Wellbeing and the ministry

My friend, Aidan Severs, wrote a post on the three things you need for wellbeing. You can read that here. His post is focused on teaching and education. But I was struck by how it clearly has wider application, particularly as it might be applied to the church.

He says:

Often, when wellbeing is spoken of, it is referred to implicitly as some kind of antithesis to working: you can either be doing something which constitutes work (whether that be your day job, life admin, being a parent etc) or something which constitutes wellbeing (insert your own personal example here). But, as always, the dichotomy is false and unhelpful. If I were to draw Venn diagram to represent work and wellbeing, there should be an intersection: a place where the two meet in the middle.

I think we do something similar, often, in the church. We maybe use slightly different terms – because we don’t want to be caught out saying that our pastoral vocation is “work” (even though, let’s be honest, on some level it clearly is) – so we talk about “ministry” and “self-care”. But, in essence, we are usually talking about the balance between work and well-being. And when we do, we often force a wedge between two.

For many of us, ministry is the work we are doing that drains us. We then start to talk about the need for “self-care” away from the work of ministry to ensure our fitness for the ministry itself. Now, that isn’t altogether wrong. Of course we need to rest properly and pace ourselves in the work so that we will last the course. But there is often a sense that our ministry and our wellbeing are at odds. The dichotomy between work and wellbeing is implicitly assumed.

But, Aidan suggests – by way of some studies – that ultimately our wellbeing centres on three key things: competence, autonomy and relatedness. He insists, ‘All of these needs can be met in the work or school environment.’ And the same can be said of church ministry too.

If this is right – and I think it probably is – our wellbeing in the ministry need not rest on making sure we ‘get away’ and ‘recharge our batteries’. We don’t have to subscribe to the full-tank, depleted by ministry, with rest and holiday to recharge model of ministry for our wellbeing. That, again, isn’t to say if you are tired you don’t need a break. But it is to say your wellbeing ought not to depend on those things. There is a more sustainable way. Namely, meeting those three innate needs into the work of ministry itself.

The easiest of them to achieve in a ministry role – particularly if you are a pastor – is autonomy. Whilst I am a strong advocate of plural elderships and congregational polity (other posts for other days), that doesn’t change the relatively autonomous nature of the work we do. Most pastors do not have people directing their work everyday. Having been a secondary school teacher – so I recognise Aidan’s teaching example – I have far more autonomy as a pastor than I ever did as a teacher. The autonomy is closer to when I ran my own business. Of course, there are people to whom I am answerable and accountable – just as when you run your own business you still have to answer to your clients – but by and large, my church appointed me and simply said, ‘go and be a pastor now!’ Indeed, I was appointed to help lead them. All of this should serve our wellbeing.

Indeed, I am often surprised by those who seem not to want any level of autonomy in their role. They want to be guided and directed in ways that feel like micromanagement to me. Not only is that not conducive to getting much done – either for the person micromanaging nor the person being micromanaged – but it will necessarily have an impact on one’s wellbeing. A level of autonomy within one’s work is important for our own sanity.

I suspect the hardest of the three things in pastoral ministry is competence. Now, hear me well: I am not saying I think most pastors are incompetent. I don’t think that. But I do think most pastors think of themselves as incompetent. Or, if not incompetent, like they often just don’t know what they are doing. It is the noise you hear over and over again.

Naturally, there are bits of the job that many pastors do feel competent and able to do. Most, I think, would feel relatively comfortable with their grasp of biblical doctrine and others would feel they have a solid understanding of healthy church polity, or some particular area of church life. But then there are examples of areas where almost no pastor feels very competent – not only because they weren’t taught these things in bible college, but because they are beyond most of us anyway. Who knew, for example, how to handle church life during a global pandemic? Not many of us were feeling very competent then! We might have a solid handle on our theology, but that doesn’t help you set up live streaming from scratch. Most have little to no competence in writing church constitutions. Many end up in areas full of people nothing like them and have no clue how to contextualise. The opportunities in ministry to feel incompetent are legion. Imposter syndrome is everywhere for a reason.

The more hit and miss – though evidently available – innate need is relatedness. The church is, after all, a group of people. And the need to work with others in the church – unless you are the ultimate one-man-ministry – will exist in some way, shape or form. Exactly how much time you spend with people and the exact nature of any collaborative working is going to vary from church to church. In that sense, this is hit and miss. But churches should be able to achieve this on some level.

The interplay between these needs is interesting too inasmuch as the greater your level of autonomy the less your opportunity for relatedness. The greater your level of competence, the greater the likelihood you will feel happier in autonomous working. I doubt there is an exact balance that is perfect for all; the point I guess is that there needs to be some sort of balance. It is impossible to be 100% autonomous and 100% related and collaborative. The balance is likely to be struck differently for different personalities and characters.

What is perhaps telling – and ought to be something we look out for when making appointments – is whether people are unhealthily favouring one of these things over the others. If somebody is expecting their work to be 90% relatedness and minimal autonomy, you are going to be running into problems when there are tasks and job that need doing and they are unwilling or unable to get on and do them. Similarly, if somebody wants 90% autonomy but is not so interested in competence, you will run into problems as they insist on doing things themselves and make a dog’s breakfast of them. If somebody is most interested in 90% competence, but is not so bothered about interrelatedness – and I think this may be where many pastors are at – you might have some finely crafted sermons with little to no actual involvement in the everyday lives of the people in the church.

Nevertheless, the big point – and I think Aidan is quite right – is this: ‘Work is good for us – we are built to work in one way or another – and if we have a healthy relationship with work, it can actually serve to improve our wellbeing.’ This is true in secular jobs and it is true in the ministry as well. Our work, particularly the ministry, doesn’t have to be the enemy of wellbeing. We would do well to remember that.