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From Self-Care to Community Care: Insights from Two Decades of Co-Teaching to Inform the Future

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
(Matt 22:37–40)

Introduction

Two decades ago, we began a journey of co-teaching a course at Fuller, one that would cross barriers between the (then) School of World Mission and the (then) School of Psychology. We asked, how might we develop an integrative, collaborative course that brought together our strengths and the strengths of our respective schools, based on theological and formational foundations?

This course would address the challenge common in ministry of people loving God and their neighbors while not prioritizing their own lives. With some hesitation, we named our course “Self-Care in Mission.”1   Over the past two decades, the course evolved as we learned more about our topic, our students, ourselves, and how formation and learning take place. In time, the course was renamed “Self and Community Care,” a reflection of the course’s evolution as our world has changed and as we have learned from our students and the contexts around us.

We learned early on that the class would not create a metaphorical suit of armor for our students to wear as they entered their fields of service. Our teaching would not protect them from suffering, trauma, grief, or burnout.  Rather, we wanted the students to learn a posture of openness to the growth God had for them in ministry, a commitment to being formed in Christ. We trusted that their ministry relationships would be the net of support for the mutual transformation of ministry.2 We were inspired by the story of the paralytic person in Luke who could not come to Jesus on his own, but whose friends brought him to Jesus on a mat. The transformation Jesus promises was for the paralytic man but also for the friends that brought him, a shared formational journey of self and community. Loving neighbor and loving God also brings healing for ourselves.

Looking back now, we have been asking some of the same questions about integration and formation that are now part of the conversation regarding what is next for Fuller in this new season. The course would be integrative in content but also integrative in the way the course was taught. We sought to bring psychological science and theory in conversation with God’s mission in the world. We wanted to live out these truths in our own ministries, relationships, and teaching as a witness to the work God wants to do in each of us. So much of the approach, while including significant content, was an orientation toward a deep formational process in the lives of students, and—as we learned each time we taught—in our own lives as well. This integration of teaching and learning about ministry “out there” while attending to our own formation internally turned out to be very important for our students. And this model continues to be significant as we think about seminary education moving forward. “Indispensable, formational education”3 requires a posture of academic learning, self-reflection, and openness to relationships.

From Self-Care . . .

Students have often asked at the beginning of class: “How do we resolve the tension between the words of Jesus to deny ourselves with the concept of self-care?” We wrestle with this important question throughout the course. A primary understanding is that self-care can be appreciated through various lenses: the lens of stewardship (we care for those God has given to us, including ourselves); the lens of spiritual warfare (the enemy of God does not want to see us thrive); and the lens of the glory of God (flourishing missional workers are a reflection of God’s glory). Jesus does call us to deny ourselves, but we are also called to flourish like the trees planted by a stream, giving fruit in season, with leaves that do not wither (Ps 1, Jer 17). Denying oneself and flourishing are not mutually exclusive but instead live in tension in our lives. Walking in close relationship with Christ is key in discerning those seasons and situations.

To live into this faithful relationship with Christ, mutual transformation requires our own healing and deepening wisdom. Both internal and external barriers can keep us from flourishing. We all have barriers within us that we need to overcome, such as a propensity to achieve and overwork, which live alongside the external influences in our lives. We must recognize that it is an absolute countercultural posture to slow down and be still, to discern what God wants for us so we can say “no,” and to actually listen when Jesus invites us to come to him for rest. God brings healing as we turn toward the freedom of God’s rhythms.

When we begin to recognize the barriers to flourishing and self-care, we are confronted with the patterns in our lives that need unforming and relearning. God is continually forming us, but this formation takes place in the culture and context where we are located. As we pay attention to context, we begin to see the many ways that we’ve been shaped, sometimes in unhelpful ways. An example is the deep individualism that is core to American culture and evangelical faith and has, for many North Americans, unconsciously become part of one’s identity. Like peeling layers of an onion, unlearning this individualism is a lifelong process (and one of those areas for transformation). Identifying these cultural influences and lies has a huge impact on how we (incorrectly) understand self-care as something that is about the individual, rather than seeing it in communal terms.

American culture also thrives in the context of a capitalistic view of success and personal value. What I can accomplish determines my value; how I perform is the way I can evaluate my progress. How easy it is to allow that same model of consumption and performance to drive my view of ministry. In divine contrast to those cultural messages, formation into the mind of Christ creates a sense of value that lies in simply being a beloved child of God, and seeing others also through that same lens.

. . . Through Master Care . . .

Our class retreat became a way to more fully embody the course learnings, to truly be present to ourselves and let ourselves be unformed and then formed anew.  The retreat reinforced the member care model we used, with “Master Care” at the center.4 (Master Care represents the reality that all member care activities are grounded and centered on our relationship with Christ; all care flows from and through this work of God.) The retreat gave participants space to reflect on the barriers to thriving that come from culture rather than God. And it provided space to sit more deeply with the content of the class. Our first retreat was at a lovely retreat center on a Saturday. Within a few years, however, we decided that the retreat needed to be embedded into the actual class time, as a more realistic expression of cultivating rest into our everyday lives. Holding a retreat in campus spaces, during class time, modeled an inclusive way of reflection and rest not dependent on wealthy resources of time and money. Taking this respite during our ninth week of the quarter, students could be formed by the reading and discussion, could wrestle with the obstacles to wholeness in their own lives, and could open themselves to Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11, “Come to me, and I will give you rest.”

Taking this retreat together as a class also reminded us that while our relationship with God is personal, it is always shared in community. Building the retreat into class, and beginning and ending the retreat together rather than remaining in individual reflection, served as a reminder that we walk this journey in life together. As we walk the labyrinth, we pass others also walking the labyrinth; we make a collage with others in the same shared space. Together we hold this holy space for each other where we meet the God of the universe who also holds us during our time together.

As instructors, we were reminded of the need in our own lives for this space of rest and reflection to nurture the soil of ongoing formation. The academic hierarchy fell as we facilitated but also participated in the retreat, walking the labyrinth along with our students, listening together to the voice of the one who calls us all “beloved.” We began to live into the mutual transformation that this course offered.

Truth be told, teaching this class saved me (Jude). Looking back on the early years of teaching this class, I see how wrestling with the course content helped sustain me and furthered my own call and vocation. I had been living in a dense, struggling neighborhood in central Los Angeles for a decade. While there were many joys, I was weary. Grief, stress, trauma, and burnout were not remote concepts to be taught in a class; they were present in my own missional life. Along with our students, I too struggled to hold the tension between Jesus’ words to deny myself and the image in Psalm 1 of a tree that bears fruit in season and does not wither.  And I learned that I could not do this alone. The mutual transformation and community care that became a class theme was being lived out in my own life.

. . .  To Community Care

The shift toward a more communal understanding of care was also prompted by our students from around the globe and the diverse cultures within the US. Our field of study emerged in American and European mission agencies and was deeply influenced by that setting.5 But what would topics like burnout, grief, Sabbath rest, and the issues faced by third culture kids look like in other contexts? We struggled from the beginning to include various perspectives, although resources were difficult to find. While we knew there would be cultural differences, they were greater than we first anticipated. We were helped by feedback from students. Thus the class was a collaboration between two instructors but also included collaboration with students who understood their own contexts better than we could. Holding a student-centered posture helped us consider the differing backgrounds of our students and how they differed from our own—along with how that impacted the course content.

Another contextual consideration was the question of social location as we taught. Naming our location is a start in not letting our teaching be determined by it. We cannot change where we come from, but we can be aware and authentic and bring that awareness to our teaching. If we come from a more privileged location, we name that and wrestle with how to use that privilege to benefit others. One response to privilege is to ignore caring for ourselves, because others do not have the same access to various aspects of care. Another response is to create efforts to provide care for others who do not have access.6 Community care reminds us that we can care for each other even without great financial resources.

The command of the Sabbath also reminds us that rest is not only for the privileged. The Sabbath is given to all. Pastor and activist Delonte Gholston states that rest is resistance, too.7 Within the inequities in our world, those serving and working on behalf of others need also to rest. To rest is to take a stand, to resist the dominant cultural push to work ourselves into the ground. We need to commit to a community-oriented view of the commandment of Sabbath. What can I do to help my neighbor engage in Sabbath?8

The move from self-care to community care highlights that people are embedded in systems that can either hinder or encourage thriving. A person in ministry might be aware of self-care and be moving toward wholeness, but the systems around them may not encourage thriving. It is not enough for an individual to want to love themselves as well as their neighbor. The systems around them also must value this.

Every time I (Cynthia) led the class discussion on the topic of burnout, there were questions that I knew were coming: “What do I do if my supervisor/head pastor/team leader believes that I should be working 70 hours a week? How do I describe my need to take a break to my financial supporters, when they are all working 60- to 80-hour work weeks?” There are no easy answers to these questions, and my own social location in middle class, White North America means that I do not need to navigate the same cultural and church expectations these students face in Asia, or Central America, or Africa. But I do need to face the North American cultural norms (and even the norms at Fuller) about work. Being honest about one’s limitations is a frightening thing. As professors, we know that part of the mutual transformation is the risk of transparency.  Considering God’s glory in a thriving worker, or the enemy’s delight in a worker with no joy, it is an act of courage to be honest about our needs to our community. We are doing battle for the kingdom of God when we reach out for support, point out our human capacity, and question the cultural values of productivity alive and well in our ministries.

Authentic communication has been a critical part of co-teaching for these decades. God’s timing has been such that we have walked through seasons of great personal loss, pain, and stress while we have been teaching.  Both of us teach in a way that values transparency, and our students have witnessed our struggles and God’s comfort. They have heard stories of doubt, struggle, and lament. We want our students to “taste” the journey of mutual transformation and spiritual formation, even as we walk this class together.

Conclusion: Formation for the Future

Co-teaching with a heart of mutual transformation is a gift that more faculty and students can seek. Fuller is now prioritizing a vision for learning across our two schools. (Every student should have at least one course from the “other” school.) That has always been the vision for the School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy, but now there will be a renewed partnership for this experience in the School of Mission and Theology. Co-teaching courses is an incredible model for this cross-disciplinary posture. Collaboration and co-teaching are not the same thing as “tandem teaching.” We both attended the class sessions. We discussed different perspectives on topics in front of the students. We laughed and prayed together with the students. We were constantly learning from each other, and they could see our mutual respect and appreciation. We were not in competition with each other.

Looking to the future, what would it mean to adopt a posture of formation in ministry that is dynamic and mutually transforming? A formation that is not hierarchical but a shared commitment? A formation that is a lifelong process for faculty, staff, and students? This would include cultivating a posture of cultural humility that sees the places of brokenness and pain in ourselves and our own cultures, as well as the gifts each of our cultures and communities have to offer. In order to do this, we need each other to be able to see through cultural and contextual lenses that differ from our own—that shine a light on where we need healing—and to be open to a gospel-centered view of work, rest, and flourishing.

Written By

Cynthia Eriksson (PhD ’97, MAT ’96) thought she was going to be an international mission worker. But by following God’s call, she serves today as professor of psychology and chair of the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) program in the School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy. Her research and teaching have focused on trauma, spirituality, burnout, and staff care for ministry leaders of many types. She has a passion to see mental health care embedded in church and community contexts, and she seeks to support efforts to make ministries “trauma-informed.”

Jude Tiersma Watson lived and worked in the MacArthur Park neighborhood of central Los Angeles for 30 years as a member of InnerCHANGE, a Christian Order Among the Poor. After nearly three decades on faculty at Fuller teaching urban mission, spiritual formation, and self-care, she is now senior faculty and living in Pomona, excited for this new chapter in the third third of her life.

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
(Matt 22:37–40)

Introduction

Two decades ago, we began a journey of co-teaching a course at Fuller, one that would cross barriers between the (then) School of World Mission and the (then) School of Psychology. We asked, how might we develop an integrative, collaborative course that brought together our strengths and the strengths of our respective schools, based on theological and formational foundations?

This course would address the challenge common in ministry of people loving God and their neighbors while not prioritizing their own lives. With some hesitation, we named our course “Self-Care in Mission.”1   Over the past two decades, the course evolved as we learned more about our topic, our students, ourselves, and how formation and learning take place. In time, the course was renamed “Self and Community Care,” a reflection of the course’s evolution as our world has changed and as we have learned from our students and the contexts around us.

We learned early on that the class would not create a metaphorical suit of armor for our students to wear as they entered their fields of service. Our teaching would not protect them from suffering, trauma, grief, or burnout.  Rather, we wanted the students to learn a posture of openness to the growth God had for them in ministry, a commitment to being formed in Christ. We trusted that their ministry relationships would be the net of support for the mutual transformation of ministry.2 We were inspired by the story of the paralytic person in Luke who could not come to Jesus on his own, but whose friends brought him to Jesus on a mat. The transformation Jesus promises was for the paralytic man but also for the friends that brought him, a shared formational journey of self and community. Loving neighbor and loving God also brings healing for ourselves.

Looking back now, we have been asking some of the same questions about integration and formation that are now part of the conversation regarding what is next for Fuller in this new season. The course would be integrative in content but also integrative in the way the course was taught. We sought to bring psychological science and theory in conversation with God’s mission in the world. We wanted to live out these truths in our own ministries, relationships, and teaching as a witness to the work God wants to do in each of us. So much of the approach, while including significant content, was an orientation toward a deep formational process in the lives of students, and—as we learned each time we taught—in our own lives as well. This integration of teaching and learning about ministry “out there” while attending to our own formation internally turned out to be very important for our students. And this model continues to be significant as we think about seminary education moving forward. “Indispensable, formational education”3 requires a posture of academic learning, self-reflection, and openness to relationships.

From Self-Care . . .

Students have often asked at the beginning of class: “How do we resolve the tension between the words of Jesus to deny ourselves with the concept of self-care?” We wrestle with this important question throughout the course. A primary understanding is that self-care can be appreciated through various lenses: the lens of stewardship (we care for those God has given to us, including ourselves); the lens of spiritual warfare (the enemy of God does not want to see us thrive); and the lens of the glory of God (flourishing missional workers are a reflection of God’s glory). Jesus does call us to deny ourselves, but we are also called to flourish like the trees planted by a stream, giving fruit in season, with leaves that do not wither (Ps 1, Jer 17). Denying oneself and flourishing are not mutually exclusive but instead live in tension in our lives. Walking in close relationship with Christ is key in discerning those seasons and situations.

To live into this faithful relationship with Christ, mutual transformation requires our own healing and deepening wisdom. Both internal and external barriers can keep us from flourishing. We all have barriers within us that we need to overcome, such as a propensity to achieve and overwork, which live alongside the external influences in our lives. We must recognize that it is an absolute countercultural posture to slow down and be still, to discern what God wants for us so we can say “no,” and to actually listen when Jesus invites us to come to him for rest. God brings healing as we turn toward the freedom of God’s rhythms.

When we begin to recognize the barriers to flourishing and self-care, we are confronted with the patterns in our lives that need unforming and relearning. God is continually forming us, but this formation takes place in the culture and context where we are located. As we pay attention to context, we begin to see the many ways that we’ve been shaped, sometimes in unhelpful ways. An example is the deep individualism that is core to American culture and evangelical faith and has, for many North Americans, unconsciously become part of one’s identity. Like peeling layers of an onion, unlearning this individualism is a lifelong process (and one of those areas for transformation). Identifying these cultural influences and lies has a huge impact on how we (incorrectly) understand self-care as something that is about the individual, rather than seeing it in communal terms.

American culture also thrives in the context of a capitalistic view of success and personal value. What I can accomplish determines my value; how I perform is the way I can evaluate my progress. How easy it is to allow that same model of consumption and performance to drive my view of ministry. In divine contrast to those cultural messages, formation into the mind of Christ creates a sense of value that lies in simply being a beloved child of God, and seeing others also through that same lens.

. . . Through Master Care . . .

Our class retreat became a way to more fully embody the course learnings, to truly be present to ourselves and let ourselves be unformed and then formed anew.  The retreat reinforced the member care model we used, with “Master Care” at the center.4 (Master Care represents the reality that all member care activities are grounded and centered on our relationship with Christ; all care flows from and through this work of God.) The retreat gave participants space to reflect on the barriers to thriving that come from culture rather than God. And it provided space to sit more deeply with the content of the class. Our first retreat was at a lovely retreat center on a Saturday. Within a few years, however, we decided that the retreat needed to be embedded into the actual class time, as a more realistic expression of cultivating rest into our everyday lives. Holding a retreat in campus spaces, during class time, modeled an inclusive way of reflection and rest not dependent on wealthy resources of time and money. Taking this respite during our ninth week of the quarter, students could be formed by the reading and discussion, could wrestle with the obstacles to wholeness in their own lives, and could open themselves to Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11, “Come to me, and I will give you rest.”

Taking this retreat together as a class also reminded us that while our relationship with God is personal, it is always shared in community. Building the retreat into class, and beginning and ending the retreat together rather than remaining in individual reflection, served as a reminder that we walk this journey in life together. As we walk the labyrinth, we pass others also walking the labyrinth; we make a collage with others in the same shared space. Together we hold this holy space for each other where we meet the God of the universe who also holds us during our time together.

As instructors, we were reminded of the need in our own lives for this space of rest and reflection to nurture the soil of ongoing formation. The academic hierarchy fell as we facilitated but also participated in the retreat, walking the labyrinth along with our students, listening together to the voice of the one who calls us all “beloved.” We began to live into the mutual transformation that this course offered.

Truth be told, teaching this class saved me (Jude). Looking back on the early years of teaching this class, I see how wrestling with the course content helped sustain me and furthered my own call and vocation. I had been living in a dense, struggling neighborhood in central Los Angeles for a decade. While there were many joys, I was weary. Grief, stress, trauma, and burnout were not remote concepts to be taught in a class; they were present in my own missional life. Along with our students, I too struggled to hold the tension between Jesus’ words to deny myself and the image in Psalm 1 of a tree that bears fruit in season and does not wither.  And I learned that I could not do this alone. The mutual transformation and community care that became a class theme was being lived out in my own life.

. . .  To Community Care

The shift toward a more communal understanding of care was also prompted by our students from around the globe and the diverse cultures within the US. Our field of study emerged in American and European mission agencies and was deeply influenced by that setting.5 But what would topics like burnout, grief, Sabbath rest, and the issues faced by third culture kids look like in other contexts? We struggled from the beginning to include various perspectives, although resources were difficult to find. While we knew there would be cultural differences, they were greater than we first anticipated. We were helped by feedback from students. Thus the class was a collaboration between two instructors but also included collaboration with students who understood their own contexts better than we could. Holding a student-centered posture helped us consider the differing backgrounds of our students and how they differed from our own—along with how that impacted the course content.

Another contextual consideration was the question of social location as we taught. Naming our location is a start in not letting our teaching be determined by it. We cannot change where we come from, but we can be aware and authentic and bring that awareness to our teaching. If we come from a more privileged location, we name that and wrestle with how to use that privilege to benefit others. One response to privilege is to ignore caring for ourselves, because others do not have the same access to various aspects of care. Another response is to create efforts to provide care for others who do not have access.6 Community care reminds us that we can care for each other even without great financial resources.

The command of the Sabbath also reminds us that rest is not only for the privileged. The Sabbath is given to all. Pastor and activist Delonte Gholston states that rest is resistance, too.7 Within the inequities in our world, those serving and working on behalf of others need also to rest. To rest is to take a stand, to resist the dominant cultural push to work ourselves into the ground. We need to commit to a community-oriented view of the commandment of Sabbath. What can I do to help my neighbor engage in Sabbath?8

The move from self-care to community care highlights that people are embedded in systems that can either hinder or encourage thriving. A person in ministry might be aware of self-care and be moving toward wholeness, but the systems around them may not encourage thriving. It is not enough for an individual to want to love themselves as well as their neighbor. The systems around them also must value this.

Every time I (Cynthia) led the class discussion on the topic of burnout, there were questions that I knew were coming: “What do I do if my supervisor/head pastor/team leader believes that I should be working 70 hours a week? How do I describe my need to take a break to my financial supporters, when they are all working 60- to 80-hour work weeks?” There are no easy answers to these questions, and my own social location in middle class, White North America means that I do not need to navigate the same cultural and church expectations these students face in Asia, or Central America, or Africa. But I do need to face the North American cultural norms (and even the norms at Fuller) about work. Being honest about one’s limitations is a frightening thing. As professors, we know that part of the mutual transformation is the risk of transparency.  Considering God’s glory in a thriving worker, or the enemy’s delight in a worker with no joy, it is an act of courage to be honest about our needs to our community. We are doing battle for the kingdom of God when we reach out for support, point out our human capacity, and question the cultural values of productivity alive and well in our ministries.

Authentic communication has been a critical part of co-teaching for these decades. God’s timing has been such that we have walked through seasons of great personal loss, pain, and stress while we have been teaching.  Both of us teach in a way that values transparency, and our students have witnessed our struggles and God’s comfort. They have heard stories of doubt, struggle, and lament. We want our students to “taste” the journey of mutual transformation and spiritual formation, even as we walk this class together.

Conclusion: Formation for the Future

Co-teaching with a heart of mutual transformation is a gift that more faculty and students can seek. Fuller is now prioritizing a vision for learning across our two schools. (Every student should have at least one course from the “other” school.) That has always been the vision for the School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy, but now there will be a renewed partnership for this experience in the School of Mission and Theology. Co-teaching courses is an incredible model for this cross-disciplinary posture. Collaboration and co-teaching are not the same thing as “tandem teaching.” We both attended the class sessions. We discussed different perspectives on topics in front of the students. We laughed and prayed together with the students. We were constantly learning from each other, and they could see our mutual respect and appreciation. We were not in competition with each other.

Looking to the future, what would it mean to adopt a posture of formation in ministry that is dynamic and mutually transforming? A formation that is not hierarchical but a shared commitment? A formation that is a lifelong process for faculty, staff, and students? This would include cultivating a posture of cultural humility that sees the places of brokenness and pain in ourselves and our own cultures, as well as the gifts each of our cultures and communities have to offer. In order to do this, we need each other to be able to see through cultural and contextual lenses that differ from our own—that shine a light on where we need healing—and to be open to a gospel-centered view of work, rest, and flourishing.

Cynthia-Eriksson-SOP-Professor-72rgbBW

Cynthia Eriksson (PhD ’97, MAT ’96) thought she was going to be an international mission worker. But by following God’s call, she serves today as professor of psychology and chair of the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) program in the School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy. Her research and teaching have focused on trauma, spirituality, burnout, and staff care for ministry leaders of many types. She has a passion to see mental health care embedded in church and community contexts, and she seeks to support efforts to make ministries “trauma-informed.”

Jude Tiersma Watson

Jude Tiersma Watson lived and worked in the MacArthur Park neighborhood of central Los Angeles for 30 years as a member of InnerCHANGE, a Christian Order Among the Poor. After nearly three decades on faculty at Fuller teaching urban mission, spiritual formation, and self-care, she is now senior faculty and living in Pomona, excited for this new chapter in the third third of her life.

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