Self-care was not “a thing” when I was in seminary or early in my professional career. I certainly didn’t see good self-care modeled by my workaholic minister father or any of my ministry mentors. Instead I learned about self-care from my students. They taught me the value of unplugging from email, walking away from the chaos for a day or two, taking time for friends and family, caring for my physical body, and finding space in the calendar for rest and renewal. That seems to be a pattern in my life—my students are my best teachers!
But it was Bernard of Clairvaux, a twelfth century monk, who was my teacher about soul care. What can I say? I am a church historian.
Bernard wrote these words:
“Those who are wise, therefore, will see their lives more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself . . . Today there are many in the church who act like canals. The reservoirs are far too rare. You must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God.”
Over the years, Bernard has called me to over and over again, reminding me that I must be a reservoir, continually being filled by the springs of renewing water. I must take good care of my soul, because while ministry CAN be done as a canal—canal ministry is not lasting or sustainable. I cannot give, you cannot give, what we do not have. We cannot share grace if we have not received it.
During my sabbatical leave last fall, I knew that I needed to incorporate better practices of soul care into my daily life. I must confess that spiritual practices for me have most often fallen to the bottom of my “To Do” list and have been crowded out by all the “important tasks” of my day. Maintaining life-giving spiritual practices has always been hard for me (if confession is good for the soul, I guess this confession is part of my soul care, right?)
So back to my sabbatical. During those weeks in which I had lots of time and an empty calendar, I set aside time each day for prayer—making time each morning to speak words of gratitude for God’s goodness and care, to invite God into those my areas of challenge and stress, and to sit for a few moments in silence, listening, just listening.
I also began using a devotional book that I picked up at the Sacred Heart Monastery—Give Us This Day: Prayer for Today’s Catholic. The devotion has five sections for each day: a morning Psalm with a prayer, an evening Psalm with a Prayer, the daily Mass, a reflection, and “Blessed Among Us,” which are cool stories of significant saints of the church—most are Catholic heroes but some are not, and these stories feed my church historian soul.
During my time at Sacred Heart, I have made a daily practice of reading the morning Psalm and the prayer and then reading both the reflection and “Blessed Among Us.” I now do this each morning as I drink my coffee. (I am NOT a morning person so coffee is a strong incentive for me).
I also bought a journal and a set of colored pencils, and most every day, I write down words or phrases—not complete sentences usually, and some morning I draw something. I am a stick figure kind of artist so my pictures aren’t even close to pretty but they are colorful, and seeing all that color in my journal gives me joy.
I started this practice on August 31, which means that I have been faithful in this new prayer practice for five months. It is now a habit—instead of just wishful thinking on my part.
James Clear, in Transform Your Habits, says that it takes anywhere from two to eight months to build a new behavior into your life, and he helpfully notes that missing one day or a few days of the new practice does not materially affect the habit formation process. He concludes, “Building better habits is not an all-or-nothing process.”
We all know that soul care is critical for ministers—but most days we are so caught up in the doing of ministry that we forget to be a reservoir. The beauty of spiritual practices is that they are available to us at any age, at any stage of life. All we need to do is find a practice that fills our soul’s needs, commit to it for two months so that it becomes a habit, and then give ourselves grace on those days when we forget or fail.
I hope you too hear Bernard calling to you—over and over again—to be a reservoir!
Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.