I was recently in a group discussion where the leader asked, “Do you practice what you preach?” This is a fair question and a good question.
I immediately thought of a moment years ago when I was working at a nonprofit agency specializing in court-ordered therapy groups. I had just wrapped up a session with men who had been charged with a domestic violence offense. I was finishing paperwork and straightening the room when one of the participants came up to me and said, “I just realized, you’re one of us, aren’t you?”
I had to think about that for a second. Does he think I’m a domestic violence offender? I wondered. That I’m court-ordered to be here?
He smiled and said again, “You’re one of us, aren’t you? It seems like you don’t think you have it all figured out either. That makes it easier for us to be real and to actually do some work on ourselves when we’re here.”
I’m sure a smile spread across my face then. “Yes. Yes, I am one of you. I am a human too, struggling with what to do with my anger and frustrated with all the things I cannot control. Yes, I am definitely one of you.”
That may have been when I began to articulate a deep belief that was forming in me: I have to recognize my own humanity in order to connect with and deeply humanize others. For me, practicing what I preach does not mean striving for perfection. It means being willing to acknowledge my full humanity, including, but not limited to, my struggles and failures.
Practicing What I Preach
Many years after that court-ordered group, I was in private practice in a cozy little office within walking distance of my house. I was 45, happily married with two kids and living the American Dream, quite honestly, when a health crisis introduced me to my own mortality and also to a crazy level of anxiety that I had not known before.
One afternoon in that cozy little office, I sat steeped in that crazy anxiety and found myself listening to a client talk about some health problems, things that strangely reflected my own struggles. For the first time in my life, I thought I might hyperventilate, and suddenly I had the thought, OH, CRAP. I’M THE THERAPIST.
My next realization was that I had to get to the other side of the therapy office; I had to get myself back into therapy. In reality, I struggled to do even that, to find someone with whom I wasn’t afraid of being a broken therapist. The only name I had outside my own circle of colleagues and referrals was someone that I’d heard had theological leanings very different from mine, and I really didn’t want to show my brokenness to someone who might be ready to critique my theology.
But I found that therapist to be completely nonjudgmental, and it was in her office that I found the space to be a human. A fellow human being — not a leader, not a therapist, not a pastor’s wife, not a parent. Just another human being on the planet. Just another someone with very human struggles and psychological distress.
I found ways and places to come back to myself. I slowly but surely started to experience joy again. I learned new tools and the miracle of my own breath. I gained a different and maybe deeper understanding of prayer. I was completely humbled even as I gained strength. I was, in part, learning once again to treat myself as a human and not just as a helper of other humans. I stepped back toward practicing what I preached. Not toward perfection, but toward humanity.
Caring for Yourself as a Formation Leader
So how can faith formation leaders take care of yourselves? Here are some suggestions that I offer for both you and myself as a helping professional and person of faith:
Practice what you preach. As in, be a human.
Know that you will have moments of psychological distress, messy relationships, and “Oh, crap, I’m the leader here” moments because you are actually a real live human. The alternative is to be either dead or a robot.
Reach out for help.
Get a therapist.
Go to a spiritual director.
Take a walk.
Count to 10.
Enroll in a meditation class.
Find a place to express your anger and sadness.
Remember what feeds your soul, and do those things.
Invest in relationships where you are not in the role of professional helper.
These things are not superfluous. They are what hold you up and keep you going and help you to survive.
Let yourself be human. See yourself as a human. Love yourself as another human. Then love your neighbor as yourself. That is, after all, what we preach.