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The Role of Self-care in the Prevention of Sudden Ministry Death Syndrome

Updated: Jun 28, 2022

Psychologist, professor, and womanist pastoral care theologian Rev. Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes is raising the alarm about the need for self-care among clergy. In her January 5th, 2022 Facebook post she coins the term “Sudden Ministry Death Syndrome”. Walker-Barnes defines Sudden Ministry Death Syndrome as “the sudden, unexpected, premature death of a person in ministry. The death may be the result of known or unknown health conditions, sudden cardiac events, suicide, and in some cases, ministry-related accidents.” Dr. Walker-Barnes noted that Sudden Ministry Death Syndrome “occurs in both ordained ministers and laypersons across a variety of ministry occupations.”

According to Walker-Barnes, “If you’ve been in ministry even a few years, you recognize #SuddenMinistryDeathSyndrome. It has happened to your friends, colleagues, seminary classmates, and family. When we say that our current ways of doing and being church aren’t working, we mean it’s not working for the leaders either. Jesus’s death is a distinctive event. It’s his life that we’re meant to be emulating.” #MinistrySelfCare #SelfCare

What is Self-care?

Self-care has been a buzzword in the marketplace and for some, it has become synonymous with luxury, self-indulgence, and selfishness. However, Dr. Walker-Barnes’ introduces another perspective she considers to be Sacred Self-Care which she defines as follows:

“Sacred self-care consists of the practices we engage to (1) develop and nurture wholistic wellness as beings who are beautifully and wonderfully created by God in God’s own image and likeness; and (2) sustain our vitality as agents of God’s mission of justice, mercy, and peace in the world.”

In this definition, Dr. Walker-Barnes starts with the idea that there needs to be a repositioning of our individual and collective imagination and understanding of what it means to be human and be created in the image and likeness of the Divine. It is from this renewed or elevated place of deference for not only who God is but who humans are in relation to God that wholistic practices of stewardship should emerge.

Also included in this definition is a clear connotation of individuality. While it may be a benefit to all who put Sacred Self-care into practice its real jewel shines when it is individually prescribed in response to the needs of the person utilizing the method of care. Sacred Self-care is meant to be applied as a personal investment, not a perfunctory duty. A great interpretation of it is that one practice self-care because they prioritize that they matter to God and self-care is a sign of personal stewardship.

By wholistic Walker-Barnes is referring to a spectrum of practices that take into consideration the full expression of human needs. Practices such as Spiritual Self-care which nurtures one’s connection to the Divine could include prayer and worship. There is Physical Self-care which is designed to care for the physical body’s well-being and function. Emotional Self-care is a practice by which people can process their emotional experiences more fully. Participating in Relational Self-Care works to keep people connected in the bounds of healthy relationships. There is Intellectual Self-care which is used to nurture and maintain cognitive abilities. Lastly, Missional Self-Care works to assure that one’s expanded energy is in alignment with one’s calling.

Where do ministry and self-care merge?

In Matthew 9:35-38 Jesus after working determinedly, for a season, in ministry has a moment where he looks up from his work and observes the multitude that was coming for help.

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. 36 But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. 37 Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. 38 Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”

Jesus seeing the multitudes seeks help because the need and the press of the people were so great that it was beyond the capacity and ability that he himself and the current disciples could fill. Here is the acknowledgment that the work of ministry, both then and now, is not only huge but demanding and that it exceeds the ability of the caregiver (laborer). All of which have exponentially increased during this season of multiple pandemics.

From another perspective, it can be argued that the ability of Jesus to recognize the need for help and then pray for assistance was not only an act of compassion for the people in need but an act of self-care being demonstrated to the disciples who would carry on with this great work after he is departed.

Do the scriptures speak of sacred self-care as Dr. Walker-Barnes suggests? Was Jesus a practitioner of self-care? While the actual word ‘self-care’ is not represented in the Bible the concept is often demonstrated by Jesus who had a consistent practice of prayer and worship which could be considered spiritual care. He was a Nazarene and walking consistently could be viewed as a routine of physical care. He retreated into the mountains when they were going to force him to be king could underscore his sense of missional care. There is plenty of opportunity in the scriptures to see how Jesus could or did embody this understanding of personal care as a means of managing the tension between ministry, burnout, and Sudden Ministry Death Syndrome, especially with the understanding that today’s society is ever more demanding than that which Jesus lived.

In conclusion, while statistics show clergy as having the highest job satisfaction percentage of 87.2%, burnout, health concerns, and Sudden Ministry Death Syndrome are very real realities for clergy. Equipping congregations with education about sacred self-care and adjusting systems to include the practice of personal care are critical components of combating Sudden Ministry Death Syndrome. Dr. Walker-Barnes hope that naming this phenomenon will cause Sudden Ministry Death Syndrome to be readily recognizable; that it will shed light on the paradigms and practices which may lead to Sudden Ministry Death Syndrome; and ultimately, ignite a healthy shift in clergy culture concerning personal care to the realization that we are caring for the image of God.

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