When the Pastor is the Caregiver at Work and at Home

When the Pastor is the Caregiver at Work and at Home

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How can clergy juggle family caregiving and the stress of serving their flock during a pandemic, racial injustice, hurricanes, and the divisive political climate?

Even in “normal” times family/work balance, meeting everyone’s needs, carrying the burdens of others, and the reality of the call to serve as a pastor takes a toll on one’s health and well-being.  When one’s career centers on care for others, becoming a primary caregiver for a loved one requires even greater attention to self-care.
 
Sometimes we, as lay people, forget that clergy are regular people too.  As regular people, despite their role as professional pastors, advisors, caretakers of mind, body and spirit through Christ, clergy need someone to care for them! Clergy have responsibilities for their families, relationships, homes, and bills along with the rest of the human race. 
 
The nature of being called by God to serve others can lead to an inability to care for one’s self because there are always others in need. It is important to recognize that everyone needs and deserves time for self-care. I’m sure you have heard instructions from a flight attendant to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others in the case of a loss of air pressure on the plane.  We cannot care for anyone if we do not have the physical, spiritual, and emotional energy required.  The gas tank in your car needs to be refilled regularly, your body needs food and water regularly, your soul needs rest and renewal too. Even God “rested on the seventh day” (Genesis 2:2).
 
While it may seem impossible to rest, I assure you that your responsibilities and tasks will proceed much more smoothly when you take time for yourself.  Stress creates all kinds of physical and emotional responses in our bodies that make even simple tasks harder. Neck pain, headaches, depression, mood swings, anxiety, feelings of emptiness, increased heart rate, blood pressure and elevated blood sugar are all symptoms of stress that reduce our ability to function effectively.
 
The Family Caregiver Alliance reports 60% of caregivers suffer from and take medication for anxiety and depression. Family caregivers are often quickly thrust into the caregiving role feeling unprepared and overwhelmed.  Many caregivers, pastors included, think it is selfish to put their needs first.  They feel that they are the only one who can help.  Many have trouble admitting their limits and asking for help. These attitudes and beliefs can be obstacles in the way of good self-care.
 
The first step toward self-care is recognizing the signs that you are stressed or overwhelmed.  Are you feeling depressed, sad, anxious, irritable?  Are you having trouble sleeping, skipping meals or choosing unhealthy foods and beverages? If the answer is “Yes” to any of these questions take an objective look at what is causing the stress. Maybe there are some things that can be changed to reduce stress.
 
Setting small goals can enhance self-care.  Lean on a trusted friend. Allow your support network to help. Take a 15-minute walk, or even 5 deep calm breaths when you are feeling anxious, to promote well-being.  Remember asking for and accepting help from others gives them the opportunity to feel good about helping you!  A neighbor could pick up groceries, a family member can be in charge of medication refills, or insurance paperwork. 

A counselor, therapist or spiritual director may be a much-needed support.  In times of family caregiving there is often a major illness or injury that brings a sense of loss and grief to the forefront.  It is important to accept the emotions that go along with the loss of a loved one’s health and independence.  Anger, guilt, and even resentment are very real and normal reactions to the reality of caregiving.
 
Rely on your faith; remember God will help you carry your burdens. As Jesus says in John 14:27, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
 
A recent article on Baptist News Global, titled “Too Many Pastors are Falling on Their Own Sword”, addressed the toll leading a congregation through this unprecedented year is taking on the mental health of clergy. The advice to clergy is to recognize boundaries, delegate what can be delegated, rely on friendships, counselors and peers for support. These self-care techniques can be applied when clergy are family caregivers too. 
 
The bottom line is that clergy are human too!  Clergy and lay ministers, congregants and friends all get overwhelmed, try to do too much and neglect self-care.  We can help each other through stressful times. We can lighten each other’s burdens. We can accept for ourselves, and share with each other, the grace and the love of God.
 
Resources for Family Caregivers:
 
American Stroke Association: Caregiver Resources
 
Approaching Clergy Health Holistically
 
Care and Counseling for The Caregiver: Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
 
Family Caregiver Alliance
 
11 Self-Care Reminders for Clergy and Other Caregivers

Author

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Deborah Ringen

Deborah Ringen is Transitional Minister of Health and Wellness for the Southern New England Conference, UCC.

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