Heart burn-out or burning for Jesus?

Burnout or burning zealRecently I had a conversation with a priest about not-so-knew research describing the increase of pastors identifying with a PTSD diagnosis – Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome among Pastors. She was wondering about her own choices in ministry and thought she might have landed on an explanation for why so much of her 20-year run had been fruitful only in certain seasons. Though she is young enough to keep going for another 15 years, she wonders if she can.  She is disgruntled with the demands of others on her time, laments that she never got things right between ministry and home life.  She wonders if she has it in her to keep at this.

In her voice I could feel her fatigue. Sadness. Resignation. It made me sad, for her.  But also a bit annoyed, frankly.

The church is populated with a lot of burnt-out priests. Priests who have had enough and who blame their burn-out on the way they did – or did not do – ministry.  Blame being the operative word.

And zeal.  Zeal for ministry, as in, “My zeal for your house has eaten me up,”  as it appears in Psalm 69:

10 Zeal for your house has eaten me up; *

the scorn of those who scorn you has fallen upon me.

11 I humbled myself with fasting, *

but that was turned to my reproach.

12 I put on sack-cloth also, *

and became a byword among them.

Reads rather like a badge of honor, actually.

But zeal for God’s house causing scorn?  Or worse, burn-out, or worse yet, trauma?

Post traumatic stress disorder among pastors is real. Many longitudinal studies have been done tracking the lives of those choosing a religious vocation and recent research validates the increase in PTSD in this population.

Ok. It is legit. But.

Could claiming a “zeal for ministry” as the reason for scorn or burn-out also be a scape goat – a way of denying culpability – a measly excuse for leaving ministry?

This is what was I heard/read at the verses above:

Because of my zeal for you God, because I gave everything to you and God’s church, because I donned a collar, served at the table several times a week, preached on holidays of all things, administered a parish, fund-raised, because I wrote theological and pastoral letters to the people you gave me to minister to, regularly, because I visited the prisoner, the ailing, the widow, whenever they called – because of my zeal for you and for ministry, I burned-out. I may be a workaholic, but at least I am a righteous one!

Not.  No one who is over-working in the church should take umbrage in the collar, justifying their dysfunction as righteous.  Blaming burn-out, stress, trauma, on ‘zeal’ for the gospel – on the work some are called to do in Jesus’ name – whether the priest or the priest’s family  – is just misguided,  an excuse allowing the burned-out person or their spouse or family member to assume no responsibility.

Priests who burn out don’t get there overnight. Anymore than a stockbroker, a teacher, a spouse, a government worker, a writer, a small business owner. Burn-out amongst those in a religious vocation is not distinguished by the kind of work they do versus others. The dysfunction is within the person. We are not known to God and to others by what we do, but who we are called to be, and then do. And all to His glory, not ours.

If someone reaches the end of the line burned-out or worse diagnosed with PTSD, something was wrong from the beginning. And not with the vocation, itself. Take that same burned-out person and put him or her in a different vocation, and my guess is the same patterns repeat. We each can identify people in our lives who fall in this category – the workaholic.  A wide range of occupations are most likely represented.

A  ‘workaholic’ (a person who compulsively works hard and long hours) appear to be addicted to their work.  Along the lines of alcoholism.  Alcoholics are addicted to liquor.

But people addicted to any substance  – liquor, work, drugs, the internet – continue not for the specific substance but for the escape provided by the substance.  That’s the dysfunctional part.

In the church, if a priest does not establish healthy boundaries at the beginning of his or her ministry, they are at risk for setting in motion dysfunctional patterns that will quickly lead to burn out.

Somewhat counter-intuitively I don’t think the boundaries are first established between work and home, especially in vocations that could be lived into 24/7, such as ministry, but also doctors, public defenders, therapists, protective services (military, police, firefighters) and others.

Rather the boundaries I am thinking of need to be established in the self first, and then in the workplace.  A burnt-out priest is one who entered ministry believing it was all in his or her hands, and left not enough space and room for God to move.

Church leadership that is centered on the priest – either on the personality of the priest or the functionality of the priest (they do it all) is dysfunctional leadership.  In the Episcopal tradition the danger is not so much in the first category of personality-based leadership dysfunction, but instead, the latter ‘priest-do-it-all’ dysfunction.

Many priests enter ministry with every intention of living into the zeal for the gospel, for God’s church, but end up doing it all.  And some find refuge in this – a safe, righteous harbor.  A place to “be” in the world as defined by what they “do” in the world.  Loved for what they do for the church.  Affirmed.  Those that end up doing it all in a church find it a worthy escape from the machinations of life outside the church where they are at risk for being known as something more than what they do.

And there are other dysfunctional consequences to a person becoming enmeshed with his or her vocation, based on her  ‘zeal’ for ministry and drive to ‘do it all.’  Immersing oneself in work for all the wrong reasons leads to a lack of engagement in the away-from-work time at home.  A person’s world becomes bifurcated, not integrated, and in ministry  – well – this is pretty untenable.

In the church, I observe that priests who establish healthy boundaries, who lead by empowering others, who share their ministry at the table and the pulpit, and understand themselves to be one of the priesthood of all believers are the ones least likely to ever ‘burn-out.’

Trust is at the core of this kind of leadership in a church. If a priest trusts themselves more than the ‘other’ – if they think it is their zeal for ministry that distinguishes them from those she or he has been called to lead, then they are thinking too kindly of themselves and their heart for Jesus might just lead to heart burn-out.

So.  PTSD among Pastors?  Surely.  Burn-out?  Absolutely. But.  Maybe those who find themselves settling into either one of these as an explanation for what has past, should go deeper before making decisions about the future – about moving forward – or not – in ministry. Maybe the research my friend cited offers an explanation, but should it serve as an excuse to just stay put? To settle with a sigh into same ol, same ol?  Don’t think you have enough in you to keep at it? Maybe instead of pointing to the high incidence of burn out as an excuse – saying you aren’t that unlike all other pastors – go behind the numbers.  Get curious. Dig deeper.  Find out what brought you to this point, and then make a change.

Look inside.  What is it about you that set in motion a ministry that had some seasons of fruitfulness but in the end seems to have left a bitter-sweet taste in your mouth? How much longer will you continue to blame your zeal for the gospel -your passion for God’s Word – for your troubles?  At what point will you hold yourself accountable and then change that part of you that didn’t trust God enough to give him room to move you, give breath to your ministry? How many people crossed your paths that God sent to help you out? To share the pulpit?  The table? How many times did God open a door for you that you yourself chose to shut?

Psalm 69 ends with praise and thanksgiving.  That’s the beauty of the psalms. The Holy Spirit brings some real work-it-through stuff about life – today about how one’s zeal for God’s church can lead some who are called to ministry into unhealthy relationships with the parishes they are called to lead and then at the same time, calm us with the assurance of his love in such time of affliction. God loves and trusts us – dysfunction and all – so much, seeking only thanksgiving:

31 As for me, I am afflicted and in pain;
your help, O God, will lift me up on high.

32 I will praise the Name of God in song;
I will proclaim his greatness with thanksgiving.

33 This will please the Lord more than an offering of oxen, *
more than bullocks with horns and hoofs.

Praise Him.

Friday Lectionary Readings: M Psalm 69:1-23(24-30)31-38; PM Psalm 73
Gen. 24:1-27; Heb. 12:3-11; John 7:1-13



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