February 11, 2010

Burnout: An Examination of Conscience

There was an anonymous comment yesterday suggesting that I might be suffering from ministerial burnout, and that it might be the cause of my impatience with some of those whom the Holy Spirit has given me the privilege to serve in the parish ministry. In his or her charity, whoever wrote the comment promised to pray for me, and I'm grateful for that.

It kind of pierced me to the heart, and it invaded my prayer for the rest of the day, in a good way. Not every invasive thought that comes to us in prayer is a distraction; often they are something screaming to be looked at.

There is something there; some truth to the comment. On the psychological level you might call it burnout. Perhaps it's more or less the same thing that would be called acedia on the level of the passions and temptation. Whatever you call it, there is an internal challenge going on, and I'm grateful that somebody took the time to point it out to me.

This is a very personal sort of confession, but I've always meant this blog to exist partly for those who are curious about religious life and priesthood, about the struggles and joys of the life. I do it especially for those who might be discerning their own vocations.

So what's up? What is the trouble? As I've been reflecting on this since yesterday and examining my conscience, I think I want to describe it as a kind of emotional fatigue mixed with a mood of disappointment.

First, let me try to describe the emotional fatigue. In the parish ministry one deals daily with folks in intense emotional states, both good and bad. There's the zeal of converts and the distressed vertigo of those who feel they are losing their faith. There's the recently bereaved and the new parents. There's the tragic self-imprisonment of the scrupulous and the happy liberation of those who realize their salvation.

As a priest you are called to meet the intensity of these states with a certain commensurate degree of reverence. It is your joy to do this as a human witness on the part of God's Church, but it can also wear you out. I only realize now, with this job, what a quiet life I have led for much of my time on earth until now. I may have been happy or sad at any given moment of my life, but it was all pretty calm.

Second, let me try to describe the low-grade mood of disappointment that gets mixed in. One gets into this sort of vocation, whether religious life or priesthood or both, with a desire to live the Catholic Christian life in a particularly intense and directed way. You have found a call through your own prayer and are eager to answer it. You fall in love with God in a certain way that seems to demand an exclusive relationship, and you're ready to jump in with wholehearted trust and giddy zeal. But then you then find yourself in a community not only overly committed and spread thin, but also having trouble knowing its own corporate identity within the Church and the world. (I don't mean my province or Order in particular, but mainstream religious life here in North America.)

It can also be hard for you as someone once set on fire for prayer, observance, and the seeking of God, to be sent in the parish ministry where you suddenly have to deal with the average North American Catholic, who, as we know, does not practice the faith in a measurable way. Nevertheless, the average Catholic still wants their baby baptized even though they don't give evidence of being able to make the baptismal vows on the baby's behalf in good conscience, and the average Catholic still wants a priest to come say a prayer for their deceased loved one at the funeral home, even though they might not intend to give him a proper funeral or burial. Having these sorts of conflicts day after day on the phone and in the parlor wears me down. I want to infect these folks with the love of the God who is so good, but sometimes they seem to just see me as someone who is refusing to give them the customer service they want and are (often) willing to pay for. 'What sort of donation can fix this trouble, Father?'

All of this can be very wearying, and brings up the internal trouble or temptation of burning out. You're bored with the job and the people because you've lost sight of the grace in your own life and in theirs, respectively. You start to minister mechanically, working out of mere human charm and cleverness. This is particularly dangerous, because you can fool people if you're good, and you may even become more popular because you no longer have any prophetic edge or challenge to give your people. In the end though, you start to resent the people as a distraction; lacking God, you now have only you're own interests, pleasures, and diversions to interest you, and are annoyed when called away from them. Under different names and aspects, I have been aware of this temptation and struggle in myself.

In the end, though, I'm begging the question. For me, the heart of the Franciscan charism consists of two utterances: First, that of Francis confessing his own conversion: "The Lord granted me, brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way..." By our Franciscanism we confess that our lives are no longer our own work, but the Lord's, who has given us the grace of "beginning to do penance," of turning ourselves from our miserable and boring selves to God and his poor. Second, that of Christ crucified to Francis: "Go, Francis, repair my church, which you can see is being completely destroyed." To be a Franciscan is to be a repairer of churches, a restorer of the Body of Christ.

Therefore, a Franciscan should not be surprised to find that the Holy Spirit has put him in a corner of the Church where the thing seems to be falling down and broken. To be there is his mission. That it is overwhelming and often disappointing on the human level must drive him ever more to Christ crucified whose call and Church it is in the first place. The strength for this must come from prayer. It is only from there that I can find a way to be burned through rather than burned out. It is only there that the injuries that would be the selfish wounds of disappointment and resentment are transformed into the selfless stigmata of the Cross.

"That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men."

Thanks as always to readers, for keeping me honest and humble.


Warren said...

I have always wondered if priests and religious also suffer a third kind of burnout:

If I had made a radical commitment to Christ, such as Priests make, then the positive force of my vow to remain single and celibate would seem to me to indicate that I am somehow now more "free" to serve Christ, and his Church, which is the logic Paul gives in his famous discourse. (He who marries does not sin, but he who does not marry, saves himself Trouble, and I, Paul, am sure that I have the Spirit of God, in this matter.)

So, thus freed, I would think it would be very painful when other things come in that limit one's freedom. For example, one has a conscience, and a community, and one often subconsciously wishes to abide within the unwritten rules and norms of that community. One wishes not, in a few words, to rock the boat. And yet, one wishes, also, to rock the boat.

And herein lies a tension, I see. And wherever there is tension, there is (eventually), either catharsis, or burnout, or both.

I've just always wondered.

And I've heard from my Franciscan Friar friends that personality conflicts are the #1 thing that kick people out of the discernment process, if they had been discerning a call to one of the Religious Orders, both Franciscan, and otherwise.


saintos said...

God bless you. I experienced burnout in my soul as a Protestant minister. It is, in part, what opened to door to a search that lead me to the Catholic Church. I'm still new (Jan 2006). May God grant you all you need in Him to forge forward.

kam said...

Fr, thank you for the insight and lesson concerning your calling, your religious life. You seem to have presented the issue (or problem), gave us a splendid dissertation and came up with the answer at the end. With a Priest these types of problems are his life's work; the dealing with people day in and day out, with all the varied requests and situations that arise. In my life just dealing with my fellow workers, in trying to show Jesus to them thru me can be at times exasperating and discouraging. I really can't add much more to your post thru me, Fr. That was some candid and heartfelt writing on your part. Thanks for showing 'me' through you. You are in our prayers always.

Br. Vito Martinez said...

Even as a Postulant, I found ways to engross myself within my ministry, so much so that I jokingly asked Bill Hugo: "So how soon until our first Sabbatical?"

As a chronic workaholic in the business world at one point, I know there a difference between challenging others and burnout. What you were describing in that post(from my understaning) was being able to create boundaries of proper relationships with others...so that 1. people will feel comfortable approaching you, and 2. you reflect your commitment as a minore and not as some icon that places you above others.

In fact, burnout is usually accompanied by an intense desire to not be more approachable...rather one wishes everyone would just let them alone.

You make a great point: we have the on-going task of working with "broken churches;" in fact we go out of our way to work there (at least in my province.)

As one of the "next generation" friars, I value your input.


P.S. Jack and Marty were just here from Boston.

Brother Charles said...

Thanks, Vito. You can trust Bill. His encouragement made the difference for my perseverance through the postulancy.

Julia said...

Back when I was in RCIA, a priest told me that I needed to look at things from the standpoint of eternity.

It's a useful bit of advice sometimes. I see the phrase differently at different times.

It gives unwavering peace, if nothing else. (Well, it should. If it doesn't, it's a sign we're doing something wrong!)

Qualis Rex said...

Father Charles, Mother Teresa described how she experienced a burnout very early in her ministry, going from the cloisters to serving the people (as you do). In fact, MOST people in ANY job or service that deal with people on a daily basis experience burnout at some point. People in general are hard to deal with, and you can't please everyone all the time. I'm not trying to make light of your situation at all, but just letting you know that I think what you may be experiencing is more pervasive in the human condition, and not something that has anything to do with your vocation or spirituality.

There is a reason many of the church fathers went into seclusion at some point in their lives. Not suggesting you go out lookng for pillars like St Simeon Sytlites (pray for us!), but a short break from humans might recharge the batteries.

Keep fighting the good fight, and as always we are praying for you.

pennyante said...

Remember that Jesus would go off to some deserted place to be alone... not only to pray; but being human, he also needed to revive and strengthen himself, to heal and to recuperate from the stress of his ministry... He surely also felt burnout at times...

Anonymous said...

Reading this, I couldn't help but think of one of the roles I've played as a Church Office employee for over 20 years-listening, discreetly (and hopefully not revealing too much here by saying that) when in your reply to a commenter you mentioned Bill- someone who obviously listened to you then... Hope you have someone now...

Ann said...

Dear Fr,

I have been "lurking" on your blog for quite some time. I am always humbled and inspired by what you share and the raw honesty I find here.

As a former "hard core" protestant who will be received into the church on April 11, I must say this post hit home with me on many levels. I look around me at mass and see people who are sitting there asleep! When we are singing, I look around and it seems out of everyone there, maybe me and 3 others are singing. What is up with this? People seem so indifferent and apathetic. I am by no means suggesting that I am better than everyone else, or that I have it all figured out. In my "convert zeal" I have thrown myself into my conversion to the Lord and His church full on. I live for the moment each week when the priest lifts the host and chants, "From Him, In Him, through Him, etc." and feel like God has come and zapped me into a new life with Him as my priority and reality. I wonder why not everyone else seems to be as excited about what God is offering us..........I have even questioned my decision to leave Protestantism in light of all of this.

In the end, I realize that there is so much I don't know, and much to learn. Maybe that person across the isle falling asleep worked a 12 hour shift before they came to mass. Maybe the people not singing are so burdened by life they can't sing because their hearts are crushed......maybe they feel like God is far away and they have lost hope of drawing near to Him......who am I to say, for only God sees the heart. Whatever the case, whether it be burnout or the heavy blanket of apathy that seems to weigh down the church, in the end I am only responsible for operating in the free will I have been given, taking care of my own junk and sins, and being faithful to Christ and loving Him with everything I've got even if no one else does. He'll sort it all out and is the only one who is worthy and able to do so. It's not up to me.

Sorry for the clumsy post. Hang in there Fr.

Love and prayers,


Brother Charles said...

Dear Ann,

Thank you for your prayers. From one convert to another, it's an encouragement to meet you. Stick with it in the Lord.

Anonymous said...

Dear Brother Charles,
I am the "Anonymous" who's post "inspired" you to look inward on this issue. Your humility in receiving an admonition from someone you do not know is inspiring to me! The beauty of your response is not so much in the specific way you write about how burnout has impacted you, but in the fact that your heart is so tender and open to any move of the Holy Spirit. The way you handled this is a beautiful example to me of how to receive criticism and humbly bring it before God asking Him to show me what areas of my heart need healing and reconciliation in order to be more closely united to Him. God bless you for your witness which I am certain is a great benefit to all those who have the joy of being acquainted with you.

Brother Charles said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for your encouragement. I see the people of God abused so much that I want to take seriously any suggestion that I might be doing it myself in any way.

Thanks again.