Dana’s* feet hit the floor about 6:30 AM at the sound of the youngest child waking with a wail, and there is no break from that moment on. The day is filled with caring for small children, dealing with heat and humidity, trying to keep the apartment clean, shopping in multiple stores and open markets, travel, making sure her husband has time and feels appreciated, and sharing life with women in her building and community who need the Lord.
*not her real name
She lives in a modern city, but it is huge; getting anywhere takes time and effort on public transportation. Her apartment is IKEA-sleek, but the small space seems at times to close in around her. She functions well in the local language, but understanding meaning below the surface is always a challenge. She has friends, but she often feels lonely and isolated. She wonders if she will ever feel spiritually alive again like she did before marriage, children, and ministry took over her life.
As her head hits the pillow late in the evening, Dana realizes that she took care of everyone around her that day, but not herself. How does the woman who lives in cross-cultural ministry take care of herself when everything is focused on others?
I asked a group of women who live in Asia—including the woman described above—how they care for themselves. Twenty women from five different countries who work in yet five more countries gathered in small groups to talk about spiritual, emotional, and physical self-care. What did they say?
Bible study is an obvious way to get spiritual care, but many ministry women are either leading studies with new believers or have no group study which they can attend. Doing a study alone, like a Beth Moore video-led study, is one solution. Some women found another couple to meet with for encouragement; these would preferably not be workers from their own ministry team. A few had an older mentor, especially a woman from their own home culture. One Chinese woman found that writing Scripture in calligraphy helped her internalize the Word. A few found sermons online, but all missed corporate worship and “church” as they had had it at home. Even if there is a church to attend, getting there with small children on public transportation can detract from the worship experience.
Praise music and solitude emerged as two dominant spiritual-care methods:
“I listen to praise music when I am cooking.”
“We limit TV to weekends. The rest of the week, praise or classical music is the only ‘noise’.”
“I live-stream music off the internet.”
“I try to get some monthly Sabbath, by myself, totally away.”
“Several of us booked separate rooms in a hotel to fast, pray, and sleep for 24 hours.”
“I have a cozy chair where I can read and journal and quietly reflect.”
Prayer also was discussed, but finding time for prayer can be hard for younger moms. One takes her kids on prayer walks in the neighborhood—as they walk and chatter and play, she prays her way around the blocks. Another puts her little one in the stroller at naptime and walks her to sleep, praying as she goes.
Emotional self-care goes hand-in-hand with spiritual self-care. Women need time alone to regroup, but husbands are busy with ministry, and handing off the kids may seem unfair. (“After all, he is tired at the end of the day too.”) Babysitters may or may not be available or affordable.
The women shared some ideas:
“I talk to the Lord and try to identify my feelings, especially the negative ones, in light of Scripture.”
“I take long walks outside and appreciate God’s creation.”
“I grow plants and vegetables.”
“I play the piano and drums.”
“I go window shopping to see the fancy stuff, but I don’t feel a need to buy it.”
“From 8 to10 at night I do NO work. I just relax with a movie or book.”
“I try to invest in some relationships that are not ministry-related.”
“I like to talk, text, or Skype and FaceTime with family and good friends at home, but I pray first because it needs to lift me up, not make me long for home.”
If emotional self-care links with spiritual self-care, physical self-care links with emotional self-care. In truth, all three areas of a woman’s life are inextricably intertwined. Three areas of physical care were dominant in the discussions.
Exercise is vital. Even walking, if you get enough of it, is good exercise. Joining an exercise class is great if there is one, but if not, there are exercise videos that can give a strong workout. Exercise is the best way to battle depression as the body rebuilds and regenerates. Taking an early morning walk with a friend is another good way to battle loneliness, while getting needed exercise.
Eating properly was the second physical tip.
“Get a juicer.”
“Intentionally put fruit and vegetables on the table so you eat them.”
Finally, sleep is vital to good physical care. One woman gets Saturday morning as her “sleep-in” time while her husband handles the kids. Another takes mini-naps in the daytime when her children are quiet, while some of the older women found a brief nap after lunch a big help. Others found long hot baths a good way to relax, turning their bathroom into a “spa” for a little while. Going to bed early is always a good idea, especially since much of the world wakes and begins work with the dawn.
Expect self-care to be a struggle.
Taking care of self is never easy. A busy woman, especially one far from a church family and surrounded with ministry needs, finds it hard to set aside time for Bible study.
“I sometimes go weeks without cracking my Bible except for brief devotional reading,” one woman confessed. Taking a day alone with God is wonderful, but making it happen seems impossible at times. Even going to church—if there is one—can be a challenge with little ones. There may be no children’s classes or no nursery, and just getting there is hard if the family does not have a car. The woman who goes to church or a Bible study and then spends the entire time taking care of her own children may wonder if it was really worth going.
Emotional health is vital, but it is also difficult to achieve. Most ministry women long for a close friend, someone who can share their life.
“My best friend is 10,000 miles away,” one woman shared. “Thank God for email and technology, because we can deeply share in writing even if we do not see each other often.”
Another said, “I am especially grateful for several incredible friends who know no distance when it comes to relationship. I could be anywhere in the world and their friendships will remain.”
Physical care is also a struggle. “I tried exercise in the early morning,” one woman reported, “but the kids would wake up, and my husband needed to be getting ready to leave, not finding oatmeal for hungry children. I switched to mid-afternoon when one child is asleep and another having quiet play time, and I am in my living room. If I don’t exercise, I find I am an emotional basket case, I don’t feel well, and I snap at everyone.”
“I know I should exercise, but it’s hard to get motivated,” several said. Others struggle with serious air pollution, or finding a good doctor for annual check-ups.
Self-care takes planning. Women live busy lives, whether married or single, with little children or with grown children. Women also live lives that change constantly as their roles morph from year to year. When they are in transition, which ministry women face constantly, it is difficult to be intentional about any care—spiritual, emotional, or physical.
“I am just trying to survive, and there are days when the best thing I can do emotionally is cry!” said one woman new to overseas ministry.
At the end of the day Dana has a brief chat with her mom, 12 time zones away. Dana has a cup of tea while her mom sips her morning coffee. “The time to talk with other women at the conference was good,” she says. “I came back with a new spirit, and even the kids seem to be more settled. I think they know that this is home and that we are here for the long haul, but for me, it was good to know that we all face the same issues.”
Self-care. God can certainly use us in our weakest moment, but we are better vessels when we are spiritually, emotionally, and physically healthy.
© 2013 Thrive.
Question to consider: How are you striving to be a “better vessel” by being spiritually, emotionally, and physically healthy?