Pandemic Ministry Burnout

Being human over the last eleven months has been challenging in unprecedented ways. Ways that were simply unimaginable a year ago. The particularities of our circumstances may be different – maybe you are virtual schooling your kids, maybe you have an underlying health condition that makes COVID-19 that much more terrifying, maybe you have a loved one in assisted living that you have not been able to visit, maybe you have struggled financially, maybe you’ve lost someone close to you this year. Each of our circumstances are unique but almost all of us have been forced to make drastic shifts in our way of living and working. And it’s been hard.

An Unprecedented Year for Ministry

Working in parish ministry over the last eleven months has been difficult in ways we have never before experienced. Again, ways that were simply unimaginable twelve months ago. The parts of our work that were most life-giving have all but been taken away. We can no longer stand outside the Sanctuary on a Sunday morning, shaking hands and checking in on parishioners. We can no longer sit on the floor with a circle of children and wonder about a parable. We can no longer grab lunch together after a staff meeting. Furthermore, everyone we know is also struggling in one way or another – every staff member, every friend, every parishioner, every family member, every neighbor. 

Looking at social media – even checking formation ministry Facebook groups – it can seem like other people are holding it together and exploring new, creative ways of being church. If that’s you, YAY! Ride that train!

And, if you are exhausted, you are not alone. And it’s not your fault.

Almost a year in, we believe it is time to take a good, hard look at how we are doing pandemic parish ministry: the expectations, the way that support and rest are part of the system, how much we are doing. 

We don’t know exactly what that looks like for you, but we want to be part of your support structure. Below you’ll find some suggestions from our personal experience as people who have been doing pandemic parish ministry and as people who have at some point during this past year felt completely burnt out.

How do you know if you are burnt out?

We’re not sure how you’ll know you’ve reached the point of serious burn out. We can share that working with a therapist and/or spiritual director was invaluable in our discernment. Looking back, here are some of the signs we can now recognize:

  • A sense of exhaustion, soul-weariness that became a constant presence despite good sleep.
  • A lack of motivation for work related tasks, even those that used to be enjoyable or meaningful.
  • An increase of frustration with processes, parishioners, and colleagues.
  • More and more difficulty being present and focused, struggling to show up as one’s best self.
  • A lack of purpose, the sense that none of this really matters.

What might you do?

If you resonate with many of these items, again, you are not alone. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Name it. Name for yourself, and then for others, the truth that you are in a place of burn out. Something needs to change. You do not want to live like this. And this is not what God wants for you.
  2. Evaluate your self-care practices. Are there some simple ways you could care for your body, mind, and soul right away that would give you some relief? Think about what brings you comfort -things like napping, drinking hot tea, walking in the woods, doing a puzzle, or connecting with a friend.
  3. Talk with your supervisor. If you’re a formation leader, this is probably a clergy person. If you’re a clergy person, this might be your Bishop or church council.
  4. Call in a support person. If you already have a therapist or spiritual director, schedule an appointment to talk specifically about burn out. Or, if you think such a person could be helpful seek them out.
  5. Ask for what you need. Spend some time alone or with someone you trust discerning what you really need. If it seems overwhelming to consider what you need for the next six months of pandemic ministry, start with “What do I need today?” “What do I need this week?” “What do I need in the next month?”
  6. Commit or recommit to a spiritual practice. We believe that God’s desire is for us to live and minister from a cup that “runneth over,” to quote Psalm 23 in the King James Version or a reservoir that overflows, to quote Bernard of Clairvaux (see below) . Spiritual practices help to fill us up so that we can live, lead, and work from a place of fullness. There are a million different ways to engage in meaningful spiritual practices and it’s important to find something that is right for you. If you need some help figuring out where to start, check out the organization Second Breath.

“The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself … Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare … You too must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God.”

~ Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs

Want To Chat?

We are here to be your conversation partners! Join the Lifelong Learning Christian Formation & Discipleship staff for free, weekly Open Office Hours. Register here!

Office Hours are not intended to replace spiritual direction or offer counseling. They can provide an opportunity to discuss a new idea, ask questions, learn about new resources, or just find a supportive sounding board. Drop in and chat with us! Office hours happen each Thursday from 1:00-2:30 pm (EST).

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