CHP 9113 Principles of Self-Care for Chaplains


Biblical and Theological Principles of Self-Care

Stress and burnout are among the major causes of pastor/missionary attrition.1 Many research reveals that the well-being of pastors is in danger because of their high stress, low vocational satisfaction, and role ambiguity.2

According to Brant (2010), self-care is the most important factor in mitigating clergy stress.3 But self-care apparently is also one of the most neglected factors in clergy’s life. As the pastoral job is high time demands, relational orientation, pastors tend to forget self-care.4

To help pastors making solid self-care plan and put into practice, we need to develop some biblical and theological principles of self-care.

  • The need for self-care

Self-love is part of the second great commandment. Ephesians 5:28-29 teaches us to love our wives as our own bodies, just as Jesus loves the church. Paul says, “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it”.

  • We are limited as human beings.

As human beings, we are limited in all aspects of our lives. We need rest, especially sleep; we need food and nutrition; we need time to pray and connect with God; we need friends and family lives; we need time to learn new knowledge …

In Ex 18:17-18, we see that even Moses could not bear all the duties as the leader of the Israelite. Mark 6:31 tells us, Jesus required his disciples to retreat and rest.

  • We need to take care of our health and other aspects of lives.

1 Tim 5:23 and 3 Jn 1:2 teach us about taking care of our health and other businesses is as important as taking care of our spirit.

  • Self-care is not self-indulge

God does not teach us to be proud or self-indulge.

  • Self-care imitates Jesus’ example

Jesus often retreated to the wilderness or rested between intensive ministries or conflicts. (ex. Mark 4:38, 6:31; Luke 5:16; John 11:54)

  • Self-care benefits others and our ministries

When Jesus teaches “love your neighbor as yourself,” apparently he wants us to love ourselves well. God took care of Elijah, so he could fulfill the mission of God (1Kg 19). Moses delegatedminr duties to other people, so he could lead Israel into the promised land (Ex 18).

Stressors and stress relief

Kayler (2011) suggests, as “Clergy stress is a debilitating problem that not only harms pastors but their families and their churches as well. A theological approach to stress relief, then, begins with the development of these three aspects of faith: humility, trust, and surrender. ” He thinks the three key pastoral practices in developing such characteristics are spiritual disciplines, Sabbath, and support system practices.5

Nathan (2016) discovers (a) a negative correlation between vocational satisfaction and depression scores, (b) a negative correlation between social support and depression scores, and (c) a negative correlation between vocational satisfaction and stress scores.6

Knox et al. (2005) found that factors that contributed to the vocational satisfaction of Catholic priests were principally related to preaching, feelings of being “called” to ministry, and their social relationships with other clergy and those in their congregation.7

Faucett, etc (2013) thinks role confliction of pastoral job is another stressor.8Weise (1993) suggests that it’s because of lacking clear boundaries in the ministry.9

Majerus and Sandage (2010) suggest spiritual maturity of pastor is needed to set boundaries and resolve role confliction or role ambiguity. They observe that “Spiritual maturity in the Bible includes, for example, clearly defined beliefs (Jas. 1:5-6), responsibility for self (Gal. 6:4), and living as a unique individual in relationship with others (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12). These signs of spiritual maturity are aspects of self-differentiation.” 10

Inspired and adapted from a book called “Transforming the Pain: A Workbook on Vicarious Traumatization”, creates a tool called “Self-care Wheel”11:

It includes 6 dimensions of self-care: physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, personal, and professional. On each category, it gives several example practices which may help in that dimension. Yamasaki (2017) posted a blog article called “The Best Articles on Self-Care in the Church”. It summarizes some good resources on self-care in the church context.12

For the rest of the paper, I will try to make self-care plan with general goals and goals on emotional, relational, physical, and spiritual. Then I will discuss some potential barriers to practicing self-Care in my area of ministry.

General self-care plan and strategy.

My general goal on self-care is to protect my wellbeing, coping with stress in daily life and in ministry, preventing burn-out and depression, so that I may serve the Lord and His church effectively.

As for the goal, I first need to acknowledge the necessity of self-care and put time and resource on it and then communicate with my church and my ministry supporters about that I will need time and resource to take care of myself and my relationship.

As church health and conflicts are major stressors for clergy, so the education and communication with the church and key persons should be part of the self-care strategy. I would like to have three sub-goals on this:

  • Discuss a realistic job description;
  • Limit my work time within 50 hours;
  • Preach no more than 40 Sundays and have 2-weeks vacation each year.

3. My Emotional Self-Care Plan with Goals

My goals on emotional self-care are:

  • Improve my self-awareness. If things do not work out well, I need to find a professional counselor to help me out.
    • Engage socially to avoid feeling isolated.
    • Read several leisure books.
    • Disengage the ministry activities on Sabbath day, night time and vacations.

In the next year, I will read the book “Emotional Intelligence”13 again as a tool to improve my self-awareness. I will reconnect with my “secular” friends and my extend family more often, write blog articles for them.

I would like to play contract bridge with my friends again when I go back to China. This is a good means of social and I will not take it as an opportunity of reach-out.

In my Sabbath day, night time after 9:30 pm, and in my family vacation, I will limit my notebook and smartphone using, so I can sleep early and better, and meet my emotional self-care need.

4. My Relational Self-Care Plan with Goals

My relational self-care goals are:

  • Set the right boundary in my ministry. Don’t try to give advice beyond my reasonable boundary.
  • Learn to say “no” as the default answer to anything out of my plan. Try to discuss with my wife first before saying “yes” to any time or energy consuming requirement.
  • Spend time with the important people in my life.
  • Enjoy family quality time. Bring my family on short trips at least every two months.
  • Try to find a support group of peer pastors. Meet at least once a month.

5. My Physical Self-Care Plan with Goals

  • Sleep 7 hours each night. If not, take a nap the next day after lunch.
  • Eat most of the times at home with my family, trusting my wife is the best cook for my health. No more than two night out for ministry-related activities each week.
  • Run at least 3 times a week. Try to keep 10k steps per day.
  • Take a medical examination every year. See a dentist twice a year.
  • Restrain smartphone usage to protect my eyes.

6. My Spiritual Self-Care Plan with Goals

  • Read the whole Bible once each year. Regular prayer each day.

  • Keep Sabbath rest every Monday.

    • Three retreats each year.
    • Regularly reflect on the Chinese translation of the Scripture and post my blog series on “The Translation of The Chinese Union Version” on my personal website:
  • Read the article “Differentiation of self and Christian spiritual maturity: Social science and theological integration”.14 Do an inventory on DoS.15 Try to become more mature in spirituality.

7. Potential Barriers to Practicing Self-Care in my Area of Ministry

Ganesan (2008) observes that the main stressors of clergy are (1) Time demands, (2) Church health issues, (3) Isolation/loneliness and (4) Intrusiveness.

I think the first stressor, Time demands, is also the first barrier of my practicing to self-care. I have some long-term commitments like big translation projects that are very difficult to stop soon. Combining with other regular duties like preaching and church administration, those projects culminate with excessive work-load and time demands. This situation is hard to ease and generate a lot of stress on me.

The second barrier for me is the life stage. Our three young children need a lot of attention from me. Sometimes they will trigger my anger or require my help. They not only create stress but also occupy my time for physical self-care, especially spiritual self-care. In the family vacations, I may not be able to relax or rest well.

As a pastor in a foreign country, cultural and language barrier may become barriers to self-care. This will significantly infect my relational self-care. For example, it will be difficult for me to find a support group who can really understand my challenges in the ministry. And the distance and time gap may degrade my communication with my friends in China.

The relatively low income may limit my options on retreat and vacation. I may need to find some creative ways to take care of those needs.

8. Conclusion

Self-care is a very important aspect of any effective ministry job. This paper summarizes some current research papers on self-care, stressors of clergy, burnout prevention, gives out some biblical and theological principles on self-care, and creates a self-care plan on several areas with reachable goals. Finally, this paper reflects on some personal barriers to practice self-care.

I hope this plan will become a guideline for my self-care practice.


  1. Stewart, Kristin. 2009. “Keeping Your Pastor: An Emerging Challenge.” Journal for the Liberal Arts and Sciences 13 (3): 112. 2. Faucett, John M., Robert F. Corwyn, and Tom H. Poling. 2013. “Clergy Role Stress: Interactive Effects of Role Ambiguity and Role Conflict on Intrinsic Job Satisfaction.” Pastoral Psychology 62 (3): 291–304. 3. Brant, David W. 2010. “‘Spirituality as a Mediator in the Relationship Between Self-Care Practices and Perceived Stress Levels Among Lutheran Clergy’. PCOM Psychology Dissertations. Paper 163.” 4. Ganesan, C. C. 2008. “An Overview of the Effects of Burnout and Stress in the Lives of Ministers.” PhD Thesis, UNIVERSITY OF KWA ZULU-NATAL. 5. Kayler, Claude J. 2011. “Clergy Stress: A Study of Stressors and Stress-Relieving Practices among United Methodist Clergy across Three Districts of the Western North Carolina Conference.” Diss. Asbury Theological Seminary. 6. Lusher, Nathan. 2016. “Predictors of Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Among Clergy.” PhD Thesis, California State University, Stanislaus. 7. Knox, Sarah, Stephen G. Virginia, Jessica Thull, and John P. Lombardo. 2005. “Depression and Contributors to Vocational Satisfaction in Roman Catholic Secular Clergy.” Pastoral Psychology 54 (2): 139–155. 8. Faucett, John M., Robert F. Corwyn, and Tom H. Poling. 2013. “Clergy Role Stress: Interactive Effects of Role Ambiguity and Role Conflict on Intrinsic Job Satisfaction.” Pastoral Psychology 62 (3): 291–304. 9. Weise, Russell. 1993. “Burnout in the Pastoral Ministry: The Need for Clear Boundaries.” Diss. of D. Min., Concordia Seminary – Saint Louis 10. Majerus, Brian D., and Steven J. Sandage. 2010. “Differentiation of Self and Christian Spiritual Maturity: Social Science and Theological Integration.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 38 (1): 41–51. 11. “Olga Phoenix.”2018. Self-care Wheel. Accessed July 14, 2018. 12. Yamasaki, April. 2017. “The Best Articles on Self-Care in the Church.” When You Work for the Church (blog). January 27, 2017. Accessed July 14, 2018. 13. Goleman, Daniel. 2005. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. 10th Anniversary edition. New York: Bantam Books.
  2. Skowron, Elizabeth A., and Myrna L. Friedlander. 1998. “The Differentiation of Self Inventory: Development and Initial Validation.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 45 (3): 235.