Each fall, COMISS Network: the Network on Ministry in Specialized Settings, sponsors a week to recognize and affirm Pastoral Care providers. This year’s theme is Spiritual Resilience. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship endorses over 728 chaplains and pastoral counselors who provide pastoral care in a variety of specialized settings. This week we will hear from six of these as they reflect on spiritual resilience in their ministries. As you read their reflections take a moment to express appreciation to those who provide pastoral care in your community.
By James Stillwell
Today was atypical in the life of this professional pastoral counselor.
Four of my original eight appointments texted to rescheduled for other days, leaving me space for much needed thinking and contemplation.
So the day was atypical in two ways. One, it was set out to be too long of a day for my own mental health. Two, it was unusual for that many people to cancel at the last minute.
The four appointments remaining included (1) a gentleman entering marital separation with hope of renewing his marriage, (2) a newlywed couple which included a husband who had not fully recovered from a previous divorce, (3) a single lady in her late 30s laden with the responsibility of caring for her mother of increasingly declining health and (4) a lady seeking to go into Christian ministry, recently been diagnosed with a difficult mental illness. I love the diversity of situations in which I am allowed to, in some sense, be the presence of Christ in the lives of people in my corner of the world.
I commented to my wife that this day is much less stressful than usual, and for that I am grateful. While my income depends on people showing up, my mental health sometimes depends on spaces created in my day when they don’t.
I count it a privilege to sit with people in the holy zones of meaning, choices, transitions, vulnerability, pain, loss and relationship. Last night while at Cracker Barrel, following a day of counseling in another city, I jotted down a few notes about what keeps me resilient. I hope that sharing these thoughts will be helpful, not only to other counselors and chaplains, but to anyone who finds themselves at the intersection of life, work, relationships and bearing one another’s burdens for the sake of Christ.
Since a major love of my life is music, I organize these thoughts with lyrics from eight songs—some sacred, some secular, some older, some newer—on which I hang the questions that keep me resilient in a line of work that could cause early retirement I do not continuously answer these questions in life-giving ways.
“Taking Care Of Business”
Are my primary relationships up-to-date? Do I text or call my loved one(s) throughout the day? Am I protecting my relationships with appropriate boundaries? Am I carving out enough time each week to nourish these relationships in one-on-one times of celebration?
“With A Little Help From My Friends”
Do I protect myself with adequate feedback, supervision and consultation? Do I take care of myself by getting my own counseling or spiritual direction? Do I have regular meetings with brothers and sisters in the faith who keep me accountable and encouraged?
“A Day In The Life”
Am I staying current with continuing education, both formal and informal?
“What A Day That Will Be”
Do I cultivate a spiritual life, privately, with my significant others, and with a local community of faith?
“We’ll Have Fun, Fun, Fun”
Do I enjoy my work? Do I enjoy my play? Do I find a way to be grateful for every minute of every day that God gives me to live?
“I Am Your Servant”
Do I find ways to serve the Body of Christ and the world both inside and outside of my primarily area of calling and specialization?
“All I Have To Do Is Dream”
Do I keep a clear conscience by following my profession’s code of ethics as well as my own personal ethical standards? (A clear conscience is the most restful pillow.)
“The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You”
Do I have a healthy rhythm of life that includes Sabbath-keeping and other forms of rest, getting enough sleep, exercise, practicing moderation, good life-management and regular planning and evaluation? Am I mindful to be here, now?
These questions are not panacea. But they are my guardrails, support system, buffer, solid foundation and source of strength in order to be able to effectively sit with individuals, couples and families who struggle with life’s most persistent questions.
My philosophy, as often repeated by such luminaries as the late philosopher Dallas Willard, is that spiritual life is life, not some compartment of life, but all of life, lived with God. As a pastoral counselor, seeking to bring the presence of Christ into real-life situations of pain and struggle and to shine a flashlight of hope and healing, I find that these sources of nourishment make resiliency in my work possible.
In the Gospel we find that Jesus went to a lonely place and prayed. Alternatively, Jesus fellowshipped with friends and acquaintances. In his example, Jesus set the tone and tempo for us today who follow in his steps. Following him—by day and night—becomes the run of the race set before us, a work not cut short before its time, made possible because we find in his presence the wind beneath our wings.
Dr. James Stillwell is a Kentucky Licensed Pastoral Counselor in Lexington, Frankfort, and Louisville who is endorsed by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. James and his wife Vivian have four children and two grandchildren, and are grateful for the resilience strengthened by the “ties that bind” including the “denomi-network” of kindred spirits known as CBF.