When professional Catholics burn out
Midway through 2018, I was packing to give a talk to a group of Catholics. Glancing at my phone, I saw what lay ahead: delayed flights through four cities, an arrival long after midnight, jet lag, a meet-and-greet, the talk with a Q. and A. afterwards, and a 4 a.m. wake-up call the next day to make my way home. Then I would have to get up and teach three classes back-to-back and scramble to meet several writing deadlines. I nearly threw my phone across the room.
Public speaking opportunities for Catholic women like myself are rare, and I do not take them for granted, but after many years of writing about difficult issues in Catholicism, ranging from immigration and abuse to homophobia and sexism, I was having an increasingly difficult time giving talks about how the church can do better without throwing up my hands and telling the audience they would have to fix things themselves.
In spite of creeping feelings of cynicism, I was still going to Mass, still Catholic in spite of years of bruising revelations about the church and still friends with many other Catholics. I was still writing prolifically, juggling multiple speaking engagements with a full-time job teaching. But I was also exhausted, snarky and constantly feeling a sense of impostor syndrome. I soon realized: I was not burned out from Catholicism; I was burned out from being a professional Catholic.
This phenomenon is not new. The psychologist Christina Maslach has studied burnout since the 1980s and wrote the book Burnout: The Cost of Caring, which focuses on jobs that require a great deal of emotional labor, like those in education, counseling and health care. Ms. Maslach eventually designed a “burnout inventory,” to measure how badly an employee has burned out. The qualifiers for burnout include emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, feelings of incompetence, cynicism and a dwindling sense of professional efficacy.
Those who burn out are often highly skilled and specially trained. This can include people who work as doctors and nurses, but it also extends to people whose faith and professional life are intimately combined. For this group, the challenge can be particularly acute, because often the commitment to faith that compels a person to work for or on behalf of the church—whether studying and teaching theology, writing about the church or serving in its social services arm—suffers when this work becomes overwhelming. A challenging workplace can result in a desire to distance oneself from those things associated with it, even the church itself, thus potentially distancing a person from the very coping mechanisms or community that could help weather the storm. The church is a global community, but after years working for it, it can start to feel like you are stuck in one small corner.
Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, has worked for decades with both members of the clergy and lay Catholics who are suffering from burnout. Dr. Plante says that for many lay Catholics who want to work for the church because of their strong faith, a close-up look at the church’s flaws can plant the seeds of cynicism that may lead to burnout. Some work closely with the clergy for the first time and see that clerics can have “some very human problems,” like anger management, pornography addiction, sexual abuse or alcoholism. Dr. Plante also says that because of basic lifestyle differences that accompany the vows of celibacy, obedience or poverty, members of the clergy who supervise lay employees may not fully appreciate “what the life of a lay person may be like” when it comes to issues like the financial stresses of child care and responsibility for a mortgage. Dr. Plante said this push and pull between an idealized view of the church and what happens when people go to work for it can create circumstances in which lay employees who “feel like they’ve made a sacrifice in order to work for the church” can feel “pretty devastated” when the institutional church turns out to have deeper problems than they may have imagined.
The Roots of Catholic Burnout
I am not alone in my Catholic burnout. Over the course of a month, I interviewed a variety of lay Catholics, including theologians, catechists, volunteers, Catholic nonprofit staff members and church staff who volunteered to talk to me about their own cases of burnout. I chose to focus on lay Catholics instead of members of the clergy, not because clergy people do not experience burnout—from all evidence, they do so with some frequency—but because they often have access to church-funded resources, ranging from therapy and spiritual direction to retreats to sabbaticals, which are not always readily available or affordable for the rest of us.
I was not burned out from Catholicism; I was burned out from being a professional Catholic.
I am using pseudonyms for those I have interviewed, so they could speak more freely. Although they were experiencing burnout, they also needed and in many cases wanted to hold on to their jobs. Ms. Maslach’s research shows that burnout is common in fields in which people consider the work their calling. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that many people I spoke to are devout Catholics who have willingly given years of their lives to the church. But loving the church and working for it can be entirely different matters.
In secular settings, burnout is often the result of overwork. The same can be true for Catholic employees. Employees in both settings might be constrained by tight budgets, which leads to more multitasking; and as a result, employees hired and trained for one job may find themselves responsible for several. But the structure of the Catholic Church can add additional layers of complication. A top-down, clerical-heavy structure can also be present in some Catholic job environments, which can cause lay employees to feel that their voices are not heard or respected.
But burnout is more than a human resources issue, it can be a contributing factor to pushing people away from a faith they once loved.
Bob, a convert to Catholicism who worked for a large diocese as a youth minister, says that he was at one point asked to overhaul the campus ministries for the entire diocese. In the beginning, Bob says, he was able to make the mission a collaborative effort among the students and lay staff he worked with. But he felt that many clergy members adopted a paternalistic attitude. Bishops treated priests like their children, and priests in turn “started treating their parishioners as kids.” Bob adds that there was a lack of connection between clergy and lay employees that manifested itself in unexpected ways. When his daughter needed braces on her teeth, he was told it was not covered by the diocesan health plan because her dental problems “were caused by bad behavior, like thumb sucking,” and that the diocese “shouldn’t have to pay for your kids’ bad behavior.”
Burnout is more than a human resources issue, it can be a contributing factor to pushing people away from a faith they once loved.
After that incident, Bob soon began to feel a strong sense of cynicism, one of the hallmarks of burnout. He began avoiding the office and spending most of his time at the Newman centers he was working with, and eventually he took a job in Protestant ministry and left the Catholic Church, returning to the Seventh Day Adventist tradition in which he was raised. When I asked if things were different working in Protestant ministry, he strongly affirmed this. In all his years working for the Catholic diocese, he says, “not one of my bosses and my supervisors really asked about my family.”
Developing appropriate work/life boundaries can be hard for people working in Catholic organizations. Dave, now in his 30s, who was raised Catholic, worked as the principal of a Catholic high school for several years. The job of principal was at times overwhelming, yet he initially attributed this to “just the cost of the cross.” But he also noted that it felt like “getting the crap kicked out of you” every day. The high school was located in a small town, and sometimes he would drive an hour away for groceries to avoid running into demanding parents or students during his time off.
Dave is now a youth minister for a large diocese, so he is out in the field nearly every day, meeting people for mentorship and accompaniment and organizing events, and thus spends only a day or two a week in the diocesan office. He enjoys it, but sometimes feels he cannot quite disconnect from it. The people above him do not always seem to understand what his position takes out of him, and he has had little to no communication with them about this.
As a lay minister, Dave says that “being close to Christ is crucial for what I do. If I can’t do that, it’s impossible to do my job.” But the diocese he works for does not offer time off for a retreat and has no resources for lay employees seeking spiritual direction. The average length of employment of a lay minister in his diocese, according to Dave, is about a year and a half. At that point, Dave says, exhausted and demoralized, they burn out and quit.
Some organizations seem to accept that burnout is part of the deal.
Some organizations seem to accept that burnout is part of the deal. Amy works for a large Catholic nonprofit. She is from a Catholic family, attended a Catholic college and lived in an intentional community, where she did volunteer work. After graduating, she hoped to “continue doing work that was good for the world,” so when a position opened up at a homelessness prevention call center, a Catholic nonprofit, it seemed like a good fit. But Amy found that her days were mostly spent at a desk, and that listening to people’s experiences of trauma made her “leave work so angry and frustrated and exhausted.”
Her supervisors acknowledged the stress intrinsic to her work, but Amy felt the office had simply accepted that “this isn’t a job you can do forever,” since staff turnover was so high. For Amy, “it really doesn’t always feel like our employees get treated as we say we want to treat our clients,” and while the nonprofit’s mission is about charity and compassion, she feels she has not always been treated with either. The nonprofit serves large numbers of clients; but, Amy says, “we’re putting out numbers at the expense of our employees’ well being and health.” Amy acknowledges that this culture of “give, give, give” is an issue at many nonprofits and social service agencies. Part of her job involves giving presentations about the organization’s good work, but given the turnover rate of employees at her organization and the way she feels she has been treated at the office, she often feels like a fraud.
Burnout Among Catholic Academics
Although the life of a college professor may seem cushy from the outside, academics often feel pulled in multiple directions. On top of teaching classes and grading assignments, they are also required to write, publish, advise students, direct dissertations, serve on committees and do service work. Lay theology faculty members at Catholic colleges and universities are also sometimes expected to act as de facto ministers to students seeking spiritual guidance, maintain a courteous relationship with the religious orders who run their schools, give talks in local churches and develop a relationship with the school’s diocese. They also have to grapple with declining enrollment in religious studies as a discipline, and with feeling that their voices are not always heard in the upper levels at their schools.
Although the life of a college professor may seem cushy from the outside, academics often feel pulled in multiple directions.
For Deborah, teaching ethics and moral theology and doing public programming in theology at her Catholic college have been “very, very deeply” affected by the disillusionment many young Catholics feel about the church today, which she frequently sees reflected in her students. Among her students, she says, “Catholic social teaching is utterly unknown,” which means she must work to weave more background about it into her classes. She also works on projects involving faculty members from other departments and thus serves as a kind of theological translator between her students and fellow faculty members. This might be less of a challenge if she did not feel so discouraged by the church herself.
“Being Catholic and being able to speak about Catholic things—that’s part of my livelihood,” she says. It is also part of her identity. Still, Deborah feels anger over sexual abuse by members of the clergy and over what she sees as church leaders’ failure to take a stand for the marginalized during the 2016 presidential election, among other issues. She describes her involvement in the church right now as “very fraught.” Even after 20 years as a professor, she worries that her employers at her college would not welcome her “pushing, criticizing and nudging toward the kind of reform that I think is needed.” Deborah’s burnout is fueled by the fact that she feels her job requires her to be a booster for the church, but she has lost the capacity to do that.
Is There a Solution for Burnout?
At the end of my interviews, I asked each person what he or she saw as solutions to the kind of burnout they have felt. Deborah mentioned she might find hope in convening Catholics who work in different kinds of ministries and organizations for networking, collaboration and support. She believes this might forge relationships that could help prevent burnout. Bob said that “the tradition really needs to affirm the gifts of the employees that work for it and involve them in decision making” in order to avoid burnout—in lay ministers particularly. Dave sees burnout as a spiritual crisis that requires a spiritual solution: “We have to do more for the spiritual lives of our lay employees. Because, to me, the biggest reason why most people get burnout is just a lack of like a real, solid, spiritual life.”
To me, the biggest reason why most people get burnout is just a lack of like a real, solid, spiritual life.
Amy remarks that part of the problem is the way Catholic nonprofit employees in particular see their work. “There is a danger in the way we talk about vocation,” she says, “because when we tie vocation to job, it makes it so that people give so much to their job.” Amy also sees many people drawn to Catholic nonprofit work as “being set up for burnout” and says nonprofits should look to secular models where there is more collaboration and mentoring of future leaders.
Dr. Thomas Plante proposes that, from a psychological perspective, burnout requires a series of solutions. Employees need to have “reasonable expectations” of their employers, especially when it comes to working for members of the clergy, and understanding that their employers have “human issues and problems.” He also says that employers and employees alike need to have reasonable boundaries around work hours and expectations. He says this is increasingly difficult because of technology, but it needs to be talked about more to avoid exploitation and resentment. Third, both lay employees and clerics need to understand that when it comes to communications, “your emergency is not my emergency” and set boundaries around that. Finally, Dr. Plante says, church work is stressful in general, because employees and volunteers are encountering people during major life events. All of us need to find ways to “be gentle with one another, and take care of one another.” Ultimately, he adds, it is also O.K. to realize that working for the church is not for everybody, even if it at first seemed to be a calling, just like working a dream job in tech, sports or entertainment might not turn out to be as ideal as it first seemed.
For some church employees, discovering a solution to burnout is simply a matter of time, communication and negotiation. Ann, who works on staff at a parish, found herself in a stressful situation when her priest boss went on sabbatical. Ann was left juggling “a multitude of funerals” and trying to find priests to cover them, talking to the families, planning the liturgies and just doing more and more work that she was not being paid for. She was also in graduate school, and the stress bled into her family life. When her boss returned, however, he saw the stress she was under.
Ann was open with her boss and explained she would need some things to change for her to stay at her job.
Ann was open with her boss and explained she would need some things to change for her to stay at her job. She asked for two weeks sabbatical to go on a silent retreat, help finding a spiritual director and a conversation about work boundaries. She received all of these things, and as a result, has been able to stay at the parish and has begun to also do some freelance writing and leading of retreats. Ann’s experience might not be commonplace; but it does demonstrate that with some give and take and open lines of communication, lay church employees can find ways to achieve a better work/life balance.
The church might also take a page from worker-owned collectives, for example, where employees have a greater sense of self-agency. Even at some corporate jobs, human resources professionals recommend simple changes like adjusted workloads, company-sponsored stress relief workshops, mandated vacations and frequent and honest communication to ameliorate symptoms of burnout. It is unlikely that the Catholic Church would abandon its entire structure for the sake of its workers, but it might at least consider deliberately implementing some of these strategies if it hopes to hold on to them as employees, and as Catholics.
For me, the solution to burnout has been mostly to do a little less writing and a lot less public speaking and traveling, but that is a privilege afforded by my second career in academia. Many of my fellow Catholic journalists, and most of the people I interviewed for this essay cannot afford to be that choosy. But my ability to say no and to turn down assignments, honed in hours with a therapist who saw evidence of my burnout the moment I walked through the door and opened my mouth, always comes with a heaping side serving of Catholic guilt. As Sister Frances told my freshman class in high school, shouldn’t I always be willing to do more, give more, to give until I have no more to give? Perhaps. But perhaps those of us who serve the church in a professional capacity can do more, and do better, when we have a handle on our mental and physical health. The high cost of burnout can ultimately be the loss of both.