The other day I went to a clergy gathering and the topic of conversation was recognizing burnout. We all face the possibility of this no matter what sort of work we do. Jobs or vocations that start out so exciting have the potential to consume our every waking moment. Even the most wonderful job in the world can become overwhelming. Expectations and workloads can become unrealistic. If we happen to be really good at what we do, others might criticize when we’re no longer able to maintain the usual snappy pace. Recognizing the signs of burnout is important – not just for the person experiencing it, but for everyone in that person’s community as well.
We also discussed how burnout can happen to our parishioners in the pews. We’ve all heard stories of long-time, faithful parishioners who suddenly stop attending, and no one knows why. Pastoral calls either go unanswered, or our inquiries are met with reluctance or even disgust. It hurts the community as a whole when this happens. While the individual may get the relief he or she needs by getting away from the church, everyone else is left off-balance. As long as there is no conversation about the situation, nothing can be done to fix it.
Not everyone is good at being direct with their feelings, or articulating their burdens. I offer the list of the signs of burnout that we used in our discussion. It’s geared toward work life, but you can see how it could be directed toward parish life.
Do you find yourself becoming more cynical, critical and sarcastic at work?
Have you lost the ability to experience joy?
Do you have to drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive?
Have you become irritable and less patient with co-workers, customers or clients?
Do you feel you face insurmountable barriers at work?
Do you feel that you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
Do you no longer feel satisfaction from your achievements?
Do you have a hard time laughing at yourself?
Are you tired of other people asking if you’re OK?
Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
Are you self-medicating using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
Have your sleep habits or appetite changes?
Are you troubled by headaches, neck pain, or back pain?
I might add things like feeling overused at the parish, or unheard. Do you need to hear more variety in the sermons to find the Good News? Are there things going at home that make parish life more like another job than a place to be uplifted, loved and supported?
Instead of walking away and thinking the priest and the parish know perfectly well what’s wrong – tell someone. Neither the priest nor the Vestry can read minds or are so empathic that we intuitively know what you’re feeling. There may be things we can do or change or fix – but only if we’re aware of them.
The story of the Good Shepherd, who seems to know when and why a sheep has gone astray, is a hard act to follow. God has placed many shepherds among us to help move the flock forward, but none of us is the Good Shepherd. We need a little input from the flock to know when we need to be extra attentive. The best communities are ones where health and wellness are important features of our lives – places where we encourage each other toward full maturity in faith. Church should be a place where being the light of Christ in the world doesn’t involve burning the Paschal Candle at both ends. We can all end up being shepherds to one another.
If you can answer yes to any of the criteria above, either at work or at church, tell somebody. Being burned out is nothing that any of us should have to experience. We become a stronger body of Christ in the world when we’re healthy in body, mind and spirit.