It happens to many of us, eventually.
Whether we are regular unpaid help at our parish, or if we have a full-time position on staff. At some point if we are not very careful, we will burn out. Like a gas grill whose tank is empty, our flame will flicker and sputter and, finally, disappear. I’m not talking about normal stress that comes with working among a group of people, with all the attendant politics and personal foibles that comes with it, nor the fatigue one might feel when one’s shoulders are set “to the wheel” for an extended period of time.
Rather, I’m talking about the out-of-control, downward spiral often accompanied by bitterness, frustration, and a defensive attitude that screams “I don’t care anymore” as loud as it can. Burnout can be ugly and, unfortunately, it can cause collateral damage–among our ministries and to our friends, families, co-workers, and fellow parishioners.
Burnout is often connected (as a cause, an effect, or both) with an experience of a collapsing prayer life, a struggle with a pattern of sinfulness (vice) or acedia–a state of spiritual listlessness or torpor. And just a quick aside–not every experience of dryness in prayer is a good thing. While desert experiences are normative for many disciples, part of the way that God forms and trains us to move to a deeper faith and trust in Him, sometimes our experience of dryness in prayer can be a result of an obstinancy, a pattern of sinfulness, or the experience of acedia. A well-trained and perceptive Spiritual Director can be invaluable in discerning the root of such experiences.
But what to do if you are suffering from burnout? Is rehab possible?
Fanning the Flames
The good news is that our God is a God of restoration, renewal, mercy, and wholeness. There are very concrete things that we can do to navigate through this period and dispose ourselves to His renewing grace. Here are my suggestions in no particular order (assuming that you are a lay man or lay woman):
- Take some time to do an in-depth examination of conscience and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you patterns of sinfulness, areas in your life that are not under the Lordship of Christ, and thought habits that set up obstacles between you and God (for example, a habit of thought that is filled with self-judgment or self-hatred will cause someone to believe that while God might heal and forgive others, there is something about themselves that is unloveable, and therefore God just wouldn’t deign to forgive or heal them).
- Once the Examination of Conscience is complete, run, don’t walk, to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance. Give all of that junk to the Lord and trust that He will forgive and restore you.
- Although times of burnout are often times when we want to pray the least, make a concrete schedule of prayer that includes several opportunities for prayer throughout the day. If it’s available somewhere near you, give particular emphasis to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (daily, if possible). If you are spiritually prepared, receiving communion during these masses will go a long way toward restoration. A note here for parish staff members–resist the gravitational pull of someone enlisting you to help at these masses. Make this a time for you to fully participate as a member of the assembly in the pews. Go to another parish for mass, if necessary.
- To facilitate the other bullet points and to help with recovery, take a step back from your area of ministry for a time (if you are a staff member, I would encourage you to take some vacation–a minimum of three days, maybe stretched out over a weekend to give you 5 full days off). During this time, make it clear to your pastor or ministry coordinator that this is time that you are taking for you. Resist being contacted about that ministry or area; assign a delegate who can handle things while you take some time off.
- Then get a life! Okay, so that might be a little facetiously stated, but seriously cultivate, explore, or return to a hobby or other area of your life that has nothing to do with direct ministry at all. Train for a marathon, remodel the house, dive into a series of books you’ve been meaning to read. Whatever it is, make sure it is something that you enjoy.
- When you are ready to return to work/your area of volunteering, meet with the coordinator or your boss and set clear boundaries. If you are paid for 35 hours a week of ministry–inform your pastor or boss that you are restricting your time working at the parish to those 35 hours. If your boss feels that they need you for more hours than that in order to “get things done,” it is incumbent on them to provide compensation and a reworked job description and job offer. It is then incumbent on you to prayerfully discern whether you should work those additional hours. The little secret at the heart of a lot of parish work is that staff members and volunteers routinely work far more hours than they are compensated for or were assigned to work. Whether the pastor/boss/coordinator never intends for that to be the case, it often occurs. This is, at its heart, an issue of justice which parishes need to address.
- To facilitate setting clear boundaries, work with your boss/volunteer coordinator to set clear priorities. If everything is a priority then in reality nothing is important. The fact of the matter is that, unless you have a network of gifted and well-formed individuals who have taken personal responsibility for coordinating an area of your work, you personally can only start and maintain a relatively small number of “plates spinning on a pole.” Setting clear priorities helps you know where to expend your limited focus and amount of time.
- Cultivate a network of gifted and well-formed individuals who have taken personal responsibility for coordinating an area of your work. Burnout often results from the physical, mental, and spiritual drain that comes from working on things in your ministry/area of work for which you are not gifted. Discern your spiritual gifts (charisms) and then deputize or, if you are very lucky, hire individuals who have charisms in areas where you are not gifted (or talented). Form them well and then give them space to work/coordinate that area of responsibility (but DO still hold them accountable).
- Maintain the disciplined schedule of prayer that you put together as an emergency rehab. Keep developing your prayer life and find a solid spiritual director.
- Strive to build good and honest lines of communication with your boss and coworkers. Passive aggressiveness and conflict avoidance have been elevated to art forms within many parishes. Refuse to give in to it. Act counter culturally by respectfully addressing issues and conflicts that arise. Don’t let them fester. Be open to speaking the truth in love to your coworkers and boss–and truly listen when someone respects you enough to do the same.
Hopefully, you’ve found a few things in this post helpful. These suggestions come from hard-won personal experience. What other suggestions might you have for helping someone reignite after burnout?