Back to the Middle: Cultivating Spiritual Wellness
When I was growing up, my family attended a Catholic and a Baptist church. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate some of the really powerful aspects of this duality – the distinctive sound of Black people singing about the goodness of Jesus, the pageantry of the choir marching down the sanctuary aisles, the dignity of the people who took their roles as deacons, nurses, and prayer warriors very seriously, and of course, the dynamic preaching. I remember how the Catholic sacraments worked as holy benchmarks in my life. Between the two churches, I received my own revelation of Jesus Christ and became a believer by way of worship, a believer in the incarnational, palpable presence of God revealed in worship.
My training as a scholar of liturgy and homiletics has enabled me to connect my vocation to the experience of worship I have loved since I was a girl. I remain awestruck at the ways in which worship is at once shared and communal and deeply personal and private – an encounter with the mystery and beauty of the Holy through Christian rituals.
I tell this story because if I’m really honest, that experience becomes more and more elusive. For the first time in some years, I actually observed Lent this year. I was feeling extremely frazzled vocationally. I was tired all the time. Often too tired to sit and think about what I was going to say on Sunday morning to my congregation of college students. Since moving to Atlanta last year, I’d picked up about 15 pounds of weight that I could see and feel, but struggled to get off. I was losing the notion of ministry. I would often feel more like staying home on my couch than answering my call to go and tell this broken world about the justice of God.
I knew that I needed to pay closer attention to my interiority, turn inward, and nourish myself from the inside out. It was going to require an immediate lifestyle change. Trying to do ministry with no breath in my spirit was not sustainable. Who was I, attempting to speak with spiritual authority to edify the spirits of God’s people, but lacking my own spiritual vitality?
In my work, I was able to pinpoint three challenges to making such a shift. First, the space, time, and silence necessary for spiritual wellness and renewal are in competition with the many other things that tug on my heart and mind. Secondly, as a Black woman, I often experience the church as a strange land that must be navigated with extreme caution that is spiritually draining. Finally, I had a few stories of vocational trauma that were in dire need of reframing and reinterpreting, in order to promote my healing and wholeness.
I decided to remove myself from social media. As a millennial woman, I’ve often relied on these platforms to remain connected to friends and supporters of my ministry. But I was also using it to maintain a sense of relevance in the field, buying into the myth that “if it’s not posted, it didn’t happen.” I would post almost every event flyer that had my face on it, because somehow this equated with success. Ironically, these platforms were also gateways to the all-too-common tendency to begin comparing myself to others, and becoming ungrateful for the goodness of God in my life and ministry. So, I logged out of all my apps and deleted them, one by one, from my phone.
I committed to creating more space in my life for what was important, beginning with my spiritual wellness and interior vitality. I found transformation in the practice of discipline. It became clear to me that transformation isn’t always tied to any one practice, but in one’s willingness to commit to doing something every day. Spiritual wellness is not only about abstinence and removal of vices, but requires consistency in those practices, and accountability to people who give us life. During this period, taking warm baths and listening to uplifting and informative podcasts were as important as praying. I found joy in meeting with my mastermind group, writing in my journal, and reading fiction. I committed to being present to my relationships, in body and in mind, taking more time for physical activity, and overhauling my food choices.
If transformation, healing, and wellness were my goals, I realized I had to adopt intentionality, discipline, and consciousness about my thoughts and actions. In this conscious daily decision-making and priority-setting, my spirit is feeling lively, attuned, and open again.
Neichelle Guidry ’10 M.Div. is dean of the chapel and director of the WISDOM Center at Spelman College. She was ordained through New Creation Christian Fellowship of San Antonio, and holds a Ph.D. in liturgical studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. This article is adapted from a lecture delivered at the Young Clergy Women International Conference in August 2019 in Atlanta.