Put on Your Oxygen Mask First

by Rozella Haydée White, LEAD Consultant

All of us have heard the metaphor often used when describing self care – put on your oxygen mask before helping another with their oxygen mask. Taken from the flight attendants’ instructions during the safety demonstration on flights, this example has long been held up as the way in which we should engage our own healing and wellness before engaging another’s.

I have found this to be an accurate and helpful description of how to approach my wellbeing, especially as a leader. Many of us know this – if we are unwell, it becomes difficult to nurture wellness around us – but so many of us don’t embody this way of being.

Whether it is about physical, emotional, or spiritual wellness, leaders are not modeling the “put your own oxygen mask on first” example of self care. Time and time again, I encounter leaders who give of themselves for their community, their call, and their vision. We give until we have no more to give, or in the words of Parker Palmer, we give that which is not ours to give and this leads to burnout.

Leaders set the tone for how their organization/community/culture deals with all sorts of issues. When we don’t model healthy self care and wellness practices, we do a disservice to our communities. Putting our masks on first is not a selfish act, it’s a responsible and loving one.

From a biblical standpoint, I always consider Jesus’ words to us in Matthew 11: 28-30 as an invitation to our self care:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

As faith leaders, we are invited to engage Jesus FIRST in order to be grounded and well BEFORE we engage our communities. Discipleship breeds holistic health and leads us to explore the ways in which Jesus nurtured health on the ministry journey. And this doesn’t preclude care that expands beyond the realm of spiritual health. It makes room for holistic health and wellness. We don’t just care for our spiritual health. We care for our entire being as we recognize that it is a gift from God and to do so is to honor who God is.

What would it look like for leaders to truly prioritize their well-being? Why is it important to provide members of your community examples for how to take time to care for their holistic health? How might it serve your community for you to speak about boundaries, wellness, and create a community of wellness – one that addresses the systems and behaviors that nurtures health rather than reacts to disease?

It really begins with us. This is leadership – embracing practices that exemplify wellness and embodying ways of being that nurture holistic health.

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