Self-regulation over Self-care

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMuch has been published about clergy self-care. Most of what I have come across makes the simple point that if I am in better shape, then I can be more effective as a pastor. A smaller portion of the material reminds me that God doesn’t need me to die for anyone; that’s already been handled. The burgeoning and much needed movement of positive psychology adds that God really doesn’t want anyone to be miserable, and self-care can help us enjoy this good life. I cannot find much fault with any of these points of view. Oddly enough, however, neither have I found much motivation to actually make needed changes in my life from these insights. Where I have found some recent motivation is with a systems thinking based view of the problem.

Systems thinking would rather talk about self-regulation than self-care. Self regulation is the basic functioning that makes self-differentiation possible. It’s what gives me responsibility for what’s mine, and leaves to you what is yours. Self-regulation is the capacity to choose wisely, based on solid-self principles and not on the anxious needs of the moment.

Steve Langford, a fellow United Methodist clergyperson who pastors in Georgetown, TX, introduced this idea to me during a talk at the Advanced Clergy Clinic held by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. His thesis was that self-management comes before self-differentiation. Taking care of the basic needs and basic requirements for health are the building blocks for self-differentiation. Or to put it another way, the decision to exercise, builds capacity on an emotional level to make even more important decisions.

Self-regulation is the hallmark of any successful carbon-based life form. Survival of a species, Ed Friedman reminds us, doesn’t depend on the environment, it doesn’t depend on the Communists, and it doesn’t depend on the presence or absence of a pathogen. Survival simply depends on an organism letting good things in, and keeping bad things out. Self-regulation is keeping an eye on that basic functioning above the crisis of the day, above the hunger of the moment, and above the anxiety of others who are demanding something else of you. Or to put it another way, I can’t blame anyone or anything else for my not being able to exercise.

Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky make the point in their book, Leadership On The Line, that “…the cleanest way for an organization to bring you down is to let you bring yourself down.” (p. 163) Heifetz and Linsky write that a leader who doesn’t manage self is at great risk for allowing common human hungers to overtake him or her. This management is self-regulation. “But giving in to the hunger is as sure an indication as any that you are out of control,…” (p. 181)

The language of self-care hasn’t always been effective for me. I think that ineffectiveness is because the phrase never conjured up any consequences apart from my own body and mind. But, when I think systems about the consequences of my choices, somehow the language of self-regulation connects with me. Through systemic thinking, I know that these decisions are not just about my own body, they reverberate across all my relationships. My excuses for not exercising usually have to do with lack of time. I can replace the important work of exercise with other important work. But if I see exercise as a building block of personal integrity, if I see it as a gateway decision to other important decisions, if I see it as a self-regulating act that has implications into my family and congregation, then that decision becomes irreplaceable and thus I have a little more success with it. I emphasize a little.

I use exercise here as my example, because that’s what has been on my mind the most lately. It may shift later to diet, sexual appetite, daily piety, or personal connections with friends and family. We work at regulating these aspects of our being, keeping the good in and the bad out, because success in the basics ripples out into the big decisions, and into how we respond or react to people and situations in the emotional field.

To look at things from the other side, Friedman writes at length about the qualities of organisms and organizations that lack self-regulation. In his book, Failure of Nerve, Friedman writes, “All entities that are destructive to other entities share one major characteristic… they are not capable of self-regulation.” (p. 138) Such organisms, “will be perpetually invading the space of their neighbors,” and “cannot learn from their experience.” (p. 138) He goes on to say that the invasiveness of a virus, a spoiled child, a problem member of a congregation, or a terrorist isn’t found in their nature. Rather their invasiveness is due, “…to what they do not possess: the ability to be self-determined in any purposeful way.” (p. 139) I don’t want to be a virus.

In the fleeting moments of honesty I have with myself, I know that the bulk of my excuses for not exhibiting better “self-care” have more to do with my lack of being “self-determined in a purposeful way” rather than any lack of affection for myself. Thus, I permit myself, and my schedule, to be blown about by feelings and not my best intentions.

The treatment for North Carolina’s clergy, who as a group have higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure, depression, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, anxiety, and asthma than the rest of North Carolinians ( may be a stronger sense of something to live for than the approval of our congregations. I only speak for myself, of course.

All that is to say, that I want to positively affect the lives of my family, my congregation, and myself. The best way I can do that is through doing my part in the emotional systems that connect us all, and practice self-regulation. Self-regulation is taking responsibility for my own condition, focusing more on my own resiliency rather than the environment, trying my best to act on my best thinking rather than my anxiety, ridding myself of the notion that the rules of biology don’t apply to me, and creating a repertoire of responses rather than banging away with one tool only. In the long run (no pun intended) this kind of practice will help me stand up for my convictions. It means I’ve upped my exercise regimen from zero to two or three times a week. Big whoop, right? But at least I’m moving.

In this age of decline among so many congregations, where so much adaptive change is needed, emotional and spiritual strength is needed in church leadership. I’d like to be a part of that. I know now that such capacities are not brought about through technique, or new data, or even empathy. Instead, the capacities that influence others begin with how well I take responsibility for my growth and maturity. Mind you, I don’t have any aspirations or capacities to pastor a mega-church or be a tri-athlete. I merely want to be a more effective neurotic. So for me, it’s not a task of self-care. For me it’s the emotionally maturing work of self-regulation. Then I can better play my part in the body of Christ, have a modicum of hope to positively influence the emotional systems of my family and the congregation I serve, and have more capacity to take a stand for what I believe.

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