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Most of us have less of a sense of our talents and strengths than we should, much less of our ability to build our lives around these strengths. Instead, guided over the years by our parents, teachers and sometimes even by psychology’s emphasis on pathology, we can easily become experts in our weaknesses and spend our lives trying to repair these flaws, while our strengths lie dormant and neglected.
Yet, focusing on our strengths in life and ministry, rather than our weaknesses, has been shown to promote greater well-being and life satisfaction.
This approach is best known as positive psychology, a concept developed and popularized by Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and now best-selling author. Seligman was motivated by the conviction that mental health is much more than the absence of mental illness and that the potential for human growth is more than we ever imagined it could be. He is part of a movement to help shift psychology’s traditional focus on pathology and illness to include the study of optimal human functioning and what enables people and communities to thrive.
Studies (Lyubomirsky & King,2005) have shown that people who are considerate of and helpful toward others are happier, more emotionally resilient, have fewer psychological problems and boost their physical health and longevity. They also are more likely to be promoted in work while experiencing less stress and risk for burn-out.
Persons engaged in ministry have a great opportunity to live and work out of their deepest convictions, often in the midst of communities of faith who share their concern for meaning, compassion and justice. Lives built around service, meaning and community provide a distinct advantage for happiness and work satisfaction. These life values enable resiliency in times of challenge and fulfilment in times of purposeful living
They also speak to God’s words toJeremiah: “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you…plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.” (Jeremiah, 29:11)
In fact, studies of clergy have indicated that despite mounting administrative responsibilities, an aging demographic and perceived low morale clergy enjoy some of the highest rates of personal well-being and work satisfaction of any profession. Intuitively, this makes sense. Individuals who dedicate their lives to helping others tend to have better outcomes of health and happiness.
Clergy who are afforded opportunities to express their strengths in ministry report being more effective and fulfilled.They report increased engagement, work performance and goal achievement in ministry. Furthermore, a strength-based model of ministry promoted improved confidence, direction, hope and capacity for kindness toward others
Factors that enhance ministry for clergy and religious include an active prayerlife, strong relationships, good self-esteem, leadership support, service toothers, realistic optimism, meaning,accomplishment, resiliency and commitment
In his study on priests, Msgr.Stephen Rossetti (2011) found the strongest predictor of clergy happiness was the priest’s relationship with God. A strong relational network of support from church leaders, other priests,family, friends and parishioners further strengthens this spiritual core.
On the other side, vulnerabilities for ministry are created through burnout, loneliness, intimacy deficits,unintegrated sexuality and the misuse of power.
When clients come to Saint Luke Institute, they often show signs of burn-out and are frustrated over what they see as personal failure or an inability to meet everyone’s expectations. This frustration often plays itself out through isolation or inappropriate behaviors with staff and colleagues. The clinical staff works with them to identify and build upon their strengths. This in turn builds resiliency, promotes well-being and can lead to more effective and happier ministry – for them and their parishioners. Our work focuses on new behaviors and strengths, and supporting the development of a deeper sense of spiritual fulfilment.
Individuals can identify their strengths through assessment tools, and begin on a path toward a more fulfilling life and ministry with simple changes. Two Seligman has identified are:
Count your blessings: Every evening for one week, write down three things that went well during the day. This can help refocus your thoughts on the positive, rather than the negative, and enhance your well-being.
Make a gratitude visit: Identify someone from your past who did or said something that changed your life, but whom you never thanked. Write a letter of gratitude, being specific about what the person did and the impact on you, then visit the person and read it to him or her.
The search for a life worth living invites each person to rediscover the ancient Christian values of wonder, gratitude, oy, hope, compassion, commitment, accomplishment, meaning, resiliency and faith. In choosing the courage to authentically live these values, we encounter God and discover the timeless truth that “I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.” (Philippians 4:13)
Rev. Hugh Lagan, SMA, Psy.D., is on the clinical staff of Saint Luke Institute
Practical tips for healthy ministry
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