Permission Slip for Self-Care

You may not agree, but for me school was fun! I enjoyed learning new things (except in math – I was doing just fine until letters took the place of numbers). So it may seem ironic that I spent a fair amount of time and effort trying to figure out how to get out of class on a regular basis. Confession: Ferris Bueller was my hero, and like him, I had dreams of creatively ditching school for my own special day, but for various reasons, that never materialized (maybe because I grew up in a military family – even attended a Department of Defense school for several years — and am pretty sure skipping school was highly frowned upon).

Despite never once skipping a day of school, I did manage to find every conceivable way to get out of class WITH permission. I’m pretty sure I secured the bathroom pass at record levels (my secret — no teacher wants to call your bluff when you quietly mention you may have “the big D”). I learned how to request doctor/dentist appointments at the exact right time of the day and week to maximize time outside of class and increase the potential for off-campus (non-cafeteria) lunch options. I signed up for every in-school volunteer opportunity known to mankind if it meant arriving to class late or leaving early—opportunities such as office aide, attendance clerk, library assistant, lunchroom monitor, blood drive coordinator, PE captain, student mentor, small group leader, tech team member, student government rep, VIP guest ambassador, and community liaison.

My preferred method for escaping class was the old student favorite—field trips. Perhaps you can resonate with my pain when I tell you I once missed a field trip because I failed to turn in the “permission slip” to my teacher. The absence of a small piece of paper noting my parents’ permission to attend the trip kept me at school watching a boring movie with a handful of students in the library rather than enjoying a glorious day at the natural history museum.

So why in the world am I talking with you about permission slips? In this challenging and emotionally exhausting season of ministry, my hunch is you need a permission slip. Not that I am your parent or authority figure, but if you are like most leaders, you may feel guilty for slowing down long enough to recharge. It can be tough to give yourself permission to take a breather, to practice self-care. So count this as permission, reminding you that God calls everyone to rest, recover, and refocus. It’s meant to be a weekly rhythm—we call it sabbath—but I know it can be difficult for pastors; I’m a recovering sabbath-breaker myself.

I also know what can happen when you continually give, serve, and share without setting healthy boundaries or monitoring your own wellness. Compassion Fatigue Disorder or secondary traumatic stress (STS) is a real thing for many in the helping professions. Clinically, compassion fatigue is described as a condition characterized by emotional, physical, and spiritual distress and exhaustion, leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others.

It may seem selfish to care for yourself first, but to use the old plane oxygen mask analogy, you won’t be helping others long if you are out of air yourself.

Remember the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 18-19? Following an epic battle of faith with the prophets of Baal, he runs out to the wilderness and hides in a cave after threats from Jezebel.

Essentially, God asks Elijah the question, “What are you doing here?” Then God does three things to care for Elijah. He meets his physical needs, speaks truth to him, and gives him a companion in Elisha.

I think this story gives us a few simple reminders about how we can care for ourselves in challenging times.

1. Take better care of yourself physically: 

  • Food – I’m not the poster child for healthy eating, but I have worked toward moderation and cut back on the mindless snacking, empty carbs, and sugar intake (ice cream is my kryptonite). And I’m drinking more water, which is good for my overall health (still love me some Dr. Pepper though).  
  • Sleep – while youth ministry often includes late nights and crazy weekend schedules, make getting to bed at a reasonable time a lifelong priority as much as possible. Instead of sleeping-in to catch up on some ZZZZs, try going to bed an hour earlier for a couple of nights and see if you don’t feel better for it. If you can’t fall asleep because your mind is working overtime (or worrying), try visualizing yourself under a tree near a stream in which every thought is a leaf falling into the water and floats out of sight.
  • Exercise — Just get up and move; do something active. There is a mountain of evidence to suggest that being more active impacts your body, mind, and spirit positively. For those who love to run I say…God bless you. The only time I run is if I’m being chased, but I do love walking and biking, especially outdoors. Find something YOU enjoy and aim for a few times a week like your life depended on it because it does.

2. Listen to the still small voice of God

Talking about God is very different than talking with God. Talking with God while also listening to Him truly nourishes our soul and fills us up to be able to pour out. We minister best when we are listening to the still small voice of God and serving out of the overflow of our walk with God.  

3. Cultivate healthy friendships

Whether you are an introvert or extrovert, we all need others to share love, laughter, and life. It doesn’t have to be a large group; I think it’s best to curate a small group of folks who are authentic and life-giving. A couple of friends you can go deep with, carry each other’s burdens in difficult seasons, and share the highs or lows of life and ministry without adding to your anxiety or diminish your value. I’m so grateful for a small group at my church and a few family and friends sprinkled around the country who inspire, challenge, and lift me up regularly. You need folks like these, and they need you!

In reality, sometimes self-care is not enough. And prayer, while critical, is not always the end-all solution. God provides many people and paths to restore His children, including counseling, therapy, and medicine.

You may find that your daily life is being impacted more than just periodically by emotions that are on a constant roller coaster; your anxiety is increasing to the point of regular distraction and sleeplessness; you are out of coping techniques for dealing with the stresses and strains of life; or you are sliding toward a hopeless and joyless existence. If so, it may be time for you to reach out for help from a counselor or therapist in your area who can provide more professional and sustained help. I am thankful for several friends and ministry partners who have assisted me in maintaining health and wholeness over the years, and I’m confident that there are trusted professionals in your area who could help you similarly.

It is true, these are uniquely challenging days! But as my wife, Julie, who is a kindergarten teacher, reminds her kids (and me) regularly, “You can do hard things.” We will make it through with God’s help and guidance. Not only make it through, but I believe God wants to help us be courageous, shine, and even thrive amid the difficulties.  

So take this as a divine permission slip and find ways to create space. Add margin to your life—rhythm for rest, refreshment, and reflection so that you are prepared to share the power and presence of the One we serve, who works in us and through us for His glory!

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