Chaplain's Column: Take a Break!

Today, October 1, is my first day in the office since July 1. For the past three months I have been on sabbatical. As a result of the generosity of the National Clergy Renewal Program of the Eli Lilly Foundation and the congregation that I am privileged to serve, I have been able to enjoy and experience a time of personal renewal. I must say from the outset that the concept of sabbatical is quite likely foreign to the law enforcement community. But, there are operative principles that may be helpful.

Sabbatical is something that typically happens in academia. Many professors who are on the tenure track are granted a semester's leave for every seven years of service. I have been a pastor for nearly 30 years, and a volunteer law enforcement chaplain for 17; this was the first sabbatical I was ever granted! The term sabbatical derives from the concept of "Sabbath," which originates in the Hebrew scriptures out of the Judaeo-Christian tradition of which I am a part. It first appears in the book of Exodus' version of the Ten Commandments, where the justification given is that the Creator rested on the seventh day after six days of creation. In the second version of the Ten Commandments that appears in the book of Deuteronomy, the justification offered is out of concern for all who labor, that they might have rest. In either case, it worked for me!

I've been a law enforcement chaplain long enough to recognize that, as it is with most chaplains, so it is with most officers. Most of us find it hard to take time away from the job. In addition to hours spent on patrol or in the office, there are training sessions that require our attendance, qualification standards that must be met and there are also those wonderful opportunities for officers that are designated as "special duty" that come with their own economic rewards. So, I'll raise what, for me, is the obvious question: "At what price?"

Now, before you come to the conclusion that all I did was vegetate during my sabbatical, I have a moral obligation to let you know that during the past three months I did more than loaf. I traveled (yes, we did spend a week in Hawaii), I spent time with my wife and each of our three sons, I spent much time in personal reflection, and I spent time reading.

One of the books I read had to do with self-care for those of us who are pastors and/or chaplains. One of the chapters asked the question, "How dry is your well?" For those who are in law enforcement, that may be an appropriate question also. When was the last time you took care of yourself?

Far be it from me to prescribe a set of answers for those of you who are part of the law enforcement community. I'm probably as guilty of neglect as any of you may be. Instead, let me ask some questions on which you and I can reflect?

  • When was the last time you accurately assessed your level of stress?
  • Are you exhibiting any of the classic signs of "burnout?"
  • What physical exercise is part of your weekly regimen, so that you can deal with the effects of physical, emotional and psychological stress?
  • How often do you make time to be completely available to your family?
  • When was the last time you had a good laugh?
  • Do you make time for regular spiritual renewal?

I don't know how long ago it was that I received these "eight ways to control stress." They're helpful to me; they may be to you also:

  1. Control Your Anger:
    Watch for the next instance in which you find yourself becoming annoyed or angry at something trivial or unimportant, then practice letting go--make a conscious choice not to become angry or upset. Do not allow yourself to waste thought and energy where it isn't deserved. Effective anger management is a tried-and-true stress reducer.
  2. Breathe:
    Breathe slowly and deeply. Before reacting to the next stressful occurrence, take three deep breaths and release them slowly. If you have a few minutes, try out breathing exercises such as meditation or guided imagery.
  3. Slow Down:
    Whenever you feel overwhelmed by stress, practice speaking more slowly than usual. You'll find that you think more clearly and react more reasonably to stressful situations. Stressed people tend to speak fast and breathlessly; by slowing down your speech you'll also appear less anxious and more in control of any situation.
  4. Complete One Simple To Do:
    Jump start an effective time management strategy. Choose one simple thing you have been putting off (e.g. returning a phone call, making a doctor's appointment) and do it immediately. Just taking care of one nagging responsibility can be energizing and can improve your attitude.
  5. Get Some Fresh Air:
    Get outdoors for a brief break. Our grandparents were right about the healing power of fresh air. Don't be deterred by foul weather or a full schedule. Even five minutes on a balcony or terrace can be rejuvenating.
  6. Avoid Hunger and Dehydration:
    Drink plenty of water and eat small, nutritious snacks. Hunger and dehydration, even before you're aware of them, can provoke aggressiveness and exacerbate feelings of anxiety and stress.
  7. Do a Quick Posture Check:
    Hold your head and shoulders upright and avoid stooping or slumping. Bad posture can lead to muscle tension, pain, and increased stress.
  8. Recharge at the Day's End:
    Plan something rewarding for the end of your stressful day, even if only a relaxing bath or half an hour with a good book. Put aside work, housekeeping or family concerns for a brief period before bedtime and allow yourself to fully relax. Don't spend this time planning tomorrow's schedule or doing chores you didn't get around to during the day. Remember that you need time to recharge and energize yourself--you'll be much better prepared to face another stressful day.

It must be several years ago that I came across a story about a traveler who was journeying through the jungle with some native guides. For several days they kept a very rigorous schedule, traveling from sun up until sun down. But, after six days of traveling, the guides rested. The traveler asked, "Why aren't we journeying today?" The guides responded, "Today, we let our bodies catch up with our spirits."

Does it make sense for you to schedule some time for your body to catch up with your spirit? You'll be a better officer if you do. And your spouse, significant other or family will thank you also!

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