There are many reasons why clergy can experience burn out, some of them are driven by personality, for example: inability to set boundaries, workaholism, low self-esteem. Others are driven by the environment, such as: high workload, lack of positive outcomes, emotionally exhausting challenges. The diagram below shows how either one or the other can cause burnout if it is extreme, or a combination of the two can have the same effect.
Counsellors are finding that clergy are increasingly suffering from PTSD symptoms, not from a single event but from the result of cumulative stress and disappointments (similar to environmentalists), which makes the PTSD more difficult to treat. Warning signs can be: feeling less connected to people, frequent upsetting memories of stressful events and struggling to feel happy. The environment for clergy is undoubtedly demanding, one of the counsellors commented:
Clergy are holding a lot of trauma as a result of their caring role, they meet people when they have just lost someone, they hold grief in the congregations when a much loved member dies, they are the person that many speak to when awful things happen, they hold the grief at a funeral. This may lead to ‘vicarious trauma’ which is also known as secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue. This need to be continuously empathetic can lead to burnout.
Having been on sabbatical for the last two months I have had enough time to stop feeling exhausted and start to unpack this for myself. I recognise that I have elements of people-pleasing and also I love to care for people, especially those suffering. These are internal factors for me that drive me to just fit in another visit, answer another email, try harder to please those who are displeased with me. External factors include some really cruel things that people have said and done. I think I have skirted too close to burnout, if I am really honest, and I think really honest is what we need to be.
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