The Rev. Chanequa Walker-Barnes discovered the spiritual practices of Lent when she went to seminary.
Then she decided regular introspection should last for more than 40 days.
Now she supports year-round practices to keep herself grounded in a continual pattern of self-care for body, mind and spirit. She teaches about it in a January three-week course at Columbia Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian Church (USA) school outside Atlanta, where she is professor of practical theology and pastoral care.
In her new book, Sacred Self-Care: Daily Practices for Nurturing Our Whole Selves, Walker-Barnes describes how she strives to live her life with healthy habits, wise speech, a meditation altar and regular laughter.
“We have to be careful about cultivating joy,” she said in an interview ahead of the release of her book on August 15. “It’s really easy to get mired in negativity, especially in a lot of the uncertainty that we’re in, and if we’re not careful and intentional about cultivating joy and happiness, our spirits can give way to the negative.”
A clinical psychologist and a self-described “denominationally promiscuous” Christian, Walker-Barnes, 50, talked to Religion News Service about self-care, reinterpreting the parable of the good Samaritan and watching YouTube.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Some might see self-care as being selfish. Why do you instead view it as a sacred act?
I think we assume that self-care, anything with the word “self” in it, is self-centered and narcissistic. But that comes from an unhealthy way of looking at ourselves. I phrase self-care in terms of how we were created, that we’re created by God. I connect self-care to caring for us as God has created us.
You teach a course on self-care at your seminary. What difference can it make for future ministers?
In my ministry work, I often found myself encouraging ministers to take care of themselves. In my own seminary experience, there was this push to just do more and do more and do more — the sense that our call to ministry is judged by how much we do for our ministry setting. At the same time, we’re reading all these news stories that keep coming out about clergy burnout. I began to realize we need to be teaching students to enter ministry in a different way so that it’s not about trying to do repair work once people reach burnout but, rather, it’s about how do we help them to develop practices that will avoid the risk of burnout?
Your books come from your standpoint as a womanist theologian, paying particularly attention to the needs of Black women. Do you see self-care as a practice for women of color, women in general or anyone?
All of the above. I think self-care is hard for anybody in our society because we live in a world that teaches us that our value is determined by our productivity and that happens to everybody. You can be upper class, white, male, able-bodied and you get that message plenty. But there are particular populations where race, gender, sexuality, disability status layer that message even more, and cement it even more so.
On the seventh day of each week of the devotionals in your book, you include the lyrics of a hymn from the African American Heritage Hymnal, starting with “Standin’ in the Need of Prayer.” Why did you choose this hymnal as part of the rituals in your book?
It’s my favorite hymnal. (laughs.) Again, grounding myself in the womanist tradition and in the Black tradition, I sing hymns through that tradition. I think hymns are important in shaping our theology. And for many readers who aren’t African American or who haven’t been in predominantly African American churches, I think it enriches them spiritually to see that this might be a hymn that isn’t in their tradition or it might be sung differently in the African American tradition. Also, the hymnal is ecumenical and so it connects with my own identity as an ecumenical Christian. I appreciated that that one draws from a wide range of African American denominations.
As you explain self-care as self-love, you noted that the good Samaritan story in the Gospel of Luke showed that he cared for a wounded stranger but also kept going on his journey. What does that say about limits of self-sacrifice?
I love that story. I think it’s a great story that our care for others doesn’t have to come at the cost of our care for ourselves, that we can do both and we should do both and that sometimes it requires asking other people to stand in the gap for us, seeing our ministry as not just about what we do, but as what we do as part of a collective.
You have personally faced a number of medical crises, including breast cancer twice. But you say it’s important to have “full-throated laughter” as a form of medicine every day. How have you managed to do that?
First of all, I’m intentional about what I watch on television. I think we watch a lot of stuff that is filled with trauma so I am intentional about watching things that are more lighthearted. I tend to do more comedy. But then there are times where I try to seek out joy and reasons to laugh on a day-to-day basis just in my everyday life. And when those don’t arrive naturally, then I get on YouTube, and I’m typing in “funny dog” or “funny babies” and I can spend 15, 20 minutes, easily, watching that and just cracking up and that lifts my spirits.
You encourage your readers to become ambassadors of sacred self-care at home, at work and in the church. How does that work in houses of worship?
I advocate congregations taking a Sabbath. I’ve been in many churches where Sunday becomes the meeting day because it’s convenient. So after worship, this committee is going to meet, or we’re going to do this work because everybody’s here, so why not? You could have meetings all afternoon. A congregation can simply decide — it doesn’t have to be Sunday. What’s a day a week where we as a congregation are not going to have meetings? There are no committee meetings, no programs outside of worship, on this particular day of the week.
As a congregational member, have you actually seen this happen?
I have not seen it happen to the extent that I would like it. What I have tried to do is to be the advocate for what I want to see happen. And so very often, I’m the person in the congregation that’s going to advocate for the pastor to take a sabbatical or to advocate even for members: Have you taken your vacation? Why are you holding on to your vacation time? That job will be OK if you go away for a week. I think it’s important congregationally because I teach my students they won’t be able to do this as pastors unless they’re also teaching their people to do it for themselves.
In the end, you say self-care when considered as sacred is countercultural. So how do you sustain it in a culture that often doesn’t embrace it?
It’s difficult. For me, I use a “Self-Care Rule of Life.” I have a self-care plan that defines what I’m going to do on a regular basis to take care of my health, and I print it out and I put it in places that are helpful to me — in my planner, on my bedroom wall so that I can look at it. And the things that are part of my self-care plan I put in my habit tracker app. So I check off: Did I exercise four times this week? Did I meditate every day? Did I do my stretches? Did I spend time with a family member or a friend? I keep myself accountable in the same way that I do with my work-related tasks. I realize if I really do value it, let me treat it like I treat these other things I value.