5 Ways to Avoid Ministry Burnout

May 23, 2019  •   Anna Carter

burnt matches

In some ways, it’s an elephant in the room. We may wish that every parish job and every church culture was perfectly attuned for human flourishing — both our own and those of our fellow parishioners. Sometimes, however, creating environments for other people’s flourishing means we neglect our own. This can lead to weariness, irritability, and bitterness. It can lead to disillusionment with ourselves and others, even God and the Church at large. We lack initiative in our programs, and we lack energy at home.

You’re not alone! Here are five ways to toss out the spent candle burned down on both ends and build some new habits for a new flame.

 

1. Get Away from Ministry

You might think that’s a joke. Our Lord doesn’t think so! “[Jesus] dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone” (Mt 14:22-23). As church workers, it is critical that we prioritize time away. There are no professional Christians. Faith is not our day job.

If you feel exhausted in your ministry job, the first question you should ask yourself is this: Am I praying? Not prayers before staff meetings or prayers you facilitate on retreat. We’re talking about deep-down, honest communication with God, sharing your heart with Him and encountering Him personally in a deeper way. Jesus knew his priority on earth was bringing people to know the love of his Father. So Jesus made sure to spend time away from preaching, healing, and miraculously feeding thousands. Your job also involves bringing people closer to God. If Jesus can make time for personal prayer, so can you!

 

2. Make Time for Your Whole Life

I once heard a story of a ministry worker who worked odd hours. Some in the office got upset that they didn’t see him during the day. As a response, the pastor asked him to track his hours. This way, there would be physical proof that the staff member was working full time. After a couple of weeks, the pastor quietly asked the staffer to stop. He was routinely clocking 50-60 hours weeks, and there was no way the parish could compensate him for that time.

Is that your story? When our heart is in our work, it can be so easy to let our “yes’s” pile up, making our work-life boundaries slip. No one’s well-being can survive when they are always “on.” Learning to balance our life according to all of our values and priorities is critical.

  • Set time for daily personal prayer (see point #1).
  • Make sure relevant family events are in your calendar, creating intentional time for your closed loved ones and the friends who matter most.
  • Scheduling time for leisure and is crucial. Cultivate interests and hobbies that aren’t directly related to your faith. Join a rec league, learn how to fix something new around the house, check out a bestseller from the library. Pick something you’re interested in and schedule time to do it.
  • Determine and maintain digital boundaries. Give yourself rules for handling work-related concerns outside of work. Take your email off your phone. Communicate these “rules” to relevant staff members to ensure realistic expectations on their part.
  • Take vacations. No, really. Don’t skip these.

 

3. Find a New Friend

Working in the Church can be a beautiful thing. Ideally, people around you are friendly, kind, and motivated by the same deeper purpose. Still, it can be easy to feel pressure to keep up appearances or present yourself a certain way. We can feel isolated and lonely in ministry, even within your own parish staff or local community. This is all the more reason to seek confidantes who understand our experiences. If you don’t have this in your life already, there are plenty of places to start:

  • Local Peers: Connect with new ministers at diocesan events, and foster professional relationships over coffee.
  • Mentors: Look around your region to see who is doing your job the way you’d like to do it in ten years. Offer to buy them lunch.
  • Online: Join Facebook groups relevant to your area of ministry. Watch the feeds to get a sense of people’s personalities. When you find someone with qualities you admire and respect, reach out for a phone call.

Jesus had Peter, James, and John. Both St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius of Loyola founded their religious movements with companions. St. Francis de Sales and St. Frances de Chantal worked together to found a new religious order. Elizabeth and Mary spent months in each other’s company during their pregnancies. Holy people have good fellowship with others in their same life situation.

 

4. Check Your Expectations

These could be expectations of ourselves (see point #5) or others. When we give of ourselves at odd hours and lower pay, it can be easy to think we “deserve” certain things. We deserve parents to respond well to our CCD night. We deserve for people to be polite on the office phone. We deserve more thanks for our tireless service. That may be so. However, unconsciously placing these expectations upon others and holding it against them if they don’t meet them is a recipe for bitterness.

We see a relevant Biblical story in Numbers. The Israelites are complaining — yet again! — about the lack of water and generally poor conditions since leaving Egypt. God gives Moses directions to work a miracle for the Israelites, creating a stream of water in the desert. Moses gathers the crowd and announces: “Just listen, you rebels! Are we to produce water for you out of this rock?” (Nm 20:2-9). Rather than give glory to God, Moses voices his own hurt and anger.

Negative interactions will undoubtedly occur in our line of work. These can be all the more painful when they occur among fellow Catholics. This is all the more reason for us to follow Jesus, as best we can. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). Surrender your negative reactions to God, and pray for those involved. If interactions were particularly tense and require a direct response, sleep on it. Wait a day to let your emotions cool before approaching the situation again.

 

5. Be Honest About Your Limits

In church work, it can be easy to take on a martyr syndrome. I’m here to give it all, because the parish needs it! However, God isn’t calling you to be Jesus 2.0. You’re a human being with strengths and weaknesses, just like everybody else! In writing to St. Timothy, a new minister in the early Church, St. Paul writes, “Attend to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in both tasks, for by doing so you will save both yourself and those who listen to you” (1 Tm 4:16). If the signs of burnout are happening, don’t keep pushing through! Stop, take stock, and take the necessary action.

This could involve getting help if you need it. There can be a stigma against this as ministers. After all, aren’t I the listener? I’m the one supposed to be leading others. The truth is, we all face situations that tax us mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Sometimes talking through more challenging situations with a trusted counselor can help us get in touch with our internal responses and develop healthy behaviors in response.

 

Bonus: Remember Why You’re Here

Maybe you’ve done all the right tips and tricks, but you’re still exhausted. Maybe you came back from your “beat the burnout” retreat and fell into the same patterns you had before. Remember, just because you can work a certain way, or because a certain program has always been done, doesn’t mean you should. As you look at the tasks on your plate, remember why you’re here. Remember why this parish is here. Is there something on the list that has stolen your focus, something that can get trimmed? Is there a “no” you can say? Take some time for self-reflection. What got you into ministry in the first place? How did God call you then? How does He still call you today? Reclaim your God-given purpose and let Him rekindle the fire!

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