“Rejoice and be glad for your reward will be great in heaven” -Matt. 5:12
This verse is used by lay persons who work for the Church all the time, as a half-hearted joke. That is – you will never be appreciated or paid enough for the amount of service given to the Church, at least in this life. But, there is a seriousness behind it as well.
I started working for the Catholic Church in 2002. If that sounds like a long time, it is. At least for a lay person who works full-time in ministry. While there are no hard and fast statistics I can find on how long someone lasts in Catholic ministry, I did find that Protestant youth ministers last about 18 months or so. If we use that as a standard, I am WAY beyond the average.
I have seen hundreds of folks I know burnout in ministry. While it is neither cheap nor efficient to have turnover, sometimes we can’t control the fact that people move on. Is there anything we can do about it? Yes and no. While each person in ministry is in control of their own well-being more than any other person, we can certainly help lower the turnover, if we change some of the culture in our parishes and dioceses. Still, we each have control over the choices of only one person – ourselves. So, I have written up some reasons why we have burnout and what we can do to prevent it.
12 Reasons for Ministry Burnout & How to Prevent It
CAUSE – Start to compare your work to others and/or look at objective numbers as the sole source of measuring success. This may start from a pastor who wants to track how many people are coming to the events you plan or how many people are coming to Mass. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with this tracking as a metric – we cannot rely on these kinds of numbers alone, to tell us if we are successful. These objective measurements don’t tell us how many hearts have been converted! Our goal is always conversion – to “make disciples”.
PREVENTATIVE MEASURE – Focus on small successes. Remember the person you have been working with for two years and how they are now really turning things around. Focus on the things you do well. Not just numbers. Furthermore, you may need to change how you operate. Jesus didn’t just aim for numbers, but for depth of conversion and deep investment of his life in others. Do this. If you don’t know how to make the necessary changes, then seek out help.
CAUSE – Tendency to exaggerate the negative, when things are stressful or there is prolonged demands on our time. A lot of jobs the laity have in ministry are cyclical and it can feel like you are never off of the hamster wheel. RCIA – one group is done and you are on to another. Youth Ministry/Campus Ministry – every semester is another chance to go nuts and then start over again. No matter what, there are times when you just don’t have enough hours in the day and you forget why you are doing it all anyway.
PREVENTATIVE MEASURE – Remember the passion that got you interested in being in ministry in the first place. It isn’t about you. It is about God. You are the hands and voice of Jesus in a world that desperately needs Him! Focus on the things that you can control and then do them to the best of your ability. Above all, never lose hope. Pray for hope. Talk to those who build you up and can encourage you.
CAUSE– Let our prayer lives slip and forget our own spiritual well-being. This is one of the main drivers in burnout. In serving others, too many folks forget to take care of their own souls. Sometimes it is merely a matter of living out the advice we give others. But, more than anything we have to remember we can’t give what we don’t have. Prayer is the only way we can be fruitful and we can cut ourselves off from God’s power to work through us when we don’t pray.
PREVENTATIVE MEASURE – Re-prioritize prayer or make it a priority for the first time if you haven’t. There is no better way to start your day than with prayer. If you need a real kick in the pants, then make sure you go on that 4 day retreat that you can’t fit in your schedule. Drop the rest and go do it. No matter what, you are destined for spiritual failure (and ministry failure too) if you aren’t praying like you ought to. We both know it, so do something about it. Furthermore, dive deep into the Sacramental life, but do so with the intention of not just going through the motions.
CAUSE – Fail to set and keep good boundaries in ministry. Don’t know how to say “no”. Too often we fool ourselves into thinking we are the Savior and take on too much. Some have personalities which don’t trust others to do things the way they want them done or keep things to themselves to try and pretend they are more important (they hate delegating). These are lies. We need time outside of work. We need down time. We need our space away from always being “on”! We need help!
PREVENTATIVE MEASURE – Make better boundaries and stick to them. Schedule time off. Learn how to say “no”. Offer the things that we have to let go to God. Let others do things for you. The best bet is to make sure you aren’t always bringing work home with you and that you actually have something you want to go home to. That can be family, an animal, a good hobby, friends, etc. But, no matter what, stick to your boundaries and be a bit selfish with your time off. Even Jesus went had to get away sometimes and you aren’t Jesus.
CAUSE – Don’t attend to our health, sleep, diet, and exercise. How many folks have become a living sacrifice for those they serve. There is stress, work, and burden enough for a lifetime – sometimes on one weekend retreat! These problems are magnified if we don’t feel good physically. So, for those things we control, we need to make sure we are healthy in body, mind and soul – never forgetting the body part. They are all interconnected.
PREVENTATIVE MEASURE – Work on forming better healthy habits. Stay away from all the cruddy free food that is offered at Church events (pizza, pasta, snacks, etc). Set and keep a good exercise routine. Go see the doctor, like you said you would last year. Finally, get more sleep. Make yourself go to bed at an earlier time if you have to. You only have one body and you need to take care of it.
CAUSE – Failure to make good friends who keep us accountable and build us up. Some might say they are lonely, because it feels like nobody understands them. While this may be true, there is someone who knows what it is like to walk in your shoes, to some degree. Seek these folks out and nurture the relationships that help give life to what you do for a living.
PREVENTATIVE MEASURE – Seek out friends who understand what our work is like. Even if this means talking with a friend 1,000 miles away and you only met a conference. Take the time to invest in these relationships, because there aren’t a lot of others who can value what it takes to do what you do. Also, seek out those with more experience and who can coach you through such times.
CAUSE – Don’t get the support we need at work. Feel undervalued or unappreciated.This can happen in a variety of ways. Maybe it is a Pastor who demands too much. Maybe it is a boss who sometimes isn’t as quick with a kind word as he ought to be. Maybe you feel like those you serve don’t appreciate you. Maybe it is a combination. No matter what it is, this can quickly zap our desire to serve.
PREVENTATIVE MEASURE – Try to set up better ways to communicate. Maybe it is asking for a regular meeting with your boss. Maybe it is being honest and upfront about what is going on. We might also need to adjust our expectations. We aren’t always going to hear back from the parishioner who we invested in. We aren’t going to always get the feedback we deserve. An unvoiced expectation is one doomed to never be met and therefore cause turmoil. So, speak up.
CAUSE – Don’t get the guidance we need from a good mentor, spiritual director, counselor, etc. If we can’t have honest and open talks about our struggles with someone that can help give us good guidance, then we never have a means of letting go of those burdens we carry. Too often I see others wait to seek someone out. Don’t do this. Find someone and sit at their feet and grow.
PREVENTATIVE MEASURE – Ask someone soon to guide you and walk with you.There is no shame at admitting you don’t have all the answers and sometimes need someone to look you in the eye and tell you again that you are loved by our God. You don’t have to be perfect to be able to help others. Furthermore, you don’t have to hide your weaknesses. We offer ministry coaching and mentorship through our work. We know what it is like to struggle in ministry and can help.
CAUSE – Our work doesn’t match our gifts and we feel drained by it. While there will always be tasks we do that we don’t like (for me it is administrative details), we should have a good chunk of our time spent on things that energize us and are matched to what we are good at. NOTE – this isn’t a quick fix in most jobs.
PREVENTATIVE MEASURE – I highly suggest the Called and Gifted program through the Siena Institute. This program helps you discern your spiritual charisms and discover your God-given gifts. Now, knowing those and using them are 2 different things. This may mean trying to shift some duties around, if possible. With this process, think long-term.
CAUSE – We have set expectations too high or have internalized the expectations of others. Sometimes we think we MUST do this thing or we MUST finish this task. But, will the world end if we don’t? Expectations can cause problems also when our boss (or those we serve) wants to have a daily meeting every morning, yet we work 3 nights a week, we wake up without energy and then start to have the life sucked from us.
PREVENTATIVE MEASURE – Set your expectations modestly and continue to talk to your boss and others about the reality of your work and life. If you can’t have these kind of conversations, then something else is very wrong. Make sure the boundaries we set (see above) are also kept strictly. Remember your job isn’t to save the world. Sometimes it is merely to get the copy machine to work.
CAUSE – Can’t afford to live off of the salary and are barely able to pay the bills. This is still a sad story we have all heard. A person who is skilled, knowledgeable, and full of passion leaves their job because they can’t afford to buy a house or raise their kids on their salary. Such a shame.
PREVENTATIVE MEASURE – Our Catholic faith teaches us to fight for justice. Fair wages are part of this. So, fight for fair wages within our Church as well. The best laity in ministry are highly educated and skilled, yet underpaid. Ask for higher pay and try to educate the clergy on the realities of what a fair wage ought to look like. If you are a pastor reading this – think about being a leader in this area.
CAUSE – You are working out of obligation and you have lost your passion for your work. This could be a sign of several things. First, it could be a sign of spiritual desolation. Second, it could be a sign that God is doing something new. Third, it could be a sign that you have let your passion slip yourself.
PREVENTATIVE MEASURE – There could be a number of things going on, so first things first – figure out what is the cause of the problem. You should never stop praying, no matter what. Also, if it is a spiritual desolation, then never make any major changes until you are in a consolation and have sought good counsel from others. Finally, if you are the cause of the slip in passion, then think of the things that bring you life and do these things. Still, if God wants a major change, then be patient enough to find clarity before you quit your job.
Clearly, this isn’t an exhaustive list. If you have more to add – then let us know.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco celebrates the ‘Mass of the Americas’ using the extraordinary form of the Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., Nov. 16, 2019. (photo: EWTN/YouTube Screen Capture)