Lead an Interesting Private Life: (When Your Public Life Is Ministry)

January 4th, 2011

A wise psychologist once told me that, in her experience as chair of the ethics committee for the board of psychology, the best way to stay out of ethical trouble was to lead an interesting private life.

She had discovered that psychologists who stepped over ethical lines often did not have lives apart from their clinical practice. This bit of commonsense wisdom has always rung true for me, and now that my own psychological practice includes clergy and church professionals, it seems to ring out an even deeper truth for those involved in the complex vocation of ministry. When I mention this notion to clergy from a broad spectrum of traditions, they typically respond, “Interesting? How about any private life at all?” In my own experience as the spouse of a United Methodist minister, I know that finding time for activities and relationships outside of the parish is essential in sustaining a healthy ministry, but I also know that it can be challenging.

There are external obstacles that church leaders face when trying to maintain a private life. We live in a culture that is rooted in a Protestant work ethic that promotes the idea that hard work and worthiness go hand in hand. Even though we know that this is a distortion of the Protestant movement, which actually emphasized the idea of God's grace freely given, as pastoral leaders we can easily get caught up in proving ourselves through hard work. The role of pastor has been described as the last of the generalist professions in our society, and although this allows for tremendous variety of roles and activities, it also creates confusion and ambiguity about how much the role encompasses. Add to this the expectations of some parishioners that the pastor will be available at all times and be “all things to all people,” and we easily have the recipe for a twenty-four/seven job, which ultimately, almost inevitably, leads to burnout.

We also bring with us personal histories and internalized roles that can block us from allowing ourselves time for a private life. At North Central Ministry Development Center, we have the opportunity to work with candidates for ordination within various denominations. When we explore family roles with them, it is common to hear variations on the theme of “hero” or “clown” (to borrow language from the recovery literature). When we bring these familiar roles with us into ministry, the church “family” can provide fertile ground for maintaining them and even encouraging them to grow into more pronounced forms. Hence, the hero becomes the responsible, over-functioning minister who perceives that the success or failure of an enterprise rests entirely on his or her shoulders. Likewise, the clown, becomes the pastor who attempts to please everyone and keep the peace at all costs.

Therefore, in order to lead an interesting private life, we may first have to deepen our awareness of the roles and messages that keep us stuck in life-draining patterns. This may involve reaching out for resources such as support systems, spiritual direction, psychotherapy, or coaching that allow us to admit our vulnerabilities and receive a fuller sense of who we are in return. It is especially important for spiritual leaders to have support systems where we can be “out of role” and allow others to manage things and care for us. As I work with pastoral leaders, I find that it is often the ones who try to “go it alone” that find themselves eventually in the deepest trouble.

There are also some life-management skills that are necessary in order to create the kind of balance that allows for a private life. Two of the most important ones, from my perspective, are timemanagement skills and assertiveness skills. In terms of time management, it is a truism that when we say yes to one thing, we are, at the same time, saying no to something else. In the ministry, this often means we are saying no to time spent with our own families and friends or time spent pursuing interests that bring joy to our lives. Thus, learning how to set priorities is essential, and in order to set priorities, we also have to be able to stand up for our own needs. Therefore, becoming comfortable in our ability to appropriately assert our perspective is also helpful.

Once we have worked through some of the barriers, what might an interesting private life encompass? First, it needs to include some elements of selfcare. Although pastors may talk about the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, many clergy ignore their physical needs. In a recent survey of religious leaders sponsored by Pulpit and Pew, results indicated that 76% of clergy are either overweight or obese, a higher percentage than what is found in the general population (61% of Americans are overweight or obese according to the 1999 Surgeon General's report). Being able to take time for exercise and healthy meals obviously contributes to our overall wellbeing and energy level.

Another important aspect is finding space and time to feed our own souls. It is often difficult for pastors to experience Sabbath time for themselves in the midst of leading worship for others. Dorothy Bass, in her thoughtful book, Receiving the Day, uses an example from Eugene Peterson to illustrate one model of Sabbath time. Peterson, a Presbyterian minister and author, would keep Sabbath every Monday with his wife after his busiest day was over. “In all kinds of weather, they drove to the country, read a psalm aloud, and then hiked in silence for several hours. A quiet evening at home rounded out the day. The regularity and ritual quality of this restful time echoed what he was helping the members of his congregation experience on Sundays” (p. 72).

Leading an interesting private life also means pursuing interests and activities that bring us joy, yet may not contribute in any direct way to the life of the church. By engaging in hobbies, sports, the arts, or expressive/reflective work, to name a few, we may be able to cultivate a sense of play and delight in life's small pleasures. These pursuits also allow us to get in touch with different gifts and qualities within ourselves, and this, in turn, may enhance our ministry to others. Taking time for vacations and days off weekly also promotes a sense of perspective away from the stresses of ministry.

An interesting private life contains reciprocal relationships, those relationships in which the pastor can both give and receive care from others. Being a pastor is frequently described as a “lonely job.” Clergy will often acknowledge that they don't have close friendships outside of their family or their church. Yet it is important to have friendships with people that allow us to be “out of role,” and these friendships usually don't happen by accident, but require intentionally maintaining the supports we already have and reaching out for new ones.

Clergy who maintain interesting private lives will discover many benefits. First, caring for ourselves gives us a stable base from which to serve others. It also encourages us to keep clearer interpersonal boundaries. Because we are meeting many of our needs outside of our ministry setting, we are less likely to live vicariously through the lives of our parishioners and possibly overstep ethical lines in the process. We are also less likely to become emotionally “hooked” by alliances and conflicts within the church because we can step back and seek support and perspective elsewhere. Leading an interesting private life also allows us to have a deeper sense of our own identity, which means we can bring a more integrated approach to our ministry. Just as we need a sense of identity in order to fully enter into an intimate relationship, so we need an “authentic self” to be in genuine partnership with a church or ministry setting.

Finally, an interesting private life can free us up to enjoy the present moment and therefore, bring a sense of joy and grace to our ministry rather than one of duty and underlying resentment. We might recall the story of the woman who anointed Jesus' head with expensive oil, alarming his disciples because they considered this to be a wasteful act. However, Jesus understood that she was doing a beautiful thing by anointing his body before burial, and he, as a giver of compassion, was also able to accept this gift of compassion from her. Wayne Muller, in his book, Sabbath; Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest, responds eloquently to this story:

Our reluctance to rest—our belief that our joy and delight may somehow steal from the poor, or add to the sorrows of those who suffer—is a dangerous and corrosive myth, because it creates the illusion that service to others is a painful and dreary thing. Jesus says there will always be opportunities to be kind and generous. Just as there is a time for every purpose under heaven, so is there a time for nourishment and joy, especially among those who would serve (p. 49).

Leading an interesting private life is about discovering and spending time with sources of nourishment and joy. These moments in turn will sustain us and allow us to bring a greater sense of ease and wholeness to our ministry.


Dr. Mary Honstead is a Licensed Psychologist at North Central Ministry Development Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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