So you want to stay in ministry - here's how to avoid burnout

A step-by-step guide for pastoral carers

“When we come alongside other people, the carer gets affected,” Clinical Psychologist Dr Rebecca Loundar says, simply.

She’s speaking to a roomful of delegates in a masterclass called “Navigating a new world pastorally”  at the recent Hillsong Conference in Sydney. Most people in the room serve as pastoral carers in a paid or voluntary capacity in their churches. There’s also a handful of young people who are just getting started. Dr Loundar has some bracing observations of reality for those in the room.

“Every person deserves to be well – to develop and enhance their own wellbeing or their own sense of wellness. There is a continuum [of wellbeing], and at different points of life we can find ourselves at different stages on that continuum, in relation to multiple different issues.”

She wants everyone to know that caring for others can be emotionally, physically and spiritually fatiguing. And, in turn, a pastoral carer’s emotional, psychological, physical, spiritual, environmental or social wellbeing can take a serious hit. So it’s imperative that pastoral carers pause long enough to take stock of their wellbeing, and “to ensure they are developing and finding ways to continue to actually work on” their wellbeing.

While pastoral carers need to take responsibility for their own wellbeing, Dr Loundar doesn’t let the churches they serve off the hook. Churches also must ensure their teams have the opportunity to be healthy and well, she stresses. This means churches need to avoid continually putting people in environments that wear them down to the point of burnout.

It’s a refreshing message to hear from Hillsong Church – a church full of folk who can appear to be indefatigable – and it echoes the larger conversation about burnout taking place in society today.

Indeed, the experience of burn-out is increasingly being recognised and its attributes catalogued by health professionals. Officially recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2016, burn-out’s definition was expanded in the organisation’s 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (released a little over a month ago on May 28 this year). It’s definition now reads:

“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

It’s important to note that WHO has not classified burnout as a medical condition but rather an occupational phenomenon. Its inclusion in the publication is in the chapter entitled “Factors influencing health status or contact with health services”, which includes the reasons people contact health services other than for classified illnesses or health conditions. WHO has also announced it will develop evidence-based guidelines on mental wellbeing in the workplace.

So, although Dr Loundar says she still considers it to be “the greatest privilege … to be entrusted by God to show care and come alongside others on their journey,” she emphasises that providing pastoral care can have an impact on us “and that’s understandable.”

“What we need to do is to work out ways that we can put ourselves in environments where we can attend to ourselves. Carers need to be well if they are going to provide support for others who need support.”

So how can pastoral carers  take self-care seriously? These are Dr Loundar’s tips:

Take responsibility for self-care

The first step is acknowledging that self-care is a responsibility of every individual – including pastoral carers.

“Part of that is our spiritual wellbeing,” explains Dr Loundar. “It’s not saying we’re taking our eyes off God or we’re taking away from what his role is with us, but it’s about being responsible with the gift of life God’s given us. He’s given us ourselves to look after and he can work through us to support people, so it’s kind of about caring for the vessel through which God can work.”

Make self-care part of your daily life

The second step is not only taking care of yourself when you get into trouble or when you’re exhausted but as part of your daily life.

“We shouldn’t be trying to escape our daily life or leaving self-care to only when we have a day off. Let’s make it part of it our daily lives.”

“When you wake up, do you immediately reach for your phone or do you pause and engage with the day?” – Rebecca Loundar

“Self-care strategies and opportunities to care for ourselves is not about always paying to go and have a massage or doing things like that. It’s about considering the different areas – emotional, psychological, thought life, physical health, spiritual health – and finding things you can do every day.

“When you wake up, do you immediately reach for your phone or do you pause and engage with the day, say good morning to a partner or go and say good morning to your kids. Do you say hello to God and ask him to help you to be open so he can work through you for the day.”

What are the daily, weekly and monthly steps that can be incorporated into routines to make self-care a commitment?

Develop the practice of being present

“Sometimes we drive from one place to another and we don’t even know how we got from point A to point B,” Dr Loundar said. “That might mean we are not as present as we could be.”

She says a good exercise for being present for anyone, not just pastoral carers, is focusing on three things they can see, three things they can touch, and three things they can hear, because “our senses are connected to the present.”

Another is slow, purposeful breathing, which involves breathing in and out for a mental count of four or five.

“Slowing our breath down helps us make rational decisions, especially in times of urgency and emergency,” she explains.

Get additional help when it’s needed

Finally, Dr Loundar says pastoral carers need to get extra help when they need it. There are two aspects to this, she says. The first is a proactive approach.

She says the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse revealed the recommendation for people in pastoral ministry and for ministers to engage in regular pastoral or clinical supervision, pointing out that psychologists and social worker are required to engage in regular supervision.

Dr Loundar says it’s important that pastoral carers – whether their work is voluntary or paid – find someone trained in supervision or even a wellbeing approach, who they can regularly meet to examine their wellbeing and their effectiveness in the workplace.

“We can never deny the impact that someone else’s hurt might have on us as well. That’s something we have to consider. We hear terms like ‘vicarious trauma’, ‘compassion fatigue’, ‘secondary trauma’ – that’s a whole other masterclass – but it’s an important part of what can happen to someone in a caring role.”

Another time when pastoral carers should seek help is if they find distress starting to get in the way of day-to-day functioning – for example, if they find they are unable to get out of bed to go to work, or to do the things they would usually do.

“Both as a carer and as an individual, that’s the time when it’s really important you go see your doctor, and your doctor can help determine if you need another kind of professional support,” she says.

Pastoral carers can then also talk to your pastoral care team at church, although it becomes tricky “if you are pastoral care”.

“But it’s still important that you check in with someone – maybe at your church – who can provide spiritual or pastoral support, such as prayer. We really have to make sure we’re looking after our physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing. And sometimes, that will have to be done with the support of a health professional.”