Unplugging (And a Demo of “Tell Myself”)

A few weeks back I was in a church meeting, and the self-care of ministers came up.

A longtime Northaven member, who’s seen a lot of things, told me, “Eric, I think you do an excellent job at self-care. Better than any other minister I’ve  known.”

She was mainly commenting on the fact that I’ve faithfully taken regular bike rides these past few summers. Physically, we all agreed that night, I am taking much better care of myself than I used to.

But I must tell you a thought that crept into my mind as she said this. Instead of taking her compliment at face value, instead of seeing it as the genuine compliment I now know (in my right mind) that she intended it to be, my self-critical voice told me other, more negative things.

“Maybe she’s trying to tell you that you take too much time off…”
“Maybe it’s a passive-aggressive critique of riding your bike when you should be doing other things…”

Again, the time and distance of several weeks have allowed me to embrace that genuinely sincere thought on her part. But it gets at a greater problem in my own spiritual life.

I feel guilty when I take time off.

It’s not that I don’t take time off. I do. Maybe, as she says, better than average? Hard to judge. I just know that I feel terribly, terribly guilty when I do. When I do, I sense invisible critics judging my choices, critiquing my clock, and saving up ammunition for some future self-esteem attack.

Who are these invisible critics?

I don’t know. Phantoms of church members? Tapes from childhood? Inner critics molded in my imagination’s art studio? Expectations of “ministry” that I assume to be true?

Probably all of these and more. But it almost doesn’t matter where they come from. The point is, those negative voices happen.

Whether it’s a single Friday (my alleged “day off”) or a week of vacation, there has seldom been a time in the past twenty years when I haven’t felt an incredible sense of guilt and inner-conflict over taking time away. In fact, the only vacation that I didn’t feel this sense of guilt was our twenty-year anniversary trip last year. That kind of seminal moment –twenty years of being married– was so momentous that even the phantom critics couldn’t ruin that time for me.

But….every other time I leave town, I’ve got a tape that plays in my head…

What if something happens to Dennise and Maria while I’m gone?
What if something happens to somebody at the church?

Sometimes, the tapes play the entire time I’m supposed to be somewhere else. On the top of some mountain. Staring at the sea. Paying attention to my family. All the while, I’m secretly somewhere else…in the prison of my worry.

The secret is, I’m not alone. If you know a clergy person, there’s a better-than-average chance that they struggle with these same issues.

When you know it or not, ministers tend to be pretty bad at self-care. I’ve come to believe it’s something of an occupational hazard. To ever follow this calling in the first place, you’ve got to have a certain level of dedication to helping others, and a willingness to sacrifice your own needs. Which often means putting those needs on hold.

This inability to unplug manifests externally in measurable ways. On the main, clergy are sicker than the average population. Clergy tend to be more overweight than other professions. In fact, a North Carolina survey found that we’re eleven percent more obese than the average population.

A great story about this survey ran in the Christian Century a few years back:

“Being a pastor is bad for your health. Pastors have little time for exercise. They often eat meals in the car or at potluck dinners not known for their fresh green salads. The demands on their time are unpredictable and never ending, and their days involve an enormous amount of emotional investment and energy. Family time is intruded upon. When a pastor announces a vacation, the congregation frowns. Pastors tend to move too frequently to maintain relationships with doctors who might hold them accountable for their health. The profession discourages them from making close friends. All of this translates, studies show, into clergy having higher than normal rates of obesity, arthritis, depression, heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes and stress.”

The story cites a Duke University study, where the researchers coined a term for why all this happens. They call it “the sanctification of work.”

The Christian Century story describes the term this way:

“If minsters perceive that they must choose between their own health and the health of their congregations, they will nearly always choose the latter, observed Proeschold-Bell. In part this is because of a phenomenon she calls (citing the research of Kenneth Pargament and Annette Mahoney) the “sanctification of work.” Clergy see their work not only as important but as divinely ordained. Whenever they act on behalf of their congregations, they are living in faithfulness to their vocations. When they leave work to go to the gym, they may see themselves as departing not just from a building but from doing God’s work. This is not an easy problem to overcome. Health behaviors don’t always have a ready-made theological justification. And the sanctification of work means that work will nearly always take priority.”

In my view, it goes even further. This “sanctification of work” is really “sanctification of ministry.” And there is always, always, always ministry you could be doing instead of taking care of yourself. There is never a moment…in any day…in any month…in any year…when we clergy couldn’t be doing something ministry-related.

I also believe that there’s an added, and twisted, internal logic we clergy use on ourselves. You see, we also hear those old jokes people tell. You know the ones…

“Must be nice to only work on Sundays!”

Those jokes stick inside our souls. So, to compensate, some of us tend to work even more. Even harder. And, we tend to hear the encouragement to take time off as a critique that we must be performing poorly in our work. So, instead of taking time away, we should stay put and double-down.

And, frankly, we look around and see out-of-work, or underemployed, church members. We see folks working two and three jobs, just to get by. And this too makes us want to work harder. (“How did we get so lucky?”)

I mean, they wouldn’t just tell us to take time off because it’s a good thing, would they? If somebody tells us to take care of ourselves, it must be, we rationalize, because of an unsaid worry that we’re doing our jobs poorly.

These are the twisted thoughts that go through our heads. And they pile-on to this already pre-existent “sanctification of work” and work to keep from taking the time we should.

Where I’m going with all this is that I’m currently in Kerrville, Texas. I’m just about to leave town, after almost a week at the Kerrville Folk Festival. I go every year at this time. Hanging out with my musician friends is like a sacred pilgrimage for me. Seeings folks that I can only see for these few days in May is an incredibly rich, and healing, blessing.

Tuesday morning sunrise at Camp Coho.
Tuesday morning sunrise at Camp Coho.

I like to describe what they mean to me in this way…

I have a beautiful family. I have a wonderful church. But Kerrville, and all my musician friends, they are my tribe.

And the only way to stay connected with them is to spend time with them.

But, as per usual, for the past few weeks I’ve been dreading getting away. It’s been a busy Spring. Dennise’s Mom died. We’ve had stressful staff changes that have required a great deal of extra time and energy. The transition to summer with a teenager is stressful.

There were a million reasons to not leave town. Not to go.

I went anyway. Partly because I’d been doing things like missing appointments (two in one day) and forgetting to tell people about calendar events. These, it seemed to me, were signs that I probably needed to take the time.

But I felt guilty about it every day leading up to it. I was busily making calls the whole way down in the car. I wasn’t really “there” when I arrived.

But then a funny thing happened. I set up my tent, I climbed inside at 11 pm Thursday night (Insanely early, by Kerrville standards. (11 pm is like 5:30 in the afternoon at Kerrville…). And I slept until NOON the next day. Noon! Thirteen hours. Unheard of for me, even at home in my warm, comfortable bed. Much less at a music festival in a tent.

That told me something, huh? Thirteen hours…


But just when it felt like I might be adjusting to being at the festival, the phone rang.

It was a call from the church. A much beloved, longterm member of the church had had a stroke, and was in ICU. (We’ll call him Jim). I was told he might not survive even a day or two more.

Suddenly, it seems like just at the moment I was unplugging, I might need to rush home asap.

Jim’s wife Mary (not her name either) is an artist herself. And when I called her on the phone a short while later, she told me something very close to the following…

“Eric, this is your mother talking. Do not come home. Stay there. I know you are praying for us. And I also know how that festival re-energizes you, and what great sermons you preach when you get back. I want to hear those great sermons when you return. So, stay there…”

I cannot tell you the genuine moment of grace that this was, and how this assuaged my own fears. First, as a fellow artist, she understood the need to connect with my musician friends. Secondly, she understood the need to “unplug.”

So, I did not rush back home. I’ve kept them in constant prayer, though, even as I stayed connected and present here. And I’ve relied on a fantastic team of staff that has been keeping close tabs on the family.

And my first stop tomorrow, when I’m back, will be to see Mary and Jim at the hospital.

The sad truth, however, is hard to admit. Had Mary not shown me such grace, I probably would have rushed home.

The painful truth is: Mary, even preoccupied with the love of her life in ICU, was kinder to me than I was to myself.

So, I’ve been thinking about that. Which led me back to an old song I’d written a few years ago, when I was struggling with these very same issues of self-care. It was never quite done. So, I tweaked it a bit this week, and think I’m finally got a “done” version.

It’s not just about me. It’s really not even about ministers, per se. It’s about all of us, and those lethal inner voices that keep us from being our true selves.

A quickly dashed-off demo below….

Look, here are two final things I’d say about all this.

First, if you think this is all overly tortured, or overly sensitive, I’d sincerely suggest that just about every minister you know wrestles with these same issues to one extent or another. (A whole lot of other professionals do too…)

Many of us are overweight. Many of us put down, and put aside, the parts of life that bring us “joy,” in our zeal to please God and our congregations. And I haven’t even touched the challenges, stresses, and sacrifices that our clergy families make alongside of us.

Some clergy are so removed from the need to unplug that they never, ever, do it. And they gradually build up seething resentments inside themselves and project those on to others.

So, the first final thought is…this is not just my issue. It’s very pervasive. Which is why, even though I unplugged well this week, I did turn on the computer today,  to write this down before heading home.

Even as much as I fret and toil about unplugging, I’m blessed that somehow even in the midst of those voices, I do it now and then.

The second final thought, and request, is this…

Please don’t respond with a lot of comforting, supportive comments about taking time away.

You see, the critical voice inside my head (and the heads of many clergy) will simply twist those kind words into a critique. (“They are really telling me… “Work harder””).

We don’t really need your sympathy as much as your understanding and compassion. Because we’re constantly re-learning the humbling lesson that we are not God. The world can go on without us. And those critical voices are, on the main, illusions of our own making with which we are called to wrestle.

Just know that we wrestle with these demons far more than you might realize.
And pray for us as we seek to unplug and find balance.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

4 thoughts on “Unplugging (And a Demo of “Tell Myself”)

    1. That storm literally formed and exploded right on top of us.
      A minute before I hit “on” it was sunny.
      Two minutes after I hit “off” it was pouring rain and hailing.
      Crazy stuff.

  1. Powerful, Eric. I’m five months into retirement and still feeling guilt about all I left undone–and am still recovering from the almost unfathomably deep exhaustion I was experiencing when I left the work I loved–and which was about to kill me. But I’m slowly learning how to play, to be able to simply sit and fully enjoy the moment of a concert and not let my mind be distracted by that ever-nagging voice, to have long, leisurely conversations with friends. Simple pleasures, most of which I had routinely denied myself.

    1. I would love to read your thoughts on these issues too, my friend.
      It’s an interesting paradox….if we *can’t* do these things….if our spiritual DNA seems to be preventing us….then how are *we,* as shepherds ever really going to lead others to the same?

      One of the things I meant to say, but didn’t, is that working on self-care is modeling how we’re *all* supposed to live. The corporate culture that infests every part of American life (if we let it) fully supports over-working and under-resting. But the Church, and its leadership, should be different…right?

      Yet, even this powerful rationalization is not usually enough to push us toward healthy living.

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