Deeply and faithfully loving and caring for oneself is enough – it’s not just a pause between activities, writes a seminary professor and psychologist. This was first published in Faith & Leadership.
By Chanequa Walker-Barnes
I couldn’t move, it seemed. I was hungry and needed a shower, but I couldn’t force myself to get out of bed. It was as if somehow the blood coursing through my veins had been replaced with fatigue. I couldn’t even will my muscles to move. That would require communication between my brain and my limbs, and my brain was tired, too.
Three days prior, I had completed the final revisions for my book manuscript and sent it off to the publisher. I had been working on it nonstop over the summer, determined to get it done by the deadline. The fatigue constantly lurked in the background, but I urged myself to push through. I’d be on sabbatical during the fall semester, after all, and if I could just get this manuscript in on time, I could take some time off from work.
My plan was to do nothing work-related for a full month: no checking my work email, no starting a new project, no reading that was teaching- or research-related, no planning for new courses — and absolutely no meetings. I just needed to push through a little longer.
Push through. It had been my internal mantra for the past few years, as I juggled a six-course teaching load, advising and mentoring students, writing my second book, serving on the leadership team for a new church plant, participating in an intense workshop on online pedagogy, working on reaccreditation, revising curriculum, and serving on boards and steering committees for ministry and academic organizations.
Every time a new deadline or obligation imposed itself, I told myself to push through. Push through to winter break. Push through to summer. Push through to sabbatical.
Finally, the book was done. No more pushing.
After I emailed the manuscript to the publisher, I closed my laptop, turned off the lights in my home office and went to bed. Three days later, I was still spending nearly all day in bed. After about a week, I progressed to the brown leather recliner in the corner of my bedroom.
Some days, I managed to go for my morning walk before returning home and parking myself in the recliner. Having decided that watching television and reading took too much effort, I alternated between listening to audiobooks, napping and staring out my bedroom window.
I had planned for this rest for months but did not realize how much I needed it. I did not realize that I would actually need a sabbath during my sabbatical!
This was an academic sabbatical. Unlike a pastoral sabbatical, which is usually seen as an opportunity for rest and renewal from the rigors of ministry, an academic sabbatical is primarily expected to be a period of research productivity. So even this sabbatical was part of a culture in which I felt obligated to work – to produce – endlessly.
I had barely given myself a chance to celebrate finishing a manuscript before I felt the pressure to start something new. I knew it wasn’t a healthy way to function, but the deeply internalized pressure to overachieve was hard to resist.
Many of us seminary faculty take the biblical admonition to prove ourselves worthy of our call quite seriously. And we pass along – or at the very least amplify – this same tendency among our students, who carry it into ministerial leadership.
When I enrolled in seminary after completing my doctorate in clinical psychology and serving on the faculty of two universities, I was astounded by the workload that seminary faculty imposed upon students.
In my psychology program, professors taught us the importance and mechanics of protecting personal boundaries even when working with acutely distressed clients.
In seminary, professors admonished students to prioritize ministry above all other activities and penalized us for the slightest deviations from perfection. One professor, for example, told us that he did not allow late assignments because “the Sunday sermon is never late.”
My seminary study group met for long hours at coffee shops until the employees kicked us out at closing time. We discussed our most effective sleep deterrents and brought more energy drinks than exam blue books to class on test mornings.
I had managed to get through my psychology graduate work without ever pulling an all-nighter, but they were regular occurrences in seminary.
In my final year of seminary, I refused to pull another all-nighter. I learned to focus more upon the experience of learning and less upon what my professors would think of my work.
Now, in my 13th year as a seminary professor, I have tried to encourage my students and colleagues to care for themselves. The importance of self-care has become a recurrent theme in my teaching and writing ministries – even as I try to unlearn my own tendency toward exhaustion and burnout.
My difficulty resting in sabbatical has taught me that I still have much unlearning to do. It turns out that some of my thinking about self-care is still driven by the toxic need to achieve. When I explain the rationale behind self-care to Christian leaders – many of whom, like me, have internalized the idea that self-care is selfish – I tell them that caring for our spiritual, physical and emotional well-being is necessary to sustain us in the ministries to which we have been called.
“It is how we fan into flame the gift of God that has been laid upon us, so we can run our race to the end,” I preach. We have to take care of ourselves so that we can do what God has called us to do. Rest, then work, rest, then work some more – that is how the cycle is supposed to go.
As I lay in the recliner, staring out the window, I felt a tremendous sense of guilt about being stuck at one point of the cycle. I could only rest, it seemed. And no matter how much rest I got, I couldn’t seem to get motivated to work. Though I’d planned to take the month off from teaching- and writing-related work, there were many things that I could be doing around the house, like filing the two years’ worth of documents I’d been shelving in my home office, or finishing that Halloween skirt I started sewing last year, or perhaps making the jewelry I’d been planning to give as Christmas gifts. Anything productive would do. But I needed to do something, right? Isn’t that what the rest was for?
Perhaps not. One of the gifts of my sabbatical has been reading Christine Valters Paintner’s “The Wisdom of the Body.”
I have been reading the book slowly as a sort of summer/sabbatical discipline for the past few months as I’ve attempted to deepen my self-care commitments. In the final chapter, Paintner challenges my long-held idea that the purpose of caring for our bodies is to enable or sustain our productivity.
Paintner acknowledges that caring for her physical well-being, nurturing sabbath rhythms and resisting the culture of doing are all ways that she replenishes herself so that she can have something to offer to others.
However, these last few years I have also been asking the question of how I might not just see caring for my body — the vehicle for my expression in the world — as woven together with how I care for my vocation. I am also beginning to see the care of my body itself as my primary vocation regardless of how that facilitates my doing. This is a subtle but profound shift I have been working to integrate in my life. What if beneath the many important things I am called to do in this world, the most fundamental of those is to cherish my body being, this sacred vessel that is my soul’s address? …
I am convinced that learning to live in our bodies, to truly embrace both the profound dignity and pleasure as well as the tenderness and sometimes excruciating vulnerability of them, is the most important work we can do. … When we love our own bodies, we start to feel invested in making sure the bodies of others, both human and animal, have love and care as well.
In other words, self-care is not just good for ministry, and not just a good in itself; it is the ultimate aim of ministry. If we love God and love and care for our bodies, then our obedience to the Great Commandment will lead us to love and care for the bodies of others.
This, then, is the lesson that I will work on learning during this sabbatical period: that deeply and faithfully loving and caring for myself is enough.
It is a hard lesson to learn, even as I recognize the high rates of cancers, diabetes, hypertension and heart problems among the faculty and staff in my school. Even as I cope with the aftermath of my own cancer diagnosis. Even as I have watched several colleagues around the country lose their own battles against various cancers this year.
It may be the hardest lesson that I will ever have to learn. But I am determined to do it. This is, after all, my primary vocation.
The Rev. Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes is an associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University. She uses an interdisciplinary approach in her teaching and research, drawing upon pastoral theology, womanist/feminist theology, cultural studies and the social sciences. She is the author of the book, “Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.”
Prior to her current position, Walker-Barnes taught at Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, North Carolina; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and the University of Florida. She holds bachelor’s degrees in psychology and African-American/African studies from Emory University; a master’s and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Miami; and an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School.