Answers on a postcard please! We reckon there’s as many ways to look after your soul as there are souls in the world. And that every soul is more complex, intricate and multi-faceted than we can begin to comprehend. So, when it comes to how to look after a soul…? Well, surely there are more answers to this than there are stars in the sky.

(And that’s all if we can even really understand what ‘a soul’ is! I’m not about to go sticking my neck out with a definition, but my start-point is a hazy idea of some immortal spark of truth and light that seeks to draw ever closer to the infinite source of truth and light. We might call that God, but I’m not convinced that our souls speak the same language as us, or life might be a lot easier to understand…)

Anyway, that’s all well and good – but the fact is that we neglect our souls, our spirits, our inner lives at great cost. Our wellbeing has enormous implications for how we operate and the work we do, and many folk across the medical, psychiatric, pastoral and wider worlds agree that wellbeing comprises physical, emotional and – crucially in this case – spiritual dimensions[1]. Clearly, high levels of wellbeing are important for all people regardless of where life takes them and what they do there. However, for those involved in ministry – and maybe particularly for pioneers or FX practitioners who often find themselves in unchartered territories and required to give much of themselves to the people they serve – the nurturing of a sustaining spirituality to energise and inspire is vital.

I speak with many pioneers and practitioners in the course of my roving FX reporter work, and I often ask these good folk how they take care of their own wellbeing alongside growing new ministries and developing new ideas. Unsurprisingly, the answers are as varied as the people answering! However, a few themes have emerged which I’ve brought together in hopes that some of these ideas or perspectives may resonate or spark new ideas about how you can look after your own precious soul…[2]

  1. Acknowledge that it’s a tough gig – to yourself, and to others. “Things come and go when you’re pioneering new things – it can be isolating and demoralising”, I was told. “Pioneer work is fragile,” another person shared, “there’s a sense that things could blow away in the wind. You need to know that people have your back. It’s like an expedition team and the home-camp – the explorers need to know that the people at the base are there for them if things go wrong.” And, let’s face it, things often don’t fit with our hopes and plans as they emerge – and that can be tough.
  2. Carefully discern where the best support can be accessed on a structural level. The pioneers I spoke to listed ministry mentors, line management, spiritual directors, overseeing groups and regular fellowship events as valued people and places of support. “Particularly at the beginning, support is crucial,” I was told. “In my previous diocese there was no real understanding of pioneering, and targets could change or funding be withdrawn at any point. When things didn’t go right, I fell through the gaps. In my new Diocese there is strong strategic and emotional support for pioneers – and the funding they receive to support our work reflects that. It’s reassuring to note that the places that support pioneers well seem to get more Church Commissioners funding – they are supporting places where people will grow and work will develop best.”
  3. Put your own support in place. Structural support is crucial, but also noted was the significance for soul wellbeing of “people of peace”. These people could be friends, partners, colleagues, family – or even exercise buddies. “Sometimes I just need a good rant, somewhere safe to let off steam. I have friends who will just listen, and put the kettle on,” one pioneer told me. Another said, “my partner is my sounding board and keeps me sane. I often just need to get things off my chest, and then switch off my emails and forget it for the night.” Prayer support from local churches was also noted as helpful for remembering that “I am part of a bigger picture.” The support we put in place for ourselves doesn’t have to be people – yoga practice, dog walking, regular retreats and cooking were also listed as some of the things which people across our network build in to sustain them.
  4. Make a break for it! One theme which emerged was around physically ‘getting away’ from it all. “Time in the outdoors is critical for me, I know I need to get outside sometimes to connect with God,” shared one pioneer. Another noted, “just having a day off at home doesn’t switch me off – work and home can blend when you live where you work. I need to get physically away sometimes, and then I come back re-charged.” As is often the case, balance is essential: “If I spend too many days at the desk I get worn down, if I spend too many days with other people I get worn down! I just need to remember simple things like keeping balance, spreading my tasks well across a week, and getting away from things to find space for myself.” “I’m so aware of the ‘cult of busyness’,” someone else reflected; “it can make people feel important to over-fill their diary and talk about how busy they are! But it serves no one well and it’s not a good model of healthy life or faith.”
  5. Rhythm and rooted points. “I have to be very intentional about looking after my own spirituality”, one pioneer told me. “It won’t just happen amongst the busyness of life and work.” Perhaps one of the most honest answers I received when chatting with one pioneer about how they prioritise their own spiritual wellbeing was, “I don’t! I have lots of good intentions, but unless I find rooted points where I’m accountable to others then it slips down my to-do list.” Morning prayer, regular scheduled time of silence, and having “anchor points to remind me to pray” were all listed as helpful ways to build a rhythm of prayer and awareness into pioneer life. “For me, its finding anywhere I’m not “the boss”!” I was told, “places to be and pray with others, where no one is looking to me for leadership.”
  6. A final reflection from my gleanings relates to the wellbeing that many pioneers find through seeing God move through the work they’re involved in. “One pioneer trait must be that we’re energised and excited by seeing communities come together and working for a common good?” the question was asked, whilst another practitioner remarked “my ministry is spiritually nurturing to me. It doesn’t drain me, as I learn something new every time I tell stories or talk with people. It’s a two-way process.”

So, as predicted when I began my small exploration into soul-care for pioneers – there’s no quick-fix and there’s no one-size-fits-all. However, we here at FX HQ believe that healthy souls and well-watered spirits lead to people flourishing and good work developing – and so we offer these insights and reflections from across our network. Let us know your thoughts. How do you look after your soul? Let’s share wisdom across the FX world….

[1] And don’t take my word for it, there’s a wealth of evidence and research into links between spirituality, religiosity and wellbeing. I read, ‘What is the role of spirituality in mental health treatment?’ in the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, vol. 47 Issue 3 (https://www.healio.com/psychiatry/journals/jpn), but there’s plenty of other resources out there.

[2] Names have not been included to protect the soul-secrets of the pioneers who have shared their thoughts.