July 18, 2021*
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. –Mark 6:30-31
Sound familiar? Not a lot has changed in a couple thousand years, has it? There is still more work to be done than there are hours in a day, and burnout, compassion fatigue, and stress-related health issues are prominent among those who work in “helping” professions and vocations.
This week’s gospel lesson provides a strong wake-up call to all who lead and serve in the church: if you want to be an effective disciple and leader, then you must be a good steward of yourself first. Think of the familiar instructions that flight attendants review before take-off. If that oxygen mask drops down, you had better put it on your own face in order to be prepared to help others. If we don’t take care of ourselves, how can we possibly take care of God’s people? And lest you think this admonition is solely directed at vocational church workers, think again. All who serve in ministry programs, Christian education, or on councils, vestry, or committees need to be aware of good personal stewardship. Those of us who lead must also model effective stewardship of the self for others.
Even though the average work week for American workers technically has fallen over the years, such statistics can be misleading. In fact, a study released in 2001 by the United Nations International Labor Organization found that Americans work longer hours than any other workers in the industrialized world. Americans also tend to take less paid vacation than their counterparts around the globe–two weeks rather than the four to six weeks European workers get.
Granted, a lot has changed since the days when many in the labor force punched a clock and worked regular, dependable hours. The economy, globalization, technology, and a more flexible and permeable work culture have shifted the way work is viewed but has also contributed to heightened stress and longer hours. Many workers simply must put in extra time (sometimes unpaid) just to keep their jobs.
This reality means both vocational church workers and people in the pews are feeling the stress of more work hours, multiple priorities, and less emphasis on Sabbath and self-care. It isn’t likely that this environment is likely to change any time soon, so we need to take a cue from Jesus’ example of leadership and model good self care for those we serve/lead, something clergy have done a poor job of overall.
If we are to model compassion and show mercy as disciples of Christ, our spiritual, emotional, and physical batteries need regular recharging. Otherwise, our joy and delight in service risks becoming mere duty, and sharing the gospel an obligation rather than a passion and lifestyle. Remember that stewardship is about all of life, not just the contents of one’s pocketbook. If you are the picture of perfect health, congratulations and great job! Make sure to encourage others to follow your lead in a realistic and healthy way. If you fall far short of the wellness mark, consider what you might need to do to make changes and how you could invite others into the conversation and process. As we share our struggles with self-care and how we try to do better, we give others permission to admit their struggles, hurts, and pain. Together, as the Body of Christ, we have the opportunity to encourage one another and hold each other accountable for wellness , wholeness, and stewardship of all of God’s good gifts.
As you know from reading the rest this week’s passage from Mark’s gospel, the disciples never got that much needed respite that Jesus encouraged them to take–at least not on this particular occasion. There was work to be done, and people to help. Sometimes even our best laid plans for rest, exercise, or relaxation get derailed. Don’t give up. Keep trying to feed yourself even as you feed others. Don’t let your emotional, physical, or spiritual well run dry. The entire Body will suffer.
Are you including an opportunity in your worship for a laying on of hands and prayers for healing? If not, why not consider it? Remind people that part of being equipped as disciples to serve the world involves taking care of their own spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being. Many major denominations include wording to include in worship or to use as a “stand-alone” rite.
If you have an adult Sunday school class or forum, consider showing HBO’s excellent series on obesity in America, called The Weight of the Nation. This four-part series is excellent and will make for good discussion. Consider pairing the series with short temple talks by your Parish Nurse and/or other health professionals or those who have undergone major transformations from poor to good health.
Use this opportunity to promote a late summer or early fall health fair. Encourage the congregation to get moving and be active. Many denominations offer programs to assist in this effort; three links are offered here, but do check your denomination’s website and partner resources.
Talk about what it means to be healthy. Consider using the ELCA Wholeness wheel as a model, or watch the third episode of HBO’s The Weight of the Nation. If you want to look at the issue from a justice perspective, consider talking about food deserts and the difficulty many Americans have accessing good food.
Children and teens are prime marketing targets for fast food and convenience foods that ultimately do little to provide good nutrition and long term wellness. Consider examining some of these marketing ploys.
Invite a local family farmer and/or organic farmer in to talk with the teens about local food resources and why whole foods are so important. If you have a dietician or trainer in the parish, invite that person to talk about exercise and healthy diet.
Invite youth to explore why it might be important for them as Christians to set good examples for peers. Use the wellness wheel to talk about all aspects of wellness.
A child is never too young to begin to learn about good stewardship of self. In fact, the church is one place that can offer a countercultural wellness message in the midst of a host of unhealthy consumer-oriented advertising. Here’s a link that offers many potential resources for curriculum development and fun activities. Use your imagination and make it fun. Jesus had a special place for children in his heart and ministry; we should, too.
For a children’s sermon, invite children to bring their favorite blanket or pillow for a blessing. Since Jesus talked about getting away to rest, you might talk with children about the importance of sleep. You could also challenge children to make tie blankets to give to a local children’s and women’s or homeless shelter so that others can rest in safety and security.
This is also a good time to review what your congregation is doing to keep children and families safe. Do you have an active child protection policy? If not, please consider the resources your denomination may offer to assist you in putting one in place. A good book to read is Safe Sanctuaries by Joy Thornburg Melton.
*This reflection was first published in 2012.