Various studies have been conducted into the effects of pressure on church leaders in western society. Gone are the days of the ‘gentleman’ parson who wrote gentle books on esoteric subjects. In many communities, along with attitudes to the teacher, doctor and policeman, respect has long gone, sadly for understandable reasons: this attitude, along with modern communications and expectations has had a major impact on the experience of church ministers, pastors and leaders. Those of us in pastoral work know that we are only human, (not as we wish and others expect superhuman, able to rise above anything) and we react to the experience the cumulative impact of always having to care, be ready to meet need, juggle the needs of our own partners and families despite the intrusion of work into the home just as anyone else. Reactions to constant and insistent pressure vary with temperament but for many there is little appropriate support ‘with no strings attached’.
From a number of recent studies among thousands of church leaders in the USA, one ‘Stress and Burnout Endanger Clergy Health’, states that, “Members of the clergy are more likely to suffer from stress-related illnesses such as obesity, arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and depression than most Americans.” These studies all come up with similar findings. In the UK, a confidential study commissioned by St Luke’s Healthcare for the clergy identified that a prime need was for ‘…confidential support for the clergy for mental health problems and difficulties with emotional well-being and stress.’
Professional burnout is marked by three characteristics:
- Emotional exhaustion, which can result in a lessened interest in work, fatigue, and detachment.
- Depersonalisation, self-protective distancing from the surrounding world, which can result in lessened contact with colleagues, congregation and the public, withdrawal of psychological investment, self-absorption, and negativity towards others.
- Dissatisfaction, feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled, which can result in feelings of failure and lack of competence.
However, burnout is not always easy to recognise it can creep up slowly if you are under too much stress for too long. It is worthwhile doing something about it before becoming burnt out.
BUT Burnout is almost always preventable. It takes a significant time to recover from – six months to two years once remedial measures are in place. It is painful and disruptive to the sufferer and it impacts on family, friends and colleagues.
If you want to run a Burn-out Inventory self-test – here is a resource for you.
There has long been a recognisable pattern of response to caregivers in emergency situations such as Ambulance, Medical, Humanitarian Aid and Police personnel, where the care-giver is vicariously traumatised and this has been termed ‘compassion fatigue’. It is a condition characterised by a gradual lessening of feelings of compassion over time with the chronic build-up of care-giving. It was first diagnosed in nurses in the 1950s. A number of symptoms may be evident: including hopelessness, a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasive negative attitude. This can have detrimental effects on individuals, both professionally and personally, including a decrease in productivity, the inability to focus, and the development of new feelings of incompetency and self-doubt. There is an excellent website on this subject which provides a self-test should you feel that this might be your situation.