Self Care for Spiritual Leaders in the Era of COVID-19

I was at the breaking point. Several weeks had passed since Haiti’s January 12, 2010 earthquake where an estimated 200,000 people had died and much of Haiti’s largest city and capital, Port-au-Prince, had been leveled. The preceding days were overwhelming and exhausting. Counseling the bereaved, repairing my home, stockpiling and delivering relief supplies, and searching for lost colleagues was ripping me apart on the inside. Relationships were fraying. I finally realized that if I was going to be of any use to God and my fellow human beings, I had to stop and attend to myself.

Today’s COVID-19 crisis is a global trauma. People are losing their jobs, being separated from families and friends, and experiencing illness and death. In times of trauma, people look to their spiritual leaders for care and support. Spiritual leaders willingly provide that support, often with little awareness of its emotional cost and the ways in which they themselves have experienced trauma.

The more pain spiritual leaders encounter, the more they pour themselves into ministry and the less they pay attention to their own well-being. Spiritual leaders will neglect rest, prayer, exercise, socializing with family friends, and even meals. The result is predictable: mental and emotional exhaustion, frayed and broken relationships, and, in some cases, substance abuse, aggression, and mental illness.

If we as pastors and lay-leaders want to be a light to our churches, employees, and neighbors during these troubling times, we must heed God’s call to attend to ourselves. Yes, God calls us to pick up our crosses and follow Christ. But we must remember that Christ who died once for all on the Cross for us. God calls Christian leaders to rest in the sacrifice of the Cross even as they serve selflessly.

There are ways we can attend to ourselves as leaders during these times: First, we can make regular times of prayer and reflection a priority. Even in the midst of governmental restrictions against travel and movement, we can regularly exercise. Be creative! We can make time to share our experience of stress and trauma with friends and loved ones even while social-distancing. This is key for emotional health.

Finally, we can make space for rest and sleep. By doing these (and many others), we can be the pastors, organizational leaders, and lay-leaders God is calling us to be in these challenging times. What God will do through us will be amazing!

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