Tag Archives: Burnout

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.

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.

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