Category Archives: Burnout

I carry an inhaler everywhere, I take an antidepressant every morning. Big deal. . . says Justin Welby

The Church Times reports that at the mental health workshop at Lambeth Archbishop Welby recently said:

“I carry an inhaler everywhere, I take an antidepressant every morning. Big deal. . . They are two sides of the same coin.”

I like very much that Justin is modelling openness and showing that there is no shame in acknowledging depression and that help should be sought. I struggle with the analogy with an inhaler though. I too carry an inhaler everywhere, I have a respiratory disease that is only getting worse, and there are some forms of depression that are perhaps similar – caused by brain disease or injury or chemical problems. But most depression is caused by the environment we find ourselves in and the stuff we are carrying.

I worry that it is us Anglicans that have made Justin’s work so toxic that he has been overloaded with stress. If that is the case then the inhaler can stay but the antidepressants should be temporary as we amend our ways and repent of what we have done to our archbishop.

I am reading a book by Paul Swann called “Sustaining Leadership.” and he has a lovely analogy of the place of pain becoming a place of healing:

It’s as if we each carry a weighty rucksack that we fail to notice, because we have enough strength to carry it and enough busyness to be distracted from it. Then circumstances bring it to our attention and force us to begin to deal with what we have been carrying.

The circumstances may be physical or mental breakdown and suddenly we can’t carry on in the same way – we have to perhaps spend hours in therapy to unpack the rucksack and from that point on we have to take seriously the reality of self care.

Self care alone isn’t enough though. Paul Swann was broken by his strenous ministry. Peter Selby was Paul’s bishop at the time and writes:

Looking at my former ministry, I ask myself, in gladly appointing some of our strongest people to the hardest tasks, are we as aware as we need to be of the particular support and resourcing needs that such colleagues have? Or do we just hope that the talented and the committed will find their own way of avoiding burnout? That goes along with a more searching question: how well are we ourselves modelling self-care?

I think he is right – bishops do need to model self care. In addition, we as an institution need to review the environment we are putting our clergy in, from the archbishop to the brand new curate, to work out how we can better love one another as God loves us.

Why do vicars burn out? (Part 2)

This post about burn out follows on from yesterday’s post. The three dimensions of burnout are:

  • feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job
  • a sense of ineffectiveness
  • lack of accomplishment

The risk factors that contribute to burn out are:

  • workload
  • control
  • reward
  • community
  • fairness
  • values

Yesterday I looked at the first three of these in the context of parish ministry, here I will consider the remaining three. Quotes that I use are from here:

The area of community has to do with the ongoing relationships that employees have with other people on the job. When these relationships are characterized by a lack of support and trust, and by unresolved conflict, then there is a greater risk of burnout. On the contrary, when these job‐related relationships are working well, there is a great deal of social support, employees have effective means of working out disagreements, and they are more likely to experience job engagement.

Vicars experience a great deal of conflict and bullying. I’ve written about the latter here and here. There are difficulties with resolving conflicts as sometimes dysfunctional people exist in congregations who are toxic and their behaviour would not be tolerated in the workforce or any other organisation.

Fairness is the extent to which decisions at work are perceived as being fair and equitable. Cynicism, anger and hostility are likely to arise when people feel they are not being treated with the appropriate respect.

There are areas, especially around finances where clergy feel badly treated. Realistically, clergy need some form or income other than the stipend to afford a house to live in after they retire, and it is their partners who mostly provide this. At the same time clergy work very long hours and are weary most of the time such that they aren’t as active in the family as they might want to be. Other areas of unfairness are when clergy are trying their best to serve their parishes – living very sacrificial lives as a result of their vocation – and they are met with gossip and slander.

Values are the ideals and motivations that originally attracted people to their job, and thus they are the motivating connection between the worker and the workplace, which goes beyond the utilitarian exchange of time for money or advancement. When there is a values conflict on the job, and thus a gap between individual and organizational values, employees will find themselves making a trade‐off between work they want to do and work they have to do, and this can lead to greater burnout.

In some ways this should be an area that helps clergy and I think it often does – the church is broadly aligned with their values, at least on the surface. But often parishes and vicars are working on different models of what the vicar is and should do. One comment from the clergy survey explains this:

Parish opportunities with those unchurched are enormous but our structures / patterns and traditions of Sunday worship / church expectations of what a vicar does are crippling and demoralising. I trained to show and give the love of God to the people of this parish, not support outdated models of ministry that support church goers.

What can be done about all this? Probably quite a lot if we start talking about it. I will share my ideas on this blog – please share your too.

Why do vicars burn out? (Part 1)

First of all we need to define burnout, whilst it has a rather hazy definition in common parlance, amongst psychiatrists there are three distinct factors:

The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

The risk factors that contribute to burn out are also well researched and known. They are workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. I will explain each of these in turn and how vicars might be vulnerable to them. Quotes that I use are from here :

Work overload contributes to burnout by depleting the capacity of people to meet the demands of the job. When this kind of overload is a chronic job condition, there is little opportunity to rest, recover, and restore balance. A sustainable and manageable workload, in contrast, provides opportunities to use and refine existing skills as well as to become effective in new areas of activity.

I have already written about the problem of work overload here. 41% of clergy I surveyed said that they always or most of the time felt overwhelmed by the workload.

A clear link has been found between a lack of control and burnout. On the contrary, when employees have the perceived capacity to influence decisions that affect their work, to exercise professional autonomy, and to gain access to the resources necessary to do an effective job, they are more likely to experience job engagement

On the face of it this should be an area where clergy thrive because there is so much autonomy. However, it is being eroded by diocesan pressures to do various missional initiatives and sort out the finances. Then there are legal requirements to comply with measures to do with the buildings, employee regulations, safeguarding procedures and data protection imperatives. Insurance, PATesting, other electrical checks, asbestos surveys, gas checks, requirements to ensure hall bookings are meeting best practice, various policies, quinquennial inspections, safe recruiting requirements, Charity Commission requirements, PCC meetings, AGMs, appraisals… I could go on… I’m not sure that when all these are done there really is much autonomy.

Insufficient recognition and reward (whether financial, institutional, or social) increases people’s vulnerability to burnout, because it devalues both the work and the workers, and is closely associated with feelings of inefficacy.

Recognition and reward is very low for vicars – obviously the financial reward is low, and in the current climate the social reward is also low – vicars are regularly mocked and religion is considered to be at best daft and at worst immoral or evil. In terms of institutional reward there is very little – senior staff try their best but they are very stretched and diocesan staff are often making demands, not giving rewards. Parishes can also be tough – vicars are likely to hear when things are going even slightly wrong and there are precious few souls who are encouragers. I was really struck by this comment on my clergy survey:

It is extremely difficult to manage parishioners’ expectations.  Their sense of a glass half empty rather than half full is a constant preoccupation.  I frequently feel inadequate to their standards and there is little comeback. I now have some exceptional people who are turning back the tide of slander and negativism but some minds are very set in judgement.  In the midst of this I’m loved by some but it is hard to get the balance.

I Desire Mercy, Not Masochism

In the Experiences of Ministry Project one of the indicators of clergy burnout was that it was more likely in those who sacrificed the most. Clergy reported how often they made sacrifices and how often those sacrifices were significant. The data can be seen below, if you zoom in…

I was mulling this over while I was on a course last week and we ended with a worship service that sent us out with the words of St Brendan:

Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home?
Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?

Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy,
without silver, without a horse,
without fame, without honour?
Shall I throw myself wholly upon You,
without sword and shield, without food and drink,
without a bed to lie on?
Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Your yoke?

Shall I pour out my heart to You, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness,
tears streaming down my cheeks?
Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach,
a record of my final prayer in my native land?

Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict?
Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean?
O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea?

O Christ, will You help me on the wild waves?

The poetry is beautiful, but I am instantly worried about St Brendan – will he be terribly isolated? Is he sacrificing too much? Will he have a breakdown or burnout?

Reading the story about St Brendan he goes on his journey with 14 monks, (so not isolated), he believes he is on a voyage to discover paradise (so has a strong sense of vocation) and he is a skilled navigator (so his greatest skills were meeting the highest challenge). His journey is actually likely to increase his wellbeing (see the definition of wellbeing here).

For me, that journey would be awful – I would be sick, I can’t navigate my way out of a cardboard box and anyway I don’t believe paradise is a sea journey away. It is too easy to read the prayer above and think that our calling or vocation will be a sacrifice and that will diminish our wellbeing somehow, we will suffer and become spent. But I think the opposite should be true. I love the way Nadia Bolt-Weber puts it:

“Jesus says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” He says, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” and infuriating things like “if you seek to find your life you will lose it but those who lose their life will find it.” And every single time I die to something—my notions of my own specialness, my plans and desires for something to be a very particular way—every single time I fight it and yet every single time I discover more life and more freedom than if I had gotten what I wanted.”

Jesus says “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13), he tells the Pharisees to learn what that means. I’ve been wondering about this. Of course there is the literal meaning of going out and being kind rather than going and doing an animal sacrifice and then feeling self-righteous. But on a deeper level I think it means that when we are taking up our cross (not anyone else’s cross) it will be because we are showing mercy, we are loving someone, we are being kind, we are building relationships… and yes the reality is that it will be a sacrifice but perhaps our sense of vocation will be such that we don’t see it that way, because we end up with more, not less… we end up more human, a better version of ourselves.

Of course that is easy in theory, but what does the reality look like? Next time that I am aware that I am sacrificing things I am going to ask myself a few questions:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • Do I have to do this?
  • Do I need to have a new strategy so that I don’t do this in the future?
  • Am I doing this because it is a mercy?
  • Or am I simply a masochist?

Overwhelmed by Overwork

In a project I did on clergy wellbeing I spoke to ten Diocesan Counsellors and a number of them felt angry about how difficult the role is and with so little relevant training and virtually no support, some used the words ‘shocking’ and ‘scandalous’. One commented:

“Senior staff say that we need to train the clergy in resilience, but the job is undoable even the most resilient person would not be able to do the job.”

In a survey I asked clergy to respond to the statement ‘I feel overwhelmed by the workload’ and below are the answers from the incumbents (the most overwhelmed group of which there were 78 responses):

Incumbent responses to the statement ‘I feel overwhelmed by the workload’

41% said that they always or most of the time felt overwhelmed by the workload. This isn’t something that is only happening to clergy, according to a survey by Qualrics almost half of UK workers (47%) spend the majority of the time feeling overwhelmed by workloads. Sarah Marrs, employee experience specialist at Qualtrics, said:

‘If employees are stressed, tired or overworked, those feelings will rapidly trickle down into the quality of their work and is more likely to result in their choosing to leave the organisation.’

The problem is we don’t know how many clergy are leaving the organisation because of stress or overwhelm – that data isn’t collected. But anecdotally it seems to be high. There is data about how many clergy retire each year (but they may retire because of ill health). The figures are available here and the table for 2017 is below:

Number of stipendiary retirees by age and new roles by the end of 2017

65% of stipendiary clergy who are retiring are not active, it is such a high figure that it leads me to feel that most of them are not active in the church because they have had enough, their ministry was too exhausting and some of them will be burnt out.

Photo attribution: Penny Dugmore

Resilience and Burnout in Clergy

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.

The development of burnout is dependent on internal and external factors (Kaschka, 2018)

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.

Image Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)