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Warning: The Four Stages of Burnout

“For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish.” (Jeremiah 31:25)

Parish service is stressful, sometimes nearly unbearably so. Then comes a respite and things seem more manageable for a while. But then stress becomes a frequent visitor. Is this the onset of burnout?

Here’s one priest’s list of unexpected challenges upon first entering parish ministry that were major stress inducers:

  • The priest is called to be a change agent but most parishioners resist meaningful change because it is uncomfortable.

  • Difficult personalities abound within the parish with many unknowingly working out the history of their relationship with their own biological father with the priest.

  • Disruptive ongoing conflict within the parish, that though personally unrelated to the priest, he is called upon to mediate.

  • Unrealistic expectations of the priest by parish councils and some parishioners.

  • Not knowing the proper way to set boundaries for oneself and one’s family.

  • Feeling that self-care was a spiritual failure to “deny myself” and “take up the cross of maximal sacrifice”.

Although burnout is widely acknowledged, what is not so well recognized is the fact that it has several stages. It is not a case of deliriously happy one day and shattered the next.

Four stages leading to burnout have been suggested:

Stage 1:

High expectations and idealism, excessive enthusiasm for ministry, dedication to ministry, high degree of energy consumption, positive and constructive attitude, great achievements;

Stage 2:

Pessimism and first signs of dissatisfaction with ministry, physical and mental exhaustion, frustration and loss of ideals, reduced working morale, boredom, early psychosomatic symptoms of stress;

Stage 3:

Gradual withdrawal and isolation, avoiding contact with some parishioners, anger and hostility, serious negativism, depression and other emotional difficulties, inability to think or concentrate, exceptional physical and mental strain, a large number of stress symptoms;

Stage 4:

Loss of interests and apathy in parish service, low self-esteem, chronic absences from the office, negative attitude toward work, complete cynicism, inability to interact with other persons, serious emotional difficulties, serious stress symptoms on a physical and emotional level, thoughts of leaving the ministry.

In addition to help from the bishop, the diocese, a father confessor or a good friend seek clinical assistance as well. Don’t wait for the tsunami that takes you out.

More information together with how to get help may be found following this link.


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