Merrilee Wineinger, Tennessee Annual Conference
Prior to answering the call to the ministry of the deacon, I served as a personal- and group-fitness trainer. I counted leg lifts, shoulder presses, and minutes elapsed on the treadmill. I wrote plans to transform bodies, to motivate minds, and to fulfill a client’s yearning for physical perfection. Yet I knew that transformation could not occur without a spiritual connection. As I stood next to my client counting bicep curls, I wondered what brought her to the gym. Was it vanity that dropped her off at the door or was it the knowledge that self-care takes priority over all of her daily activities?
Transformation of body, mind, and spirit happens when we take time to care for ourselves and to meditate on God’s will for our lives. When we care for ourselves and live out of our strengths and spiritual gifts, we have the energy and enthusiasm to lead our congregations. In order to lead vital congregations, we need to take care of ourselves first. Then we will have the stamina to walk with individuals and our congregations on their own journeys to health and wholeness.
We all need food, shelter, safety, community, affirmation, and opportunities to live into our full potential. When I ignore my physical, mental, and spiritual needs, my health falters. I lose my connection with God, neighbor, and self. If I can recognize the disconnect early enough, however, I have the ability to avoid burnout by taking the time to be still and listen for God’s will instead of attending to my own or someone else’s.
In her book, Cultivating Wholeness, Margaret Kornfeld lists ideas for self-care that nourish our needs for structure, relationships, and acceptance. Here are a few of her suggestions: (1) Determine, schedule, and work a set number of hours per week; (2) Spend time with family and friends individually and in groups; (3) Listen to your body and respond to what it needs. Kornfeld also cites the importance of support systems. “In community, you can be yourself and let others know who you are; resolve conflicts; accept diversity and tolerate ambiguity; learn to accept and love yourself so that you can love others.” In other words, we can become vital clergywomen who lead vital congregations.
As a provisional deacon in my third year of residency, I have had the opportunity to identify my top five strengths and spiritual gifts. Moreover, through prayer and meditation, I have been able to see where I use those gifts and strengths and how they have evolved and magnified over the years. In Paul’s letter to the Romans 12:1-8, he instructs the church leaders to acknowledge their gifts of grace and to discern God’s will as to where they are to put them into action. When we respond to God’s grace and seek to do God’s will, our task as individuals and congregations is to use our gifts for the benefit of God’s creation. Taking a personal and group inventory allows us to see where we have been successful in using our strengths and spiritual gifts and where transformation is still needed.
In the final chapters of his book, Creating a Healthier Church, Ronald W. Richardson provides a list of goals, procedures, and assessment questions to evaluate the emotional health of a congregation. He also describes what clergy need in order to become vital leaders as they navigate the emotional systems of their congregations. For example, leaders need to understand their own emotional processes in order to gather a toolbox full of coping skills that will help them when emotions are high and boundaries are being challenged.
Self-care is taking care of our physical needs, calming our minds, understanding our emotions, and spending time with God in prayer and meditation. Self-care is not selfish or self-centered. Self-care is a gift that we give ourselves in order to give to others. When we take care of ourselves, we have the energy and enthusiasm to lead according to God’s will, to create safe spaces, to share dreams, to set healthy boundaries, and to appreciate everyone’s strengths and spiritual gifts.
Vital clergywomen who take care of themselves lead vital congregations. How will we recognize a vital clergywoman and her congregation? They will be out in the world, educating through example, participating in ministry with their neighbors, and celebrating milestones on their individual and congregational journeys to health and wholeness. We will witness their daily return to God with minds ready to be transformed once again. Each morning, they will take time to meet their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Then they will be back on the road, headed toward another opportunity to use their strengths and spiritual gifts for the common good of God’s growing and vital creation.
 Margaret Kornfeld, Cultivating Wholeness: A Guide to Care and Counseling in Faith Communities, (NY: Continuum, 2006), 284–85.
 Ronald W. Richardson, Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996), 161–83.