Combating Burnout and Compassion Fatigue
How to make the most of your summer
The summer months can present an important opportunity for pastors to rediscover their passion for ministry. Burnout and compassion fatigue are constant threats to people in any helping profession, especially pastors, who regularly express frustration caused by the need to be available 24/7, the difficulty making and sustaining appropriate supportive relationships, and, most recently, the added burdens placed upon them by the pandemic.
What can research tell us about the best practices pastors can use to regain their zeal for ministry, especially as things slow down a bit over the summer months? Let’s begin by looking at the twin problems of burnout and compassion fatigue with an eye toward understanding the best way to combat them.
A simple formula for understanding the nature of burnout is “Burnout = Effort minus Meaning.” When we feel that our efforts are producing good fruit, when we see evidence that we are making a positive difference, when we feel that our work is helping us draw closer to God and make heart-to-heart connections with others, we perceive that our efforts are meaningful and we tend to feel energized by the things we are doing.
But when we struggle to see any fruit, when we doubt that our work is making any difference — or feel that it may even be making things worse — and when we feel isolated from others or God, we can begin to question whether what we are doing is meaningful. When this happens, burnout isn’t far behind.
In Genesis, we read that before the Fall, our first parents took joy in their work. Their efforts bore tremendous fruit, literally. But after the Fall, the earth began to fight back against their efforts to cultivate it. Work became toil. It wore them down. It felt pointless, meaningless and detrimental to their dignity as persons. God created work to be uplifting and ennobling — an opportunity to participate in his work of creating, sustaining and building. Where work fulfills this divine purpose, it is meaningful and energizes us. By contrast, when our work is drained of meaning, it becomes toil and leads to burnout. It saps our motivation and undermines both our sense of personal dignity as well as our ability to connect meaningfully to God and others.
Compassion fatigue is a specific type of burnout that is common to all helping professions — especially pastors. Compassion fatigue can result from having to accompany people suffering from serious trauma (or being a first responder and witness to traumatic events), habitually working long and/or excessive hours and the failure to exercise proper self-care. All of these conditions tend to overload a person’s ability to maintain the internal, emotional boundaries we all need to leave our work behind at the end of the day.
While compassion fatigue is a threat to the well-being of all helping professionals, pastors are at particularly high-risk. Other helping professionals can leave their job at the end of the day. Pastors, however, rightly view their ministry as a vocation, not a job. They often feel obliged to carry the pain of those they serve long after they have left the situation behind. While this is well-intentioned, it does no good for the people we serve and is detrimental to a pastor’s long-term emotional and spiritual health. Unchecked, compassion fatigue leads to impaired empathy, irritability, cynicism and mood swings. In the extreme, it can feed addictions, depression and anxiety disorders.
The “Me Time” Myth
The natural response to any level of burnout or compassion fatigue is to try to take more vacation time, or “me time.” In small, regular doses, time away can serve as an important antidote to both burnout and compassion fatigue. Pastors aren’t the only ones who bank a lot on the hopes that summer vacation will put them in a better frame of mind. And sometimes, time away is all that’s needed.
But sometimes, taking time away just compounds the problem. Eventually, the vacation ends. Me time is over. We have the sense that all the things we were getting away from are waiting to pounce when we return. We can return from vacation or a day off feeling like we already need more time away.
While getting regular breaks is important, if this is the pastor’s primary strategy for decompressing, there comes a point where he may feel like he can’t get away nearly enough. Although he may not be able to take more vacation time, he may adopt other unhealthy ways of checking out — for instance, spending later and later nights watching television or surfing the internet, or “rewarding” himself with overeating or other unhealthy habits designed to make him feel like he is getting a break from the pressures of ministry.
When getting away isn’t enough, it’s important to use the summer months to establish healthy habits that enable you to reconnect with the greater meaning of your work and your personal sense of mission. Here are some suggestions that can help.
Make a Re-entry Plan
Take part of your time off to create a re-entry plan. Vacations are much more restorative if, instead of just pretending you never have to return to ministry, you use the time to think of ways you can go back to your parish with a plan for managing your responsibilities more effectively and reconnecting with what gives you joy about your priesthood.
At least two to three days before the end of your vacation, give yourself a day to prayerfully think about what you want to do differently when you go back. Take the day to prayerfully reflect on questions like, “On the days that I feel good about my ministry (or at least less drained by it) what do I do differently?” Take stock of the differences that make a difference in your attitude or your ability to feel effective. Make a plan to consciously build these differences into your day. How would maintaining these differences cause you to change your approach to each day? How would this cause you to reorganize your priorities or change your approach to ministry? How would you have to pace yourself differently? How could you do at least a little bit more to prioritize the aspects of your ministry that energize you or give you joy.
The key to answering these questions is to think small. Don’t get caught in the trap of trying to discover the one answer that will change everything for good. Think of a handful of tiny changes you could make that would help you feel a little better about going back after vacation. Commit to doing these small things, then build on your successes. You’ll be surprised at the ripple effect a few small positive changes can make and how much easier this exercise can make coming back from a time away.
If you make a point of doing this a few days before your vacation ends, you can spend the last day or two of your time off relaxing and being excited about the changes you plan to make upon your return.
Learn Something New
A big contributor to burnout is the feeling that nothing changes, that one keeps doing the same old things in the same old way. Take some time in the summer months to learn something new. Investigate opportunities to approach your ministry more creatively. Although people who are burned out often feel like they have been giving too much of themselves to their work, the truth is actually the opposite. The most burned-out people are the ones who have been operating on autopilot for a long time. The desire to make things a little easier for ourselves causes us to invest less and less of our creativity into what we do until we feel like cogs in a wheel instead of creative, dynamic cooperators with God’s grace. Using the comparatively slower summer months to learn some new skills and think of ways you might change your approach and bring more of yourself to it is a key to recovering from and staving off all forms of burnout.
Strengthen Your Connections
In order for work to be rewarding, it helps to connect with God and others. Too often, we get so lost in doing what we’re doing that we forget who we’re doing it for. Working with people is especially difficult because people are slow to change and always upset about something. It’s easy to give in to the temptation to retreat from connection with others as a way of protecting ourselves but that, ironically, leads to burnout.
Use the summer months to strengthen your connection to God and for building a stronger relationship with healthy brother priests and supportive parishioners. The more energy you put into building healthy relationships the more resistant to ministry burnout you’ll be.
Of course, it goes without saying that unhealthy practices are a big factor in creating burnout. Use the summer months to examine your sleeping and eating habits and make some small changes to increase your level of physical activity. Although we like to pretend the spiritual is all that matters, we are embodied creatures. Our capacity for service depends largely on our ability to make sure our bodies are getting what they need.
Using your summertime not just to get away, but to get a new perspective and cultivate healthy ministry habits can enable you to renew your spirit and recommit yourself to being a servant after God’s own heart.
DR. GREG POPCAK, the author of more than 20 popular books, is the director of CatholicCounselors.com and the co-host of More2Life radio, a call-in program airing weekdays on EWTN/SiriiusXM130.
Encountering the Lord
“The summer season is a providential time to cultivate our task of seeking and encountering the Lord. In this period, students are free of scholastic commitments and many families take their holidays; it is important that in the period of rest and disengagement from daily activities we can reinforce our strengths of body and soul, by deepening our spiritual journey.
“At the end of the stunning experience of the Transfiguration, the disciples came down the mountain with eyes and hearts transfigured by their encounter with the Lord. It is the journey that we too can make. The ever more vibrant rediscovery of Jesus is not the aim in itself, but spurs us to ‘come down the mountain,’ energized by the power of the divine Spirit, so as to decide on new paths of conversion and to constantly witness to charity, as the law of daily life.”
— Pope Francis, Angelus, Aug. 6, 2017