Success in seminary starts with self-care

If you’re like me, you like to keep busy. Maybe this sounds familiar: keeping color-coded calendars of to-do items, piling on extra hours at work to get a project just right, and drinking coffee at times of day or night that are just not normal. The list goes on.

That’s why, when I came to seminary, I admit that I scoffed a little bit when I heard the term self-care. At first, it struck me as being somewhere between a seminary buzzword and an optional activity (workload permitting, of course!). What I didn’t realize was that I needed to reorient my perspective on just what makes a successful seminarian, and that includes practicing self-care.

As a new blogger, it might be helpful to give a bit of background on myself.

I didn’t always intend to go to seminary. I graduated from journalism school and worked in both reporting and advertising for several years after college. What counts as “successful” in both of these industries is based in hard data, such as results from focus groups, annual sales figures, or readership trends. I remember one coworker in particular who would work until 10 p.m., drive home to tuck his kids in to bed, and come back and work until 1 a.m. on a regular basis.

This type of schedule might have made for good results in my previous career, but it just doesn’t work in seminary. From time to time, I still do miss out on sleep so I can finish a paper or attend an event or lecture that interests me. But generally speaking, self-care isn’t an extracurricular—it’s a necessity. For me, there are a few reasons why this is true.

1: If I don’t take care of myself, I’ll never be able to be a pastoral presence for others. I think of the way flight attendants tell airplane passengers, “In the event of an emergency, please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” Taking care of my own spiritual needs and health supports my ministry.

2: Developing a support network of colleagues and friends is always a good idea. I hear from friends who have graduated from seminary that they need to find their own pastors and confidantes in order to feel centered. Pastors and seminarians are human, too, and we need loved ones around us as we embark on this rewarding but tough path.

3: Self-care for me has foundations in scripture. In Genesis, God rests after forming creation. Jesus travels with companions, attends celebrations with them, and is deeply touched when his friend Lazarus dies. We are called to take joy in serving the Lord, not to work ourselves to death. Being conscientious is not the same as overdoing it, and only one is sustainable in the long term.

4: Delegating in communal settings helps draw out others’ gifts, too. Taking on obligations for friends or parishioners can be kind, but it also can deprive them of opportunities to flourish, learn and contribute in unique ways.

For every person, self-care looks a little different. Whatever your vocation is (whether that’s in seminary, a divinity school, or somewhere else), I hope you make space to decompress.