Is It Selfish to Focus on Yourself?

Is it selfish to focus on yourself? When I was a child, I learned an evangelical chorus, “Jesus, Others, then You — what a wonderful way to spell JOY!” Put yourself last — that’s the spiritual ideal I learned.

I think about it quite differently now. All of us, and especially church leaders, must find a way to sustain ourselves in order to keep giving to others. If we’ve given it all away, we’ll have nothing to offer others. If we are exhausted, the quality of our giving will not be great. Many of the pastors I work with in my consulting and coaching say, “I’m so tired.” What is our responsibility to others and to ourselves? This is a spiritual matter, worthy of prayer and reflection.

I am revisiting these matters myself as I deal with my aging parents who have recently moved close to me and require a lot more help. What does it mean to give to them in a way that appropriately supports them and is sustainable for me?

Edwin Friedman used to say, “A self is more attractive than a no-self.” People want to connect with and follow someone who has substance and strength. If we are spiritually and emotionally empty, we will be less effective in our leadership as well as in our giving to others. Our “self” is God’s gift to us and our gift to others. That’s not selfish.

One year at a pre-Lenten clergy retreat, Joan Hickey of the Shalem Institute invited us to spend time in meditation using Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” The exercise was to ask that question of Jesus — “Who do you say I am?” I have continued to reflect on that question for over 15 years, with words such as “called” and “beloved” coming to mind. It’s helped me develop my sense of myself in life and ministry. If we let it, Lent can be a time to focus on self. I know there are extra Lenten services and gatherings as well as Easter preparations. How can you find a few minutes to ask, “Who do you say I am?” and the quiet space to listen for the answer.

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