Finding True Self-Care in Pastoral Ministry

by Bishop Kristen Kuempel

Bishop Kristen Kuempel

When I was a senior at Luther Seminary, I experienced a gift that I didn’t even realize was a gift until later. My pastoral care professor was the late Dr. Richard Wallace. I went into his class with some skepticism—new professors are always an unknown quantity, and a black professor in the early 00s was even more of an anomaly than they are today. I wondered if he could really be Lutheran enough, as if Lutheranism is a quantifiable commodity.

Clearly, Dr. Wallace was fighting an uphill battle against a young woman who believed she knew more about suffering and Lutheranism than he did. It was a battle he won quite neatly in his first lecture, and I remember telling my friends (in the youthful parlance of the day), “Dr. Wallace rocked my face off!”

He took us, a roomful of seminary seniors, most of us freshly returned from internship where we had gazed into the dark underbelly of the beast and learned that we were not quite the churchly badasses we thought we were, and taught us how to triage the work of ministry. He took us into Luther’s Large Catechism and taught us about vocation: When demands are coming at us without mercy, we are to address them in the following vocational order:

  1. As a partner.
  2. As a parent.
  3. As a pastor.

I have used this list nearly every day of ministry ever since, roughly 6,935 of them. I was always clear with congregations that when all my vocations need me, this is the order those needs will be addressed, because keeping the proper vocational order helps me fulfill all those vocations more effectively.


Where does the person fit into that? What if I need to connect to myself independent of who I am in relationship with other people? Can I be a good partner, parent or minister if I’m disconnected from myself and my identity as a beloved child of God?

Five hundred years ago, when Luther was developing his theology—a living and active theology that shaped and was shaped by the world around it—it took weeks or months for messages to reach their intended audience. The pace of life was radically different. Now we send and receive missives in mere seconds, from anywhere in the world. Even mindlessly scrolling through our social media can turn into work with a mere brush of our thumb against a screen.  Where can we go to rest from that level of availability? Where do we find or draw the boundaries that will keep us in this gig for the long haul?

For many of us, “self-care” is a loaded word. We’ve been taught that self-care is indulgent. We’ve been taught that self-care is reading the Bible for something other than sermon or Bible study prep; maybe getting up an hour early to have “personal time with God” before everyone else in the house is awake; or we’ve been taught that if we’re doing the work of ministry correctly, the work in and of itself is self-care. For years I struggled with the fact that what I had been told was self-care looked and felt an awful lot like…work. And while I love this call with every particle of my being, it is still a job. I thought perhaps I was broken, because all the models of self-care I had been taught didn’t work. Or maybe I was a fraud—if I truly loved Jesus, I would want to spend my free time reading the Bible, right? But to be honest, the idea of getting up an hour early for anyone—even Jesus—was closer to self-torture than self-care. And recently, as the importance of self-care has been recognized across professional fields, my distinct lack of self-care became just another burden I bore—another “should” that I wasn’t doing.

Maybe this sounds familiar to you.

Don’t get me wrong. If the discipline of daily time in the word and prayer work for you, great! Keep it up! They seem to work for my husband. His devotionals look well-used. I have a pristine set of “Bread for the Day” devotionals reaching back several years—only the first 10 days of any given year have been read! I’ve got devotionals for women, devotionals based on Luther’s writings, devotionals based on the two-year lectionary, devotionals based on different biblical heroes. I have various schedules for reading the entire Bible in one, two or three years. I have the NIV, the NRSV, the CEV and the Message Bibles. All beckoned to me with the promise that this time I would crack the riddle of self-care. I would become a disciplined reader of the Word of God for personal care and edification. But for me, the fact that I use the word “discipline” for these activities indicates how my spirit reacts to them.

How do we learn to care for ourselves as people, as partners, as parents and as ministers when the ways we’ve been told “count” as self-care don’t work for us? And why is it so important that we do so?

The Church is facing a shift that it hasn’t faced since the days of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther first wrote down ways that professional ministers can balance the load of partners and family and parish. In the United States this shift has resulted in the loss of our “most favored faith” status, to the delight of some and despair of others. Our congregations and structures are aging. Our budgets are shrinking. We’re expected to somehow recreate the “lightning in a bottle” moment that was the post-WWII population and economic boom—even though literally NOTHING is the same now as it was then.

Youth ministers are held responsible for parents’ inability to get their youngsters to church. We spend vast quantities of our resources trying to reverse the downward trends, as if we have any control over or responsibility for them. We find ourselves defending our sliver of the annual budget more and more, many of us working below synod compensation guidelines because we love this work so much that it’s literally killing us. Is it any wonder that so many of us are leaving ministry after our first call, never to return again? I don’t think so.

We talk about the Church dying. We look around. Empty pews. Leaky roofs. Faltering furnaces. Too many funerals. Not enough baptisms. I’m not sure that can be classified as “dying.” I’m pretty sure that the Church many of us grew up with, the Church in the United States that roots itself in the “good old days” of the 50s and 60s is already dead. I think we might be in “Tomb Time”—not alive, but feeling resurrection beginning to bubble in our bloodstream. And what the Church needs in this liminal time between death and resurrection is leaders who are adaptive, imaginative, bold, resilient, hopeful, willing to make mistakes and then willing to make different ones.

Leaders who cling to the promises given to us in baptism and not let anyone—even the Church herself—convince us they are not true. We have been reborn children of God. We have been renamed. We have been re-membered into the Body of Christ. God is in the midst of us, and we shall not be overcome. But when we are in a place where our hope, our imagination, our resiliency is gone, this word sounds too good to be true.

Seen in this light, the light of the coming resurrection, the self-care practiced by Church leaders becomes critical to the future of the Church herself! Encouraging my congregational leaders to take their days off, to take all their vacation time, to take care of themselves is akin to the flight attendant reminding passengers to affix their own oxygen mask before assisting others. As leaders, we have been called by God to preach life into death and to bear witness to the light of the coming resurrection dawn—this is the most important work we do! And the reality is that we cannot do this work from a place of exhaustion. If you cannot hear the Gospel, you cannot preach the Gospel, and frankly, the Gospel is all we have left.

I want to be clear: Preaching the gospel is not solely the work of the preacher on Sunday morning. Preaching the gospel is to speak, with absolute clarity and conviction, that God has not abandoned us. That the love that has surrounded us from our birth is still here, holding us, filling us, loving us so that we can love one another. The gospel is all that we need—but we need to be in a place where we can hear it. Self-care reconnects us to the Creator—and reminds us that we do not need to solve all the world’s problems. Living through our baptismal identities, we will be the solution God provides to the world. Self-care brings us to a place where we can imagine new ways of communicating the message, can be resilient enough that failures don’t make us want to give up—they make us want to try something different, learn from our mistakes and move into the future God has for us.

If this sounds like a hell of a lot of work, it is. But in the end, it’s the only work that truly matters. And in order to do that, we have to take care of ourselves. So rest. Find what connects you to your primary vocation: being a child of God. Once you do that, it will no longer feel indulgent. It will feel as necessary as breath. Sink into it like it’s a beanbag chair in the youth room, and Jesus is grinning at you from beside the foosball table. Don’t worry about if it’s “holy” enough. If it replenishes you to do the work God has called you to, God will make it holy.  And in that holiness, you will find what you are looking for. You will find God. You will find rest. You will find imagination. And perhaps most precious of all, you will find hope.

Kristen Kuempel serves as the bishop of the Northwest Intermountain Synod (formerly Eastern WA-ID) and was elected in 2017. Her most reliable forms of self-care are gardening, hiking, photography and time with her family.

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