As lay ministries flourish, overworked ministers struggle with burnout
An increased demand for lay ministers means some are burning the candle at both ends.
Sue Antoinette, a retired youth minister in Cincinnati, spent her career being attentive to others’ needs. But she didn’t always receive the same in return. Because Antoinette worked with kids, she found that people tended to take her work less seriously. She even remembers a time when a priest patted her on the head.
In 2005 lay ministers working in parish settings outnumbered diocesan priests for the first time in the United States, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. By 2015 parish lay ministers exceeded all priests, diocesan and religious. Add the nonordained parish ministers to the thousands of laypeople serving as prison chaplains, campus ministers, and health care chaplains, and one thing is clear: While the priesthood declines, lay ministry in the U.S. Catholic Church is on the rise.
But while lay ministry as a whole may be flourishing, that doesn’t necessarily mean lay ministers themselves are.
Wellbeing at Work, a research organization operating out of the University of Notre Dame, pays special attention to workplace flourishing. Its team understands this idea contains two elements: thriving, “what makes work profoundly meaningful or purposeful,” and happiness, “what makes work fun or enjoyable.” When work ceases to be meaningful and is stripped of enjoyment, workers who are not flourishing may be on the path to burnout.
Burnout in ministry
According to a Gallup study, 44 percent of full-time employees are burned out sometimes, and Flourishing in Ministry, Wellbeing at Work’s research project that focuses particularly on clergy of various denominations, estimates that 30 percent of pastors are burnt out at any given time.
The roughly 50,000 men and women who do the same sort of work as Catholic clergy, sans collar, are as likely to experience the symptoms of burnout—darkened daily moods, reduced work effectiveness, difficulty in making decisions, decreased creativity, and difficulty in adjusting to changes—as their ordained counterparts. They are just as likely to experience the chronic emotional and physical exhaustion of work centered on caregiving, maybe even more so.
In “Burning Out in Ministry,” Matt Bloom, Flourishing in Ministry’s lead researcher, notes that there are higher levels of burnout among pastors over 40, female clergy, and clergy of color because these individuals face more challenges and hostility from their congregations. The same thing could be said of lay ministers within the Catholic Church, a setting that reveres the ordained, often undervalues the work of the nonordained, and systematically oppresses women (who comprise 80 percent of paid lay ministers).
Antoinette describes this as one of the greatest challenges she’s faced in her 20 years of ministry.
Burnout not only compromises the well-being of the ministers it affects, it also negatively impacts the people whom those ministers serve. It’s worth examining burnout. Those who understand it can recognize it, and those who recognize it can prevent it.
Although there are common threads in the experience of burnout—tiredness, disillusionment with work that once summoned enthusiasm, emotional withdrawal—its ramifications and causes vary from person to person.
Helen Bodell, a chaplain at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, says that for her, burnout manifests as a dampened emotional response to the patients she encounters. While the hospital is usually a place of new life and great joy, delivering around 8,500 babies annually, it can also be home to tremendous heartache when things don’t go as planned. When she’s teetering on the edge of burnout, a visit with a patient that would ordinarily move Bodell leaves her emotionally disconnected.
“I’m aware of times when I have a distant experience of these deep, sacred moments. That’s an indicator for me that I really need to attend to my own well-being—spiritual, emotional, and physical,” Bodell explains.
Angela Howard-McParland, a pastoral associate at Saints Rose and Clement Parish in Warwick, Rhode Island, knows she is bordering on burnout when lack of motivation, boredom, and tiredness seep into her work. Howard-McParland has come to expect these feelings seasonally. While she thrives during the busiest periods of parish life—Advent, Christmas, Holy Week, Easter—she fizzles out when the chaotic, people-focused seasons are replaced with behind-the-computer ones.
This is not unique to Howard-McParland.
“Administrative work—the overflowing email inbox and all the forms, all the time—not ministry itself causes burnout,” explains Jim Flanagan, a youth minister for the Apple Valley Catholic Collaborative in Stow, Massachusetts.
In addition to serving the youth of his parish, Flanagan is the program director of a five-day mission trip for approximately 80 middle school students each summer. Even as he sleeps on the floor and showers at a public swimming pool, Flanagan remains a force of nonstop energy and enthusiasm throughout the week. The work is tiring, but it doesn’t emotionally exhaust him in the way administrative work does.
“There’s a difference between being tired and being burned out,” Flanagan says. “Kids tire me out, but they also fuel me so that I don’t burn out.”
Feeling bad isn’t the same as burning out
Negative emotions, from frustration with a coworker to the stress that comes from having too full of a schedule for too much of the time, are normal elements of the human experience and are not necessarily symptoms of burnout.
Antoinette credits her awareness that some things are just going to be hard—“expecting conflict and sin so as not to be derailed by bumping into it”—as part of what kept her in ministry.
Not only are bad feelings to be expected, they are sometimes gateways to the most meaningful moments of ministry.
Bodell says, “I don’t need to reach some harmonious note to do chaplaincy, but I do need to be aware when there is a dissonant note.” Attending to them with care, Bodell uses her dissonant notes to connect with patients as they too experience the ups and downs of life.
Furthermore, being present with people as they struggle is an inherent aspect of ministry: A campus minister sits with her student as she describes the onslaught of anger she has received since coming out to her family; a pastoral associate listens as a parishioner speaks of how hard his recent diagnosis has been on his children; a hospital chaplain holds the hand of a patient as she mourns the death of a loved one.
These and other components of ministry require significant giving of oneself in the forms of time, energy, thought, and emotion. It’s not always happy, enjoyable, and energizing work. It’s not even always the gateway to connection. But while giving deeply of oneself can be depleting, it often contributes to the meaningfulness of the work.
“Sacrifice seems to be an essential feature of experiencing work as a life calling,” Bloom notes in Flourishing in Ministry’s “Emerging Research Insights on the Well-Being of Pastors” report, but there is a fine line between what he refers to as positive and negative sacrifice. Positive sacrifice occurs when we give of ourselves to serve others without eroding our own well-being. Caregivers tip from positive to negative sacrifice when they experience too much fatigue, stress, and personal suffering as a result of their service.
“Negative sacrifice can lead to a host of problems, most notably burnout,” Bloom writes.
Detecting movement from the zone of positive sacrifice into the negative one can be difficult, because both kinds of sacrifice often feel bad in the moment. One way to notice the transition is by paying attention to how the experiences are piling up. A bad day or week is different than a bad month or year. A minister is at risk of burnout when negative experiences begin to accumulate and fatigue and stress begin to feel like the norm. There are several areas of ministry and selfhood to which a minister can attend that can help prevent burnout.
Boundaries and relationships
Setting boundaries, such as the ability to say no, keeps ministers from taking on too much, helping to prevent excessive stress and protect restorative time off. Boundaries can be difficult to establish in any profession, but the abnormal work hours inherent to many ministerial roles make setting time boundaries—turning off the phone and logging out of email at 5 p.m. on a Friday, for example—almost impossible for ministers.
Lynn Cooper, Tufts University’s Catholic chaplain, recalls that during her early years of campus ministry the weekly student Mass was at 10 p.m., followed by an hour or two of fellowship. This timing was ideal for students, but it wasn’t easy for their campus minister.
“I often didn’t get home until 1 a.m.,” Cooper remembers.
While there are necessary times for ministers to accept strange hours and middle-of-the-night crisis calls, there are also times when ministers can—and should—say no.
Howard-McParland remarks that she gets invited to most meetings and events at her church, but because she knows that “doing everything is a recipe for burnout,” she opts out of the ones that don’t pertain to her priorities. A clear understanding of her job description is a buoy to setting boundaries.
Ministers can also say no to the expectation of being unreservedly on call 24/7. “If it can wait until the morning, it should wait until the morning,” Cooper says.
Boundaries benefit both the minister and the ministered-to. Cooper explains that part of her role as a leader of young adults is modeling self-care. “I don’t respond to emails at ungodly hours, because if I do I’m saying, ‘Go ahead, do homework, write, be awake at 3 o’clock in the morning,’ ” she says. It’s not a healthy example.
“There’s a lot of power and richness in not being available,” Cooper says.
But while saying no is essential to the well-being of the minister, so is saying yes—yes to connection.
Every minister with whom I spoke about burnout mentioned the value of relationships as essential in keeping them happy and thriving. The relationships that take place within the context of their ministry play a particular role in their well-being at work.
Howard-McParland recalls thinking of her pastoral associate role as a short-term, pay-the-bills-while-I-figure-something-else-out job until she got to know the people at her parish. Now she can’t imagine leaving.
“A job is more than it looks like on paper. Paper doesn’t convey relationships, and relationships are what make the work life-giving,” she says.
Antoinette agrees, saying that opening herself up to truly love those she served and seeing her parish as her family made her happy to go to work and kept her going back even when she wasn’t happy.
“Positive relationships are the preventative care of burnout,” Cooper says.
A sense of calling
According to Flourishing in Ministry, an element of thriving is the sense that one is able to invest their best personal resources—their talents, capabilities, skills, time, and enthusiasm—into an admirable pursuit. Thriving requires self-knowledge—knowing both what you consider to be an admirable pursuit and your gifts—and a commitment to applying your personal resources accordingly. We might think of this combination of knowing what it takes to thrive and following through on it as listening for and answering God’s call.
It’s not uncommon for people who work in ministry to consider their work a calling, and a sense of calling factors into avoiding burnout in a variety of ways.
First, a calling can act as a rudder, pointing us in the direction of work we enjoy and that utilizes our strengths. Not all ministry is created equal, and a calling to youth ministry is very different than a calling to hospice chaplaincy or prison justice work.
In addition to helping a minister discern their best personal resources, a sense of calling can help an individual name and accept their weaknesses. In some cases, an honest self-assessment will encourage a minister to organize their time differently, for instance delegating administrative work to a volunteer or parish secretary. This gives the minister more time to do what they are most called to do, what they are good at and love.
But even when delegation isn’t possible, self-assessment gives the gift of perspective. Ministers are typically expected to perform a wide variety of tasks that require different skill sets, and while it’s only natural that they will be better at some aspects of their jobs than others, these expectations can lead to feelings of insufficiency. A minister who is able to accept their limitations as a part of being human and not see them as an indicator of failure is less likely to burn out.
Finally, a sense of calling helps keep a minister afloat when the outer circumstances of a job become tumultuous. No work—even a calling—is without its challenges. Ministers who remember the value of their work and why they are doing it in the first place can be energized by their calling. Howard-McParland has had her share of ups and downs in ministry, and amidst it all her sense of calling has remained a rooting factor.
“I never, ever, ever worry that my work does not make a difference,” she says. “I 100 percent know that what I do matters to individuals, now and in the big picture. That knowledge is a gift.”
Both within the day-to-day aspects of ministry and in the overall life of a minister, remaining open to change and attentive to the movement of the Spirit is essential for well-being.
For starters, a spirit of openness keeps work fresh and engaging. Every year, Sue Antoinette, the retired youth minister from Cincinnati, formed a leadership team comprised of parents and students to hear their needs and desires. She would listen and allow the conversations to impact her programming rather than taking the conveniently tempting path of doing what she had always done before. “This keeps the spirit moving, the work exciting, and the work working,” she says.
Antoinette would listen to her students and their parents, but she would also listen to the Spirit. That was a huge part of her work, she says, “learning and cultivating listening to the Holy Spirit. When she guides [me] and gives [me] an inspiration, acknowledging her and claiming her guidance.”
In Antoinette’s case, the Spirit nudged her to try new events and make changes to existing programs within her parish. For some ministers, the Spirit makes a more dramatic shove in a new direction entirely. Despite maintaining boundaries, cultivating nourishing relationships with their communities, and staying rooted in their sense of calling, burnout can still happen to some ministers.
Indeed, sometimes the Spirit speaks through burnout, and when feelings of boredom, disengagement, frustration, and lethargy persist, it’s important to remember that burnout doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Burnout can be the voice through which the Spirit tells us that it’s time to move on to the next thing.
“We can’t always know what will be right for us,” Howard-McParland says. “We don’t have to stay in the same job for 30 years. Burnout can nudge us in a more fruitful direction. We have to trust, relinquish some control, and let the Spirit move.”