The Keys to Self-Care
Benefits for Both You and Your Congregation
Guest Columnist, Dr. Elmer Colyer
We all know that it is one of our dirty little secrets as clergy. We are trained to take care of other people and we do to the very best of our ability. However, we often are not as adept or as conscientious at taking care of ourselves. This lack of attention to our own lives often leads pastors into ill health and/or deep discouragement. In addition, the issue of self-care and severity of the problems it creates when we don’t engage in it gets worse as we get older.
I am not contributing to this blog to make anyone feel guilty, ashamed, or further burdened in the midst of our very challenging vocation of pastoral ministry. I understand the struggle as it has been on ongoing issue for me for the entire 36 years I have been in ministry. In addition to being a seminary professor, I have been a pastor since 1980, including serving churches on the side for 12 of my 25 years as a professor. I am currently working with a troubled and conflicted congregation helping them move into a better future. So I might be able to be helpful because I have had many years of experience, plus a fair amount of reading and research in this whole are of clergy health and wellness.
In addition, I am an elite bike racer and a USA Cycling Level 1 Certified Power-Based Training Coach, the highest cycle coaching certification in the USA. And I am 60 years old. Ya, a geezer-jock, as some label us. LOL. I have found that I am way more effective and way more efficient in ministry because I have been an avid cyclist since 1984. I did not start racing bikes until my sons were all raised and out of the house and I had a bit more time. Prior to that I biked and did some other forms of exercise for fun and for health and wellness. So let me share some things I have learned that might be helpful in this whole area of clergy health and wellness.
One of the interesting studies that done within the last 25 years is the Harvard study around aging. Harvard studied people who aged well. For most of the 20th century geriatrics and the medical professions perspective on health and wellness in the second half of life was based on studies done earlier in the 20th century of people who did not age well.
The Harvard study has revolutionized our understanding of the aging process. What we know now is that life after 45 does not have to be a gradual slide into the grave. Indeed what we are discovering is that people can live incredibly healthy lives, even athletic lives, much longer than we ever dreamed possible before the Harvard study.
One of the spin‑offs of this change is that we are finding that aging athletes perform incredibly well against their younger competitors beyond what anyone would have dreamed possible 30 years ago. So a couple years ago at the USA cycling Masters National bike races, the fastest 40K time trial of all of those competing from 30 on up was done by a guy who was 51 years old. He literally beat dozens and dozens and dozens the top amateur athletes in North America between 30 and 40 years old despite being over 50.
The same physiology that enables aging athletes to perform so well is accessible to the vast majority of people over 50 years old. What this means is that by switching to a healthy diet and consistent exercise, people over 50, even those who not in very good physical shape, can not only improve, but can actually become biologically younger than their numerical age. Because of various biological changes after 50 our bodies need not only cardiovascular work (walking, running, biking, swimming, etc.), but also strength training and stretching routines so that we can maintain our range of motion and not lose our muscle strength. This doesn't mean that you have to go to a gym and pump iron. There are a bunch of exercises that we can do by simply using our body weight as resistance or using inexpensive stretchy thick rubber bands designed to produce the resistance that muscle needs.
The even bigger pay-off that comes from moving to a healthy life-style is its affect upon all the other areas of life. We human beings, not bodies with an additional "soul" different from and residing within our bodies. We are totally interconnected. So when we eat an unhealthy diet and live a physically unhealthy lifestyle, it affects everything else, including our mental abilities, our emotions, our relationships with others, etc. Healthy eating and exercise for the vast majority of people actually have an incredibly positive effect upon their emotional state, self-esteem, and overall sense of well‑being. A healthy diet and exercise are huge in warding off stress and in dealing with depression, and they increase our energy level and reserves. There is a reason why we hear some athletes talk about a runner's or athlete's "high" that comes with exercise. There are deep biochemical reasons for this.
So one of the key steps we pastors can take to improve our quality of life is to start our self-care at the bottom level of our hierarchy of needs: our physical well-being simply because it will contribute positively to our well-being at the higher levels as well. I promise that if you take some steps to improve your diet and engage in regular exercise it will have a tremendous positive effect all many areas of your life and it ways that may even surprise you.
Here are some suggestions:
1. Start with several doable small steps.
-Eat healthy for 2 meals a day or 5 days of the week or 75% of the time as your first step in the right direction. IF you don't know the basics of eating healthy, do a google search and you can learn the basics in 10 minutes.
-Go for a 10-15 minute walk or bike ride 3-4 times a week, and build up to 30-45 minutes.
-Find someone to go with you on this journey, a friend or a spouse for support and to help you keep at it.
2. After a month, if you want to get more serious I highly recommend the book, YOUNGER NEXT YEAR, by Chris Crowley and Henry Lodge. It is a very funny but extremely helpful book about staying healthy as we age. It will tell you most of what you need to know to live healthy.
3. If you are really out of shape and over-weight, you will want to see your doctor before you launch into a vigorous exercise program. Doing too much when we are not ready can be dangerous. I make every athlete I coach get a physical before I put them into rigorous exercise program. I guy I have coached for a number of years hit 55 this year and I suggested that it was time for get another complete physical. His physician discovered a 4 cm aneurysm on one of the arteries supplying blood to his heart. Needless to say, we quickly modified his training program! It is always good to see the doctor before launching into an exercise program.
I have peddled away a lot of frustration and stress over many years. I have also had some profoundly moving times of prayer while peddling my away up and over the rolling hills around Dubuque. Some days it is just plain fun. And some days it is totally boring and I don’t feel like doing it. But eating healthy and biking have been a huge blessing and benefit. Maybe I will see you out on the road or even at a race.
I would be happy to answer questions or be helpful in other ways if you are interested in moving into a healthier life in that amazing vocation we call pastoral ministry.
Dr. Elmer Colyer is an experienced pastor, professor, and coach. He is an ordained pastor and elder in the Wisconsin Conference of the United Methodist Church and serves as Professor of Systematic Theology and Stanley Professor of Wesley Studies at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, where he is also Director of the United Methodist Studies Program. In addition to being an elite bike racer and coach, he is also deeply committed to clergy coaching. I am extremely grateful for his wisdom and friendship, as well as his willingness to contribute to Rural Pastors.