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I heard Matt Bloom of the University of Notre Dame speak recently about research he is doing on well-being and thriving in ministry. Bloom has been studying pastors across several denominations for some time, and I commend his findings to all readers of The Twelve. You can see it here.

I was particularly interested in what he had to say about resilience, a key factor in well-being. Resilience is hardiness, the ability to get back up and keep going after being knocked down (cue Chumbawamba singing Tubthumping).

Resilience, Bloom said, is like a muscle that gets tired after use. We have to give it a chance to be restored. There is much in the ministerial life that depletes resistance. Every Sunday morning, ministers deplete their resilience. Every time a minister goes from a budget meeting to a dying person’s bedside, the minister’s resilience is depleted, both from the incongruent nature of the two activities and from the reality that one of the activities is bound to tie into his or her true self much more than the other.

As he spoke I imagined resilience like a bank account that takes in deposits and issues withdrawals. Bad things start happening when you are overdrawn.

“Self-care” is a buzzword these days, and with good reason. But as Bloom spoke, it was fascinating to consider how much of a pastor’s well-being is impacted by events, people, and groups far beyond our control.

There was an old baseball manager named Rocky Bridges who, when asked about his team, said, “I managed good, but boy did they play bad.” I smile at his ability to compartmentalize, but the truth is the measure of a leader is not if the leader “manages good” but the health of the organization. How well is someone doing when the organization he or she leads tanks? Or, how well are you doing when you are involuntarily thrust into the role of secondary sufferer when a spouse, parent or child faces a life-threatening health issue? Or, as Bloom spoke, I thought about those linked through work or family to someone struggling with mental health or addiction. Well-being is complex, and our lives and ministries are interconnected and interdependent in significant ways.

The time was ripe for me to hear Bloom, and I know why his words on resilience especially had my attention. My resilience account has had some serious withdrawals of late, and many of these things are far beyond my control. To make several long stories short:

• On January 10, I had a biopsy done to see if I have prostate cancer. The biopsy was unpleasant and, like so many medical procedures I seem to be having at this point in my life, an assault on human dignity. I would tell you about it, but I know several of you read The Twelve over your morning breakfast, so I’ll leave the details out. If there is a man you particularly don’t like, wish this procedure on him.

• On January 12, we put our beloved dog Maury down. I wrote a piece a while back that you can see here anticipating the end of Maury’s life. All I would add now is that I can’t remember a more painful day than January 12, or think of anything that combined such disparate feelings. I am absolutely convinced we did the right thing and at the same time I was filled with guilt and deep, deep sadness and grief.

• On January 16, the doctor called with my biopsy results, but I wasn’t home to receive the call. I was travelling to the conference where I heard Matt Bloom. This started a couple of days of phone tag with the doctor.

• On January 17, I reviewed the offer letter (without knowing the identity) for the new president of Western Theological Seminary. This means the search committee has settled on their candidate. I hope she or he is a great leader, but at this point it’s simply a great unknown for me.

• Late in the day of January 18, when I finally got home from the conference, I connected with my doctor. Yes, I have prostate cancer. It’s not an aggressive form, and we haven’t met to talk about treatment options yet. My biggest worry is he’ll say “we’re going to monitor it until it gets worse,” which will mean repeating the very unpleasant biopsy procedure every six months. Exactly what the future with this means is another unknown. How strange it is to begin to think of myself as someone with a form of cancer instead of that always being someone else’s problem.

My wife had a horrible cold when I returned home (depleting her resilience), so that evening, after she’d gone to bed quite early, I did the best act of resilience replenishment and self-care I could think of. I sat in my basement alone, dialed up The Big Lebowski on Netflix, and laughed my head off, escaping into the absurdity of that story, not dwelling on the unknowns of mine. Thank God for the Coen brothers, and thank God that the Dude abides. I take comfort in that. And I know that like the bowling pins that the Dude, Walter, Donny, Smokey, Liam, and Jesus aimed at, I get knocked down, but I’ll get up again.

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the Executive Vice President of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

8 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I had a parishioner in Hoboken named Letitia Groenewoud, from Surinam, homeless, but a proud, cagey, and tough survivor who never acted homeless. She would say, in the “Neger-Engels” dialect of Surinam, something like, “Mi is mangrassie, je trap mi, en mi oppewekke.” Translate: I am man-grass, you step on me, and I rise back up.” I believe man-grass is the tall grass of the Surinam savannah. She inspired me with her resilience.

  • RLG says:

    In evolutionary speak, it’s called the “survival of the fittest.” We all strive to get back on top. It’s a good instinct to have but it does have its downside. Thanks, Jeff.

    • Tom Eggebeen says:

      My thoughts exactly … when spoken of the self, it makes sense … “I fall down, I get up again.” But it easy for survivors, for those who always “get up again,” to look at others who are either fallen and prostrate, seemingly unable to rise again, and say to them, “Just get up! Look at me, Do what I’ve done.”

      The thoughts of “getting up again” often miss just how many people are involved in that process for us … it’s something we rarely ever do just by ourselves.

      The question of resilience is a good one, and watching The Big Lebowski is a fine way of restoring mental health and regaining some energy. But not everyone can curl up in the basement (here in California, we don’t have ’em – Ha!) and watch something on Netflix.

      It’s a message that the already-strong and well-placed like to hear, and it is important, and it has value. But not everyone is quite so strong, and many are not well-placed, either by circumstance or foolish behavior (and who isn’t guilty of that? Many survive their own foolishness by never being caught, or at least have folks defend them).

      As you say, “survival of the fittest” is a human instinct, but it’s not always humane, when it comes to others, and when applied to the self, it can be a tyrant.

  • William Harris says:

    As a guy of a certain, age, bummer about the prostate (and exams). On resilience, well there is that matter of perseverance, Paul, and Hebrews’ great litany, but I think I will prefer Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise.”

  • Dick Stravers says:

    Jeff, laughing your head off while watching a film on Netflix after receiving the news that you have prostate cancer and that you may have to endure another biopsy or three tells me that you surely are a resilient person. When you get knocked down, you get up again, even fast. Your behavior and your words encourage this old man. May YOU and your wife be encouraged, knowing that God is not only hearing your prayers for healing but those of your many friends, me included, as well. The healing and compassionate Lord is with you.

  • Debra K Rienstra says:

    Grace to you, Jeff. So sorry you’re carrying around some awkward and weighty burdens right now. Prayers for consolations and timely mercies.

  • Ginny Kuilema says:

    Ah, Jeff, I’m sorry to hear about Maury. He had a lot of spunk when I knew him.
    May you and Gretchen feel God’s love through all of us, as you go through these challenges.

  • James Brumm says:

    I’m so sorry to hear about all of thee assaults on your resilience. Please keep up the self-care, and know that you are being held in the prayers of others far and near.

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