A Share in Self Care: Elizabeth Criscuolo

April’s post comes from NazTooer Rev. Elizabeth Criscuolo. Elizabeth is the Senior Pastor at Schenectady First Church of the Nazarene. She has a background in mediation, having worked with a non-profit center, ACCORD, in the Binghamton area for 4 years as the Training, Volunteer, and Small Claims Program Coordinator. She currently serves as a mediator for the New York State Court System through Mediation Matters in Albany. She received her B.A. from Eastern Nazarene College in 2006 and her Master of Divinity from Nazarene Theological Seminary in 2011. Elizabeth also has a background as a certified CASA and Restorative Justice Facilitator. She has led trainings that specialize in conflict resolution, de-escalation tactics, and positive communication techniques. She and her husband were both born and raised in Fairfield County, Connecticut. They have two dogs, Trooper and Tucker, that keep them busy, and are both competitive bowlers.

Congregational Church (Easton, CT)

I was raised in Easton, CT, a small suburban town that has many characteristics of Stars Hallow from Gilmore Girls.  The house I grew up in was built by my great Grandfather who was a well known mason during his working years.  It is an affluent area that prides itself on Christmas tree farms, apple orchards, and pumpkin patches.  I went to the tiny “church on the hill” as everyone in town referred to it, it was a congregational church built at the end of the 1700’s.  The church and town are rich with historical stories from the Civil War, Industrial Revolution, and the Underground Railroad.  This town was an incredible place to grow up and I count myself very fortunate to have lived in such a place.

Silverman’s Farm (Easton, CT)

When I was 14 years old I started dating a guy who wanted me to go to his youth group at a Methodist Church about 20 minutes away in Stratford, CT. That is where I met the women who would change my life. Silverman’s Farm, Easton, CT Pastor Julia Yim was a young Korean woman in her early 30’s and had just been transferred to Stratford, CT from a Korean Church in Flushing, NY. She was amazing! I had never met someone with so much energy, love, and pure joy. It was through her ministry that I was born again and within that same year felt the call to become a pastor. From that point on she did everything within her power to disciple me, love me, and empower me to pursue the call God had placed on my life.

Fast forward to me at 19 years old, I had just ended my sophomore year at Eastern Nazarene College and was back home for the summer. My best friend and her boyfriend were determined to have me meet their friend, Gabriel (which I wasn’t crazy about doing). Finally, we “somehow happen to end up at his house” one night (I was set up!). I tried to fight it, but there was no chance. I went inside his house and it changed my entire life once again. We met in 2004, married in 2008, and have been laughing together and loving each other since. He has been an important source of support, love, and motivation continuously. Even moving half way across the country to KC, MO so that I could attend NTS and graduate with my M.Div.

He has always spoken words of encouragement and positivity into my life, but there was a problem… Often times I could not do that for myself. I was used to being too hard on myself, not living up to my own expectations, and being overly critical of everything I did. Criticism was used to push you further and make you better in my family, and so naturally I felt the need to do that to constantly do that to myself.

So now that you have a tiny glimpse into who I am I will get to what I want to talk about most in this blog post: self care. After NTS I received a job offer to be an Associate Pastor of a church in Binghamton, NY. I was so excited at the chance to move closer to home, but even more excited at my very first position as a pastor. I was ready to apply all that I had learned in the past 9 years of life! I had been hired as the Associate Pastor with an emphasis on Young Families Ministry. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that that was where we were supposed to be and was so excited that Gabriel and I would get to start a family with all of these other young families who were having this baby boom in the church. I put my heart and soul into everything I did there trying to create more moments for connections with young families, and ways for us to connect with families in the community. Eventually we wound up having several new young families join our church because of the amount of outreach our families were doing through the young families ministry, it was so exciting! I was in a constant state of GOING and DOING, there was so much enthusiasm and anticipation wrapped up in it all. I felt like everything was going so smoothly and so well, I had even given myself room to not be overly critical of what I was doing because I knew that this was my first rodeo. The honeymoon period was a long one, perhaps somewhere around 1.5 years, and I am incredibly grateful for that.

The excitement of ministry and trying to have a baby was all thrilling until one day it wasn’t. When I realized we had been trying to have a baby for well over a year and I still wasn’t pregnant. I started to think about all these other women in the play groups talking about trying and getting pregnant within 4-8 months, and here I was wondering what was going on with all that.

There was immense moments of panic: what if I didn’t have a baby… how would I continue to be the young families pastor (and not have any kids)? What if I could never have a baby? How would the church see us if we didn’t have children? Is this going to impact how I connect to others in the church with kids? What if everything I thought my future was going to be would never happen? And the questions got deeper and darker and harder as my fears began to overwhelm me. I began to feel somewhat isolated from the other young families as I came to the realization that this might not happen for us.

I was still in ministry, working hard to meet the needs of families there, and still putting in 100%, but I started to notice that my connection to them wasn’t as strong as what they had with each other. I started to beat myself up and criticize myself (As strange as that might sound) for not having kids and for not going into debt to try anything and everything to try to have a baby. Because that’s what I should have been doing, right? Spending thousands and thousands of dollars on adoption, fertility treatments, and the like. That’s what everyone suggested as the remedy, although no one ever offered to pay for it. I was at a point where I felt stuck.

We felt lonely. We felt sad. We felt isolated. We felt friendless.

One day Gabriel and I found ourselves at a bowling alley in town. Just figured we would go and have a little time out together and the guy behind the counter started talking to us about joining a summer league. I looked at the guy like he was nuts, because I don’t even think I broke 100 during my 3 games that day (for those unfamiliar with bowling, 300 is a perfect game, and it is typical for open bowlers to bowl under 100 or thereabouts). Gabriel was convinced we should do it, and once again my life was changed for forever. We started bowling in the summer of 2014 and began to meet people who would impact our lives in the most beautiful and meaningful way.

As we immersed ourselves into the bowling community I began to realize that this was a community filled with all different kinds of people. Older people, younger people, people with money, people with limited money, people who worked, people who were unemployed, people who were physically fit, people with addiction, people with kids, people without kids, people who were divorced, people who were depressed, all sorts of people (not much unlike the church). And actually it didn’t really matter what kind of person you were as long as you were there to lace up those bowling shoes, get onto the approach, and give your best attempt at putting 10 in the pit (a strike).

Gabriel, Jaymo, Dina (her family owns the center we bowled in most), and me

These people who had no idea who we were accepted and loved us right where we were and never questioned it for a moment.  The connections we made with these people were unlike we had ever shared with any other community group, and it truly is unexplainable.  We were home.  We had finally found a place where we felt rest and comfort.

Some more bowling buddies. This was at our going-away party prior to moving to Schenectady, NT (Brooke, Ryan, Me, and Kevin). The had a live band, food, and well. . . bowling of course ❤

It was a sanctuary.  It was our weekly respite.  It was so much fun! And as we began to settle in more and more we began to live life with friends at the bowling alley in deeper ways.  We started staying after league to all practice together, started going out to dinners, even started competing in tournaments with them, and eventually having some of them over to the house for video games and dinner.

Gabriel bowling the National USBC Tournament in Syracuse 2018. He will be bowling the National USCB Tournament 2019 in Las Vegas in a few weeks.

As we entered into these amazing relationships I started to notice that we quickly became the ones people would come and talk to when they were going through divorce, going through addiction, dealing with depression, sick in the hospital, and all because they knew Gabriel and I loved and cared about them.  We noticed that our space of self care had quickly become an easy way for us to be filled up but also where we could pour back out.  It never became a drain and I noticed that because I always felt I could pour back out onto them when I needed to.  Whenever I needed to vent, cry, or get aggressive with the pins there were multiple people around me to listen. 

When we walk into any local house (bowling alley), we would be met with tons of hugs and lots of love.

Final standings for my first win in a tournament

Bowling was and still is our resting place.  A place for us to connect with each other and with friends.  It is our place of self care, where we let loose, and feel free to just be.  It has become a passion and now also a competitive piece of our lives (I won my very first tournament, The Schenectady USBC Women’s 2019 Championship just a few weeks ago), but it has and always will be about the people who allowed us to just be Liz and Gabe.

I want to be sure to emphasize that this is not to put any negative light on our first church, they loved and cared for us well, we needed to have something outside of that to connect with each other (for fun and some sort of release) and other people. 

SELF CARE PART II:

The second part of my act of self care has been a more recent one. Recently I became the lead pastor of Schenectady First Church of the Nazarene. I decided after hearing/reading painful statistics about lead pastors who struggle with depression, fatigue, disconnection, burn out, and much more I decided to be proactive and intentional almost from the moment I stepped in as the lead pastor. I decided it was time to hit the gym.

Part of going to the gym 4-5 days a week was also to learn to love myself. I have always had insecurities about myself, being bullied as a young girl and several other things from my life, and I decided part of what working out needed to be was me owning who I was and learning to love myself better. I will spare you the ugly details of things I used to think about myself but I will say this: YOU NEED TO LOVE AND CARE FOR YOURSELF BECAUSE YOU ARE WORTH IT! I kept coming back to the scripture: love your neighbor as yourself. I decided I could love people better if I could learn to love myself better, and here I am doing it through what I can only attribute to God giving me this time, strength, and opportunity.

Since December 10th, 2018 I have been going to the gym 4-5 days a week. I currently just finished my 16th week of working out. I am down 19” and 22 pounds. I have never felt stronger, more empowered, or loved myself more.

This is my before and after picture. The left is me on November 2nd, 2018, and the right is me on March 15, 2019, getting ready to bowl an all day St. Patrick’s Day bowling tournament with new bowling friends in the Schenectady area.

Conclusion:

Wherever you are in your life, it is definitely the right time to learn to love yourself. I haven’t perfected this, by any means, but I am well on my way to owning my uniqueness (as many would call it.. hehe), loving my body, and putting myself in a thriving community of friends who show care in ways I have always wanted and now realize that every human deserves (even those of us who are always trying to be that for everyone else). 

If I had to give some words of wisdom or advice I would say this: Don’t wait until tomorrow to care for yourself or show love to yourself.  When you look at the whole picture it may seem impossible but take it one very small step at a time and celebrate all the little decisions you make for your care and for loving yourself. 

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