Jun 25, 2009

Self Care and Random Thoughts

This week I am taking off most of the week for self care. I have been feeling tired recently. I realize that I haven't taken any time off in a long time. I took a week off for Christmas and I had a week long vacation last July. So I heeded the instinct to slow down a bit this week.

I have been keeping careful enough records of my direct service time to make a graph of my hours. Since January (and really since last September), I have been doing 20 hours of direct service per week. The rest of the time goes into preparation, administration, study, community speaking, and other forms of marketing (to potential clients, networking partners, and financial donors).

However, this June I made changes and added more direct service time. My average weekly hours went up to 25 hours a week. This may not sound like much but it definitely has taken a toll on me. So I'm going to have to do some soul searching and cut back down. Eventually I may be able to handle this load when I'm full funded since maintaining the financial donors takes less work than securing them all. However, after 5 months of fund raising work, we're receiving 40% of what we need. I still need about 50 more donors so I'll be doing fundraising at least through the end of 2009.

In those 20 hours of direct service, I typically see 70 different people in 120 different conversations. Most are brief follow-up, some are longer, and about 20 per week are in depth. Each week I meet about 10 new people on the street.

So how does one do good self care? I think it's one of the most important keys to working in this field... second only to the ability to have compassion for others. I have been privileged to learn from people who really care about me and care for themselves.

First in importance is to be in prayer and study of the Word. I do this in several ways. My ministry partners help hold me accountable for prayer before ministry. And record keeping also helps me remember to pray for individuals. I am kept in the word by a bible study group. You can join it, too. It's described at http://pages.google.com/edit/terry.cole/prophecyreadinggroup. By holding my feet to the fire daily to be reading the Bible, I gain enormous strength and refreshment. I also listen to KNLE http://www.candle88.com while driving to and from work. (And yes... I give them a portion of my tithe, too! They need more!) They play lots of Christians songs which help center me on my work.

Second, you pay attention to your feelings and act early. I was feeling tied so they encouraged me to take time off. You have to be self-aware of your own feelings even as you work with others on their feelings and issues. One of the best ways to do this is to have a regular meeting with someone once a week to check-in with them. Hopefully they will ask, "So how are you feeling about your work this week?" It's not a yes/no or good/bad question. It's a question that needs some comparative adjectives... better than last week, more tired than last week, really centered compared to a couple of weeks ago.

Third, you set and hold boundaries for yourself. You can't be more invested in an outcome than a client is. While we are there to encourage them, we really can't make them want anything. We can offer options for solution and they have to make all the choices. You also can't solve all of a clients problems. This is really hard, but you can only go down a list of things that you know how to do. Once you have, you (and hopefully the client) have to accept that you've done all there is to do. There's a Linda Martin song about this... "What do you do when you've come to the end... You just stand." As someone who sees 70 homeless people a week, I have other boundaries that may not be needed for the average person: I don't give out money, I don't take people places, I don't bring people home to sleep in the garage or couch, and I don't go buy people new items that they request. The issue with any of these is the same: which of the 70 people would I choose to start? and where would it end? I'm not saying any of these things are bad, and in fact I praise the Lord that there are people who have the ability to take in one or two people at a time and do so regularly. However, I recognize that I am not positioned to do this. And I limit what I give away to those things which can be purchased on my very meager ministry budget and which can be donated by many very many Christian supporters. I want to give my homeless youth everything that I can, but it needs to be given through loving hands and not simply a credit card. And these boundaries keep me able to love and able to continue my ministry because I have taken care of my biblical requirements to be a good provider and head of my own household. You will be temped to violate your boundaries from time to time. I have done it, but I heartily recommend checking with a friend before violating them. It is far to easy to rationalize yourself into doing something you should not. A friend can really help figure out if what you are doing in an exception or the first step to disaster for your personal self care.

Forth, you have to spend time time processing what you have done. I think it's extremely helpful to write down some stories. Or you could simply meet once a week and tell some stories to a friend. Often we cannot see the forest for the trees. This happens two ways for me. First, sometimes I fail to see the big picture for a specific person because we're so busy working on little details. It's only later that I realize that this client has really made a ton of progress, e.g., because of how they are approaching the situation compared to a month ago. And it also happens across multiple clients. You can be so busy with each client that it only dawns on you in reflection that you've been helping 8 different clients with drug counselling and that 6 of them are making progress even though they're in different stages. Reflection takes time and discipline, but it's definitely part of self care. I find that record keeping helps me take the time. By keeping sufficient records that I can count the interactions and name the type of interactions I've had with clients during the week, that I also have sufficient raw material in reflections to realize where my ministry is.

Fifth, you have to enrich yourself constantly. Enrichment comes in many forms. You can read what others are doing to pick out new best practices. You can get certified to do something new. And you can take time to practice and hone new skills so they become easy and second nature. In my ministry, I always read descriptions of services for street youth with interest. I want to know what is being done out there in the world so I can copy the best of the best. I also try to get classes, continuing education and certification on new things. I became a voter registrar to I can help people with a secondary ID. I became a notary public so I can help those who support me with a useful service. I became a certified food handler so I could be sure I knew how to handle foods given out safely. And I am always looking around at what gets done for homeless, and asking myself if I could learn to do that. If the answer is yes, then I get mentored, start practicing, and then start doing it. An example is filing out certain forms. This usually means passing the client to someone who is qualified, but this is disconcerting to the client. So if I can become qualified and practice so that I can do it well, then I can be of better help to the clients. Another example, if dealing with specific situations. Unless you have benefit of a mentor or a book, you are going to learn how to handle such situations one person at a time. But by referencing an expert, you can grow much faster. However, it still takes practice to master.

Finally, you need to find new inspiration from time to time. I thrive on being around passionate people and on hearing great stories. So I go once a year to something called the Leadership Summit. I know I will hear from 10 great leaders in the country from churches, academics, and business. And I know I will hear amazing and inspiring stores for two solid days. I walk away totally energized and totally ready to face another year!

So whatever you do, be sure to exercise good self care!