The Helper’s Paradox

The best way to take care of others is to take care of yourself.

There is an old joke about two men who sat together on an airplane.

“Are you a minister?” one asked the other.

“No,” the other replied. “I’ve just had the flu for a couple of weeks.”

It’s a common notion, really—ministers are frail, pale, and wimpy. Worn out from service to God and others. Weak and weary from a life of sacrifice. Poor, pitiful pastors depriving themselves for a higher calling and looking like sickly flu victims in the process.

It is also a false notion, or should be, because ministering from a stance of personal deprivation is both foolish and ineffective. That is why the Helper’s Paradox is important to remember: The best way to take care of others is to take care of yourself.

At first blush, the Helper’s Paradox sounds like narcissism: pastors, like the rest of society, deciding to look out for number one. Pastors opting out of other-centeredness to focus on self-centeredness.

But that’s not what the Helper’s Paradox is about at all. This paradox recognizes that we can’t give to others something we don’t have ourselves. It reminds us that all of those wonderful fruits of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, and so on—are not so much taught as caught. In other words, the Helper’s Paradox is a stark reminder that ministry has more to do with who we are than what we say or do.

We can work sixty hours a week, visit the sick religiously, burn midnight oil preparing homiletical masterpieces, and meet with committees until our tongues hang out, but if we’re tired, depleted, discouraged, and “flu-like,” it profiteth us nothing. People will be more influenced by our spirit—the life and energy in us—than by our deeds.

That is why it is imperative that we take care of ourselves, keep our inner batteries charged, and find ways to stay physically, emotionally, and spiritually energized. If we really believe that Jesus came to give people abundant life and if we preach that to the people in the pews on Sunday morning, it behooves us to believe that Jesus came to give us abundant life too. We really can’t expect others to be any more relaxed, fun-loving, or alive than we are.

With that truth in mind, let me tell you more about my Thursdays.

As I mentioned earlier, I take every Thursday off and spend it doing relaxing, fun-loving, coming-alive kinds of activities. It is not stretching the truth to say that Thursdays have probably saved my ministry. Without that day away from church and ministerial duties, I might be selling insurance or driving a taxicab by now.

Here is a typical Thursday:

I wake up between 5:30 and 6:00, as is my daily custom, to drink coffee and read the paper. Even on my day off, I can’t “sleep in,” so I enjoy an hour of solitude just sipping coffee and perusing the sports page.

At 7:30, I head toward the tennis courts. Every Thursday, I play doubles with my “old guys,” three retired men who play tennis several times a week. We always have spirited play and lots of fun and laughter. After tennis, we go to a local bagels place for a cup of coffee.

Then I go home and work in the yard a while. In Texas, we have to do yard work seven months a year, so most Thursdays I need to mow, edge, sweep, or putter in the flower beds.

After yard work, I shower and put on some old, comfortable clothes. Then Sherry and I go out to eat—maybe to Sarita’s if we’re hungry for Mexican food, or Taipei if Chinese strikes our fancy, or The Brown Bag if we want a sandwich. We eat out just about every Thursday lunch and have been known to drive across San Antonio to try a new spot.

Then, it’s on to HEB, our local grocery store, where we do our weekly shopping. Sherry always plans a week’s worth of meals—from Thursday to Thursday—and has a list of groceries needed to make those meals happen. We obsessively follow our list, checking off items as we toss them into our grocery cart. Then we grimace as we come to the checkout, knowing we have to pay for all the stuff we’ve accumulated.

ChickenSafronSoup_smAfter our grocery expedition, we go home, put the groceries away, and launch into making our soup of the week. We try a different soup each week and usually cook the soup together. I chop, Sherry mixes. Or I mix, she chops. However we do it, when we get through we have a pot of delicious soup we can eat on all week.

Then it’s naptime, or reading time, or run-down-to-the-hardware-store time before we cook dinner and settle in for the evening. The evening might be watching the Spurs on television, making a jaunt to Borders for book-browsing and coffee, or just hanging around the house.

By bedtime, we’re deliciously relaxed and tired from a day of fun activities. We might read before we drift off to sleep, sorry that Thursday is gone, but better prepared to face whatever Friday might bring.

That’s the way it goes most Thursdays. No church. Nothing religious at all. Just life in all of its simple glory. Coffee and the paper. Tennis. The old guys. Lunch on the town. Grocery shopping. Making soup. Browsing the bookstore. Falling asleep. Nothing spectacular. But nothing to be taken for granted either.

Without Thursday, I wouldn’t be much of a pastor.

Those unspectacular Thursdays keep me alive. Without them, I would be too religious, too institutional, and too uptight. I need one day to be human, one day to push a grocery cart and walk the world in Bermuda shorts and flip-flops. And the better I feel and the happier I am, the better pastor I am.

I know the Helper’s Paradox is true because I’ve tried it both ways. I’ve tried being religious, uptight, and worn out. And I’ve tried being human, relaxed, and refreshed. Human, relaxed, and refreshed is better. I can take better care of people, be a better pastor to people, when I take care of myself.

Every day I do battle with my day planner. The temptation is always to become over-committed, over-involved, and over-stressed, to buy into the idea that I must be all things to all people and solve the problems of the whole world. The temptation is to take care of everything out there and nothing in here.

But being faithful means we find what we’re here on earth to take care of and then focus on those things. If I’m going to win that daily war with the day planner and take care of myself, I need to remember exactly what I’m here to take care of.

Years ago, I wrote down what I felt God was calling me to do, five priorities that would define me and dictate what I wrote in that day planner. These five priorities have never changed, and remembering them still enables me to be faithful and to take care of myself:

(1) Family. When I first listed “family” as one of my priorities, my children, Stacy and Randel, were small. I knew, though, that I didn’t want to sacrifice them on the altar of ministerial success. So I went to all of their sports activities and even coached some of their teams. Sherry and I were active booster club members and worked our turns in the concession stand. I put “family stuff ” over “church stuff ” and have never regretted it.

Now that Stacy and Randel are grown and gone from home, they are still objects of our concentrated attention. They both live in Austin, just two hours from us, and we get to visit often. We also talk on the phone and e-mail each other frequently.

And now that our children are out on their own, Sherry and I have a lot of time together. One reason Thursday is such a delightful day is that we get to spend nearly the whole day together doing things we both enjoy. It’s a day of focused attention on one another.

(2) Being a pastor. I have been a pastor for thirty years now. For twenty-seven of those years, I have served two churches. Frankly, I’ve had moments when other pursuits looked awfully inviting. I thought once of opening a bookstore and another time probed the possibility of running a bed-and-breakfast. But those were momentary fantasies fueled by unpleasant situations. I’ve never seriously considered being anything but a pastor.

Since being a pastor is part of who I am and who I am called to be, the church stakes a large claim on my time. That means a sizeable chunk of my life is given to studying, preaching, counseling, visiting people in the hospital, attending committee meetings, planning worship services, writing articles, meeting with our church staff, and other less glamorous duties too numerous to mention.

(3) Writing. I can’t be “me” without trying to express my “insides” on paper. E. B. White once described writing as an affliction, “something that rises up on you, as a welt.” For better or worse, I have the affliction and spend a good bit of time writing, editing, sending out query packages, and trying to bandage my ego when publishers reject my stuff. I also lead a couple of writers’ conferences each year.

I’m not a particularly disciplined writer. I don’t write every day, for example, or set goals for how many pages I’ll write each week. But seldom does a week go by that I haven’t hurled words at paper to see if any of them make sense. For me, writing is an affliction that isn’t going away any time soon.

(4) Reading. I am a self-confessed “bookaholic.” Books give me hours of enjoyment. They feed my spirit. They give me ideas for preaching. For me, the only thing better than wandering through a bookstore for hours is actually finding a book there that will transport me to another world.

Because books are so important to my personal growth, I am reading something all the time. The lamp stand by my bed has four books on it right now: a murder mystery, a baseball book, a book about a guy who rebuilt an old truck, and a book on why Americans are experiencing more and more success but enjoying it less and less. I don’t think I can stretch my mind or have much to say if I don’t read.

(5) Exercise. For fifteen years, I ran three miles almost every day. I was an avid runner and even completed a marathon. Now my knees are shot, and I’ve moved on to other less punishing forms of exercise. As I mentioned, I play tennis every week, and I also work out at a fitness center three times a week. Sherry and I walk a lot, too, so just about every day I’m getting some kind of exercise. I realized early on that if my ministry was going to have any vitality at all, my body would have to have vitality. I knew I needed to exercise, eat right, get plenty of sleep, and generally behave as if my body is the temple of God. That was true when I decided on these five priorities years ago, and it is still true today.

When I look at the five priorities I pinpointed early in my ministry, I’m struck by two thoughts: First, I realize how unspectacular they are. If they in any way are a plan for changing the world, they are a modest plan. No, let me rephrase that: a very modest plan. There’s nothing earthshaking about focusing on family, being a pastor, writing, reading, and exercising. But the second thing I realize is how true they still are for me. Over the years, these five priorities have remained constant. I’ve set my sail by them and planned my days around them. As unspectacular as they are, they’re still my guiding lights. If I can take care of these things, give my best time and effort to these five priorities, I will call myself faithful. And I will be taking care of myself, so I can then take care of others.

What is important about my list is that, in addition to giving me a strategy for doing battle with my day planner, it reminds me that “being a pastor” is only one of my five priorities. “Being a pastor” is an important part of my identity, but it isn’t the totality of who I am. I have a life, an identity, apart from the church.

If for some reason I’m taken out of my role as pastor of a Baptist church, I won’t collapse in despair. I’m more than a pastor. I’m also a husband and father, a writer, a reader, and someone intent on staying in good physical shape. Take away my pulpit, and I’ll still be calling my kids on the phone and taking Sherry out for Thursday lunch, I’ll still be flailing away at my computer writing books and articles, I’ll still be reading voraciously and prowling bookstores, and I’ll still be playing tennis with my “old guys” and getting up early to lift weights at the fitness center. Take away one part of my identity, and I’ll still have four other parts.

As a pastor, I must make sure I have a “self.” I must work to be an authentic human being who loves God, people, and life. I must never mistake my role as a pastor as my sole identity. Being a pastor is a high calling and a precious privilege, but it isn’t “me.” My “me” is bigger than that.

The more I can take care of that real “me” and remain faithful to my priorities, the better I’ll do as a pastor.

I guess these are the ultimate paradoxes for pastors: The less we’re consumed by being a pastor, the better pastor we will be. And we can’t be a true pastor to others until we first learn to be a pastor to ourselves.

This post originally appeared as chapter 17 in The Leadership Labyrinth by Judson Edwards.

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