Clergy burnout hidden threat for ministers

 — May 17, 199717 mai 1997

by Virginia Battiste, Saskatoon Star Phoenix

Dr. Roy Oswald has some advice for churches who want to keep their pastors in long-term ministry. He says it can help to avoid both clergy burnout and the frequent changes of clergy that can be disruptive and costly to a parish.

“We live in a high stress culture in North America and clergy are subject to burnout like everyone else. What we strongly recommend to extend ministry is for congregations to give their ministers a sabbatical leave of three months every four years. Most pastors don’t even think to ask for something like that for themselves. It’s a time for them to regain their vitality and renew themselves, to bring back new ideas and fresh energy which benefits the congregation,” Oswald says.

Oswald is a senior consultant with the Alban Institute, an ecumenical agency that focuses on resources for congregations. He maintains that it is costly to a congregation in terms of time, resources and effectiveness of ministry when there are frequent changes of clergy. There can be a built-in element of loss of trust between the congregation and their pastor because of constant change.

He adds that for some clergy, a move can be a way of handling an overly demanding ministry, rather than addressing the real need for changes in the expectations and ministry to the congregation. Oswald, who has experienced burnout himself, works in the area of clergy transitions. He gives workshops on clergy burnout and self- care. The former pastor, born and raised on the prairies, says the devastating effects of burnout lead him into this particular field. He thinks clergy are prone to what has been termed “compassion fatigue.”

“I don’t know of any profession that is as vulnerable to the beck and call of others as being in the clergy. There is a need to respond to the desires of other people all the time. And, congregants can feel they own their clergy,” he says.

He adds that burnout happens in all the professions that have to take people seriously. There are built in circumstances that contribute to it.

“Most of us don’t realize we have limited resources. We are in a profession that constantly invites us to overextend ourselves. There’s always the feeling that there is something else I should have done. There are always needy people around. We don’t look after ourselves, so we deplete ourselves completely and drastically reduce our effectiveness. That’s the tragedy,” he says.

The warning signals of burnout include physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, disillusionment, the feeling of being used and a plummeting self-image.

For Fr. Bernard de Margerie burnout caught up with him after nearly 30 years of ministry in a particularly difficult field. Ordained in 1958, he says his life unraveled in 1986.

“I experienced paralyzing discouragement and was struggling with declining self-image and unresolved personal issues. I had been involved for a longtime in a very demanding ministry, and I mean ecumenism. I was working full time in it, setting up the Centre for Ecumenism and getting it off the ground. I felt that I couldn’t go on in that kind of ministry,” de Margerie says.

There were tell-tale indications that things were not going well.

“The signs of impending crisis were there. Certainly workaholism, to put it in generic terms, and a lack of integration of the emotional, sexual and spiritual dimensions of my being. That’s what I meant by unresolved personal issues,” he says.

Now recovered and back in active ministry, De Margerie spent seven months at an in-patient treatment centre near Toronto. He says admitting the need is part of the key to getting help.

“There are two things that I would like to say others who might be facing this kind of thing. That help is available if you are willing to admit to your need. There is nothing really shameful about that. And, for me, the diocese through Bishop Mahoney was generous in offering help. I am grateful for that support,” he says.

Addressing the issues surrounding burnout requires setting your sights on change, according to Oswald. Clergy need to develop support systems for their ministry, to work intentionally on their own spirituality and to care for themselves as well as others. Oswald says the responsible people are the ones at risk.

“Burnout is the disease of the over-committed. It is the most responsible, committed people who experience burnout. They blame themselves if they can’t make everything right for everybody. And that’s impossible. We are co-dependent. We need to be needed. It’s how we define ourselves. But with too many people to need us, we can’t do it,” he says.

He says that makes it a deeply spiritual issue.

“We need to see it as our egos out of control, trying to play God. We end up living not by grace but by works. We need to really ask God what we are called to do and trust God to direct us,” he says.

Oswald recommends time out on several levels, on a daily and weekly basis. He says a 50-hour week of ministry is the maximum. Every week should include two days off and a yearly vacation time is a must.

Clergy should be involved in small, support groups with their peers. They should also form a support system within their congregation with members who know and understand what the demands are of ministry. Besides that, the sabbatical leave every four years, Oswald says, will build more stability for the congregation and revitalize the pastor, making it a situation in which everyone wins.

Posted: May 17, 1997 • Permanent link:
Categories: NewsIn this article: clergy, Saskatoon, workshop
Transmis : 17 mai 1997 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : NewsDans cet article : clergy, Saskatoon, workshop

  Previous post: Ancien article : ELCA Presiding Bishop Stresses Baptism at Unity Event
  Newer post: Article récent : Storm clouds in the East