnerabilities, and find ways to deal with them.

As I introduce the class to the new students, I tell them that it is a class for healthy living. If taken seriously, it offers an opportunity to develop essential skills that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

I love teaching this class because it allows me to learn from the students’ experiences as well as to evaluate myself. Over the years, I have been very consistent with my issues: physical health and balance of personal and ministerial/professional life. As we approach these topics, I take a deep breath because I know what is coming.

On the topic of physical health, a medical doctor lectures about essential issues that we need to pay attention to, such as eating well, sleeping enough, exercise, weight control, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and yearly checkups. Consistently, I have one or two areas that demand my attention.

Normally I lecture on the topic of balance. Even though I know this subject very well, I dread my own self-evaluation on the issue. There is always a need for change.

Both of these topics are encompassed under the area of self-care. While pursuit of self-care is a worthy goal — and perhaps easy for some — for others, the road to achieve it is bumpy. Self-care is personal, tricky and challenging.

It is personal because it requires self-awareness. What do I need? Am I an introvert or an extrovert? How many hours do I need to sleep to function properly, and even more, to truly enjoy life? What are my optimal foods, weight and exercise routines? What is my own, as well as my family, medical history and vulnerabilities? What is my body trying to tell me? Here honesty is a must!

Self-care may be tricky because it involves individual and organizational perceptions and expectations, which at times may collide. Part of the quandary resides in that self-care can be abused. Beth Kanter describes that one way to abuse self-care is by attempting to practice it with behaviors that are unhealthy — for instance, trying to alleviate stressful situations by drinking too much caffeine or abusing tranquilizers. Instead, it is important to cultivate healthy ways to deal with stress such as exercising.

Kanter shares that another form to abuse self-care is by using it as a way to avoid work and responsibilities. Thus, she urges her readers to consider the impact of their self-care practices in the organization and in their own reputation. Are these practices creating more stress for the team, and eventually resentment toward you? Are you considered a person who truly is taking care of yourself or a slacker? Proper self-care should lead to an eventual increase of a person’s performance and fulfillment at both personal and organizational levels.

A third way to abuse self-care, Kanter mentions, is by ignoring it, “thinking that you have to sacrifice everything for your work to achieve results.” This third way is common for people who are in ministry.

Sometimes ignoring self-care may be fueled by our love for ministry. In my case, I am so passionate about what I do that I can do it all the time because often it does not feel like work. However, I must keep reminding myself that if I follow this course of action it will kill me (literally), sooner than later.

Others may ignore self-care because they experience a messianic complex that makes them feel indispensable. They feel that if they are not present, ministry will not get done and the world will fall apart. While everybody is necessary, nobody is indispensable but God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

How can we deal with these intricacies in self-care? Kanter suggests that we honor the sacred around us. As Christians we can easily identify with this line of thought. On the one hand, if we see our work/ministry as sacred, as a gift from God, we will do it in the most excellent way, investing our best energy. Here there is no room to use self-care as an excuse to not do our work because even though we have our earthly bosses, in reality we work for Christ (Col. 3:23).

On the other hand, our bodies and families are sacred, too! They are a gift from the same God whom we serve (1 Cor. 6:19; Psalm 127:3), and as such God is pleased when we honor them by taking good care of them.

Finally, self-care is challenging because once we discern what we need, and realize that indeed our self-care practices are a responsible way to increase our personal and organizational fulfillment and performance, it will demand new charts to follow. It will ask for changes, and change is hard. In addition, it will require discipline in maintaining these changes.

Self-care is complex, but thankfully we have good models in Christianity. After laboring hard to complete the work of creation, God enjoyed a day of rest/Sabbath (Gen. 2:1-3). Jesus rested, too, and then continued with his ministry of teaching, healing and doing miracles (Matt. 14:23; Mark 7:24).

Many times ministers like to have in their offices framed biblical verses that encourage them to do more, work harder and sacrifice more. However, a verse that perhaps many of us should have is the one where Jesus invites his disciples to rest: “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31).

While the road to self-care may be bumpy, I believe it is the only way to move forward in our personal and ministerial lives. Personally, it is the path that will allow me to stay healthy and offer a continued presence/contribution to the ministry and family that I so much love.

Nora Lozano is professor of theological studies and director of the Latina Leadership Institute at Baptist University of the Américas in San Antonio, Texas. This story first appeared in Baptist News Global.