“Put On Your Oxygen Mask First”: Self-Care During a Pandemic

“Put on your own oxygen mask first.”

If you have ever travelled on an airplane you know the root of this phrase. On an airplane it means that in an emergency you can’t physically care for others if you don’t care for yourself first.

In March I first addressed the issue of self-care, assuming we would be at this COVID thing for two or three weeks; Easter at the latest. Here we are, week twelve, having celebrated Maundy Thursday,  Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost and now Trinity Sunday all under social distancing. Tori’s and my supervisory committee have told us that we aren’t to travel until at least the end of September and I am mentally preparing for the fact that many of us will not be back into our churches until 2021 at the earliest and even then, worship will be dramatically different than it was.

So what does this all mean?

It means at least two things.

  1. A sprint has become a marathon and
  2. I am exhausted and I suspect you are exhausted too.

Over the past months I have experienced an entire range of emotions. I must confess that some days I actually appreciate the quiet and lack of distractions. Other days I find myself anxious, weepy and unable to focus or remember even the most ordinary things. 

Over the past months I have rediscovered my love-hate relationship with technology, and particularly Zoom. I appreciate how wonderful it is to be able to connect visually with friends, colleagues and family and at the same time I typically find myself reaching for Advil after a long Zoom meeting due to the headache that comes with Zoom fatigue. Similarly my phone has become a blessing and a curse as all of a sudden I seem to be getting texts at all hours of the day and night. Not all are serious, yesterday a neighbour texted to tell me she had her cat out on a leash – yikes!

Over the past months I have experienced life without boundaries. I and others quickly lose track of what day it is, or what time it is. Too many emails are sent to me between midnight and two in the morning indicating that the senders are still up working. I have lost track of the number of people who have told me that they literally have not had a day off in twelve weeks. For many, working from home is a new experience and are they are finding it very difficult to establish clear boundaries between work space and home space; work time and home time. 

Over the past months I have, in my life and in the lives of others, seen activities that make sense for a sprint and not for a marathon. Tori and I have posted more than thirty articles to the synod website in twelve weeks. We cannot keep up that level of output so have decided that one post a week is more realistic. Likewise I am aware of ministers who are producing material daily that realistically ought to be produced weekly or at best bi-weekly, or are investing in levels of preparation for worship that made sense for a few weeks, but are now unsustainable over many months. 

In addition to all of the consequences of the pandemic and the emotional toll it is taking on our lives we also have the reality of the 24/7 barrage of news and social media. Currently, in addition to all the political craziness we are witnessing, we also have the gut wrenching heaviness of the deaths of George Floyd and Regis Korchinski-Paquet and the Black Lives Matter/Anti-Racism protests throughout the world. All of this means that most of us are feeling emotionally, spiritually and physically drained in ways and at levels we may never have experienced before.

So what do we do?

First, understand that this is a marathon, and we have to pace ourselves accordingly. This means that self-care is more important now than ever before. This means that we genuinely need to put on our own oxygen masks first.  The problem in this is that it feels wrong. As Christians and especially as Christian leaders we are taught to give first. We are expected to be always available, and it is understood that like Jesus in Matthew 20:28 we do “not come to be served, but to serve, and to give (our) life as a ransom for many.” There are many problems with this perspective and I confess that I have struggled with this for my entire ministry. As I consider how I might counter this expectation, I am reminded of all the times that Jesus left the crowd and even his disciples to rest, and to pray, and to recharge.

So what might our response look like?

  1. We need to find a way to erect boundaries between home and work. These must be physical and emotional boundaries.  I have learned the hard way that I will always be tempted to sneak a peek at email at all hours of the day. Because of this, I do not open my email between 5 PM and the start of work the next morning. I am also rediscovering the importance of doing my personal devotions before I open my email. I have also initiated a non-work email address, so everything does not come to the same place. Finally, I am blessed that I have an office where I can close the door. If you do not have a separate space, you might need to just put things away at the end of every day to literally get it out of sight, and therefore out of mind.
  2. We need to erect boundaries between home and technology. I am not a digital native so I am not tempted to have my phone under the pillow. Please don’t. I have a do not disturb setting on my phone between 11pm and 8 am. Similarly I have turned off all notifications except for texts. Turning off notifications is particularly important for emails and Facebook and other social media. I am severely restricting my time on social media and am doing my very best to only check the news twice a day. It is all a work in progress but I’m getting there.
  3. We need to be recharged spiritually, emotionally and physically. I am attending  to my devotional and prayer life. It has never come as easily as I would wish, but I know the importance of it. This also includes worship. With Zoom and YouTube we have the opportunity to check into worship in a million different ways. Do so, and do so without an evaluative heart. Socially, Tori and I have taken to having weekly ‘wine o’clock’ Zoom meetings with friends. This interaction is crucial, not just for human contact but so that we can laugh and joke together again. I am also making sure that I am doing physical things. For me this includes puttering in the yard and getting back to working on my classic car. I am committed to half an hour a day every day puttering in my garage to get back into the habit. Yes, I set my timer and yes, it is starting to work!
  4. We need to connect with trusted friends and colleagues. It is amazing how often, when we ask how people are, the answer is “fine” (I say it too). It isn’t fine and it won’t be fine for quite some time. We need to have places where we can have honest conversations with those who love us and will hold us accountable. You should have someone to talk to who is not your spouse. Spousal support is crucial but we also need to get out of the family echo chamber. Physical isolation is bad enough, emotional and spiritual isolation is even worse.
  5. We need to pace ourselves appropriately. I estimate that it currently takes me 1 ½ hours of effort for every hour of work I do. By this estimation, a 30 hour work week is much more realistic and equivalent to a 45 hour work week under more normal circumstances. In pacing yourself, I would urge you to ask yourself three questions.
    1. Is my current work level more suited to a sprint or a marathon? And if a sprint, what can I stop or reduce to achieve more appropriate levels?
    2. What is the best work that I can be doing at this time?
    3. Can I share my work with someone else?

As we come into the summer, we are coming into the time of vacations. In an age of online worship we have no need for pulpit supply as we can simply post links to other worshipping communities. I wonder if it is worth making this a more permanent habit. I wonder if it is possible to share worship with a trusted friend or colleague such that every four or six weeks one of you provides worship for two or more congregations. I already know of one group who are sharing summer worship among three church communities. It could be a means of a much needed rest.

As we think of self–care, one final thought. It seems like every congregation I serve has at least one difficult person who is currently critiquing everything the minister does or doesn’t do. We must not allow ourselves to be bullied or overwhelmed by our most difficult people. The vast majority of your flock support your ministry whatever form it takes. However, this does mean that we need to find ways to limit the input of certain people. This could include screening calls, limiting email or meetings through Zoom that are one on one. It might also mean that for our own sake, and the sake of the congregation, we have to say no in a firm Christian manner.

These are unprecedented times. Tori and I and others are available to support you as much as we can. However, at this time we must also come back to the advice of airlines; “put on your own oxygen mask first.” 


John-Peter Smit

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