U of T doctoral student researches links between clergy burnout, prayer

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Image: Adapted from Biscotto Design/Shutterstock

In 2017, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby told the Church of England’s General Synod that being a parish priest was the most stressful job he had ever had. “It was isolated, insatiably demanding and I was on the whole working without close colleagues—and that wears people down,” said Welby, who has also worked as an executive in the oil and gas industry in addition to serving as most senior bishop of the Church of England.

Church insiders may not have been surprised by Welby’s speech. In the U.K., Canada and other countries, church organizations have been paying increasing attention to the well-being of their pastors. To get a taste of current thinking on clergy wellness, the Anglican Journal spoke with the Rev. Laura Marie Piotrowicz, rector of St. John’s Anglican Church in Lunenburg, N.S.

Piotrowicz, who is currently in the midst of a doctor of ministry degree at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, intends to focus her research upon the relation between clergy burnout and prayer.

This interview has been edited for length.

“Nobody likes to admit exhaustion, or compassion fatigue, or burnout,” says Piotrowicz. “But I think it’s part of our reality.” Photo: Contributed

What moved you to make clergy burnout and prayer the focus of your doctoral work?

Part of my experience, having served in a number of parishes, and with a large number of clergy, is recognizing that a lot of clergy seem to be saying, “I’m so tired, I don’t have time to pray.” Or, “I’m so busy, I don’t have time to pray.” There’s something wrong with that!

Also, hearing some of the studies coming out that we are seeing an increase in mental health concerns and burnout concerns in clergy, I wondered if prayer might be a way to mitigate and manage some of that.

Do we have statistics on how common clergy burnout is?

There are limited numbers in the Anglican Church of Canada, partially because this is a really difficult topic for people to admit to. Nobody likes to admit exhaustion, or compassion fatigue, or burnout. But I think it’s part of our reality, with the way that demands on clergy have changed. For example, 20 years ago we didn’t have cellphones; nowadays, we’re all expected to be 24/7 answering emails, and cellphones are there, and text messages. Even on Facebook now, clergy are doing ministry. That’s one of the examples of the increase of demands. We’re seeing a decrease in resources, decreasing volunteers, decreasing congregation sizes. A lot of parishes that used to have curacies can no longer afford them. A decrease in personnel. And the changes have come fairly rapidly. [We’re] trying to still do the very best that we can in terms of ministry with a very changing world and changing demands, and I think burnout, emotional exhaustion, is increasing.

You mentioned this is something people are reluctant to talk about. Is there a stigma around it?

Oh, most definitely! All we need to do is consider what we do with mental health, and how we’re trying to break the stigma there. And we’re just really starting to talk about the realities of spiritual health. In our prayers we pray for people in body, mind and spirit. If somebody’s sick in body you go to a physician; if someone is sick in mind we refer them to [a] mental health [worker]; but if someone is sick in spirit, where do they go? This is part of what I’m hoping to focus on. Even a lot of us who are clergy may not have a priest ourselves, or we may not have a spiritual director. These are two things that I think are key in keeping us spiritually healthy.

Are you looking at burnout, then, as a form of spiritual crisis?

I think it is. Burnout as most often defined is repetitive stress and prolonged cynicism, depression, exhaustion. In occupational burnout, this can happen if someone feels not in control—or if they’re forced into tasks that are in conflict with their sense of self. So I think for us spiritually, it’s an occupational hazard: if we’re feeling out of sorts or in conflict with our sense of calling, and not feeling that we have any way out of that, that can lead to spiritual burnout.

So if your occupation is spirituality, then there’s hardly a distinction between mental health and spiritual health, because it’s what you do?

Yes. And burnout leads to a decreased attunement with the people that you’re in connection with. And if you have a decreased attunement, that leads to a decreased attachment to folks. With a decrease in empathy, it’s really much harder to be able to look after your flock— but also to look after yourself.

How will you explore the relationship between burnout and prayer?

My focus is going to be on clergy who are in parish ministry and who have been in that ministry for about 10 years or less—folks who are still early in their ministry—finding out what role prayer plays in their daily life, how they feel after spending time intentionally in prayer, not necessarily the quantity of prayer so much as the quality of prayer. Do they find that prayer is sustaining them through their own personal dry spells?

What could happen if you’re burned out but you ignore it?

Like so many people do? I think the basic realities of burnout for any profession are the disconnect—a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. It can lead to anxiety and eating challenges, insomnia. It has a physical impact when our body and mind are not functioning the way that would be ideal, how God has created us. When we’re trying to care for someone else and we’re not modeling a good model of self-care, that becomes problematic as well. So it can damage us, it can damage our families, it can damage those of us that we are sharing in ministry with, and it can have a negative impact on those that we’re ministering to.

How does someone in ministry tell if he or she is burned out?

There’s a difference between tiredness and compassion fatigue, and burnout. You don’t burn out overnight. It’s a prolonged process, where you go from being tired into fatigue and emotional or moral exhaustion and then into burnout. I think some of the signs would be feeling disconnected from God and from one another, that sense of hopelessness.

Part of our challenge is, our society seems to have conflated a notion of self-care and self-maintenance.

What do you mean by that?

A lot of people say, “I’m going to go to the gym because it’s self-care,” which is wonderful, but that’s self-maintenance. It’s part of that regular looking after ourselves that should happen anyway. Self-maintenance is a big part of self-care but [self-care is] doing things like—especially for those of us who are in caregiving professions—making sure that we’re being cared for, so maybe attending a worship service where we’re not in leadership of it, doing a spiritual retreat, engaging in a spiritual practice like doing a labyrinth or some other type of activity that is going to nourish us, where we don’t have to be “on.”

Do you think mental health and spiritual health overlap in some ways?

I think that’s fair. There are definite interconnections there. Part of my delight in the research that I’m doing, the conversations that I’ve been having, is recognizing that this is being addressed at seminary—both the importance of prayer life but also the recognition of burnout. So it’s good to [have this recognition] that it’s not just me with a wild and crazy idea!

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Spiritual Direction and the availability of funding to cover the costs is an often overlooked yet vital resource for clergy and other faith leaders.
    I am a certified Spiritual Director who often hears the terms burnout and spiritual exhaustion.

    • There are well trained and licensed Spiritual Directors all over the world. In South Africa, the Jesuit Institute in Johannesburg is a good resource. They will connect you with a director close to your area if possible, and they offer directors from a range of denominations if you wish to remain in your own denomination … a good spiritual director can offer direction to people from any denomination.

  2. Oh, this is so long overdue! I am a retired clergyman also trained in psychology. I am now involved in spiritual direction and leading retreats across church denominations in South Africa. My background and training is in Ignatian Spirituality. I have a special heart to assist clergy, knowing their situation so well. Increasingly clergy, pastors and ministers are seeking individual spiritual direction (help with their prayer life), and choosing individually directed retreats.

    I look forward to seeing these research results.

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