Volume 3, Number 6

June 19, 2012

Theme: Burnout


Church Burnout

by Archpriest John Jillions

Outrage Fatigue and Our Christian Calling

by Deacon Jason Ketz

Burnout and the Workplace: The Quest for Balance

by Father Christopher Rowe

Compassion Fatigue: Legend or Danger Sign?

by Archpriest Steven Voytovich

More information on our authors and contributors can be found here.

Church Burnout

June 19, 2012

By Archpriest John Jillions

The story goes that Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), the great Roman Catholic saint, was complaining to God after once again being kicked out of another Spanish town by yet another bishop who did not appreciate her reforming spirit. As she sat on her suitcases she prayed aloud, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them!”

Saint Teresa of Avila

This may be apocryphal but I like it. In my job as chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America I see plenty of alienated, burnt out believers—clergy and laity—who have had to endure too many years of church fights and disappointments. But what is more surprising is how many people have come through these dark periods and have picked up the torch to faithfully follow Christ and serve in His Church. In every case when someone turns the corner and discovers new life in the church, it is because they have decided that God still dwells here. As an Amy Grant song puts it, “I have decided I’m gonna live like a believer, turn my back on the deceiver and live what I believe.”

Church life from the beginning has been plagued by internal tensions, quarrelling and public fights that demoralize its members and undermine its mission. Just read St Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and you get some sense of the troubles he faced. Factionalism. Social cliques. People taking sides and magnifying their petty liturgical and theological disputes. Sexual misconduct. Overblown parish pride. Big talkers who didn’t deliver. Indifference to people in need. Disputes over Paul’s teaching and authority. And that was around 50 AD in a Christian community that was probably no more than fifty people!

Even the saints sometimes have trouble getting along. St Paul and St Barnabas had to split up their mission and go in different directions after “a sharp contention” when they couldn’t agree on taking young John Mark with them (Acts 15:36-41). Two different leadership styles collided. John Mark had failed the mission before when he left prematurely to go home (Acts 13:13) and St Paul, focusing on the mission’s objectives, was unwilling to have a weak link who couldn’t do the work. St Barnabas may have given more importance to the long-term relationship and mentoring the young man. Whatever the issue, it was enough for the two saints to get really mad at each other, at least for a time. This dispute was surely distressing for everyone else too, but they took it in stride as just part of normal human life, even among Christians. So both were “commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord” (Acts 15:40) as they went their separate ways to proclaim the word of the Lord and strengthen the brethren.

We find this pattern repeated from century to century, from culture to culture “wherever two or three are gathered.” There are always plenty of legitimate reasons that a faithful Christian would just get tired of the mess, throw up his hands and walk away. Or try to find some other religious community where “it’s not like that.” Good luck. Quakers are known to specialize in being peacemakers, but their own communities are not immune to disputes as I’ve learned from Quaker friends (to their credit they have well-developed procedures for dealing with congregational conflicts, and we Orthodox could learn from them). Buddhism too is reputed to be a conflict-free zone, but when I recently attended a training seminar for church leaders on handling sexual misconduct, two  Buddhist nuns were there as well, because one of their male leaders had stepped over the line and in the aftermath the community had been devastated and divided.

Burnout may be what the classic spiritual writers call “acedia,” despondency, despair, restlessness, no longer caring about anything or anyone, feeling nothing during prayer, not wanting to pray, a sense of hopelessness, that there is no purpose in our life and no way out. The spiritual teachers of the ancient church advised fighting this “demon of despondency” with psalms, a firm hope in future blessings and sticking to a routine of regular work. The cure may not be especially complicated. We may need someone just to listen to us and acknowledge our sense of overwork, betrayal or hurt. We may need just a dose of being human. A priest I know once went to the great monastic center on Mt Athos in Greece and was speaking with an elderly monk about being in such a state. After listening to his woes the monk went to a cupboard and brought out a box of chocolates. “Here, I think you need these. And you need a rest. Take your wife on a vacation.” This is similar to the advice St Thomas Aquinas gave in the 13th century: a hot bath, a glass of wine and a good night’s sleep.

We also need to be aware that what we may label as burnout may in fact be clinical depression. When we are “feeling blue,” especially over a long period of time, we may think we are merely suffering the slings and arrows of normal life, including normal church life. But we may have a serious ailment that needs medical attention as well as spiritual counsel.

How do we minister to someone who has gone past the burnout post, and left the church? I’m ashamed to say that there are people who have quietly stopped coming to church and I just didn’t follow up. I got caught in day-to-day busy-ness and they fell to the bottom of the to-do list. Parishes can get everyone involved to follow up and prevent this scenario, but it happens and it’s sad. Not everyone with burnout will be open to a visit or a conversation, but most are. Sometimes the burnout comes from a genuine crisis of faith. Perhaps they haven’t had a chance to talk about their troubles seriously, or they were afraid of talking about it. Maybe they don’t have the words they need to have this sort of conversation. Or they’re afraid of being pushed into a corner. We need to share our own uncertainties and disappointments, but also why we stay in the face of them. Or perhaps they drift away because competing demands keep them from an active spiritual life, and “as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14). Others may feel lonely and no one in the church notices. For them it’s not so much a crisis of faith as a crisis of love. Sometimes they leave because they became so active in church life that important aspects of their family life got neglected (a priest recently told me that priests regularly break the Ten Commandments because they steal: they steal from the time that belongs to their wife and children).

Our buttons are guaranteed to be pushed

It is guaranteed that we will face situations in church that will push all our burnout buttons. The question is, will we be a torchbearer or a burned-out leaver? Maybe we’ll be both, leaving for a time, and then coming back after discovering—or rediscovering—that there is a lot more in the life of the church than meets the eye. “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

Further Reading

An excellent reflection on this whole subject is Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer’s Life (2008).See also Fr Gabriel Bunge, Despondency: the Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus , (SVS Press, 2011).

Outrage Fatigue and Our Christian Calling

June 19, 2012

by Deacon Jason Ketz

I was in college in 2003 when the USA went to war with Iraq. There was a sense of unrest amongst a large section of the student body, and a group of students somewhat predictably decided to organize a protest. After a few weeks of planning, a group of about 1,000 students (about 4% of the student body) protested in front of our student Union building for a few hours one afternoon. I watched an hour of it from the cafeteria window, while planning a longer route to my next class.

The protest signs of our generation

At the time, I was taking a course in Social Geography, and when we met a few days after the lackluster protest, our professor, who had been a peace activist during Vietnam, declared to all of us that “your generation [the Millenium generation] has no idea how to protest something! One day and you expect the government to even notice you, let alone respond? It took us years during Vietnam. Years! You can’t even imagine holding onto an idea for so long!”

My professor’s observations have haunted me for nearly a decade now, as I consider my response to any number of political, social and even ecclesial controversies.  Mostly, I find myself sitting on my hands – I don’t have the stamina to dedicate my whole identity to many of these causes. One thing that I wonder more often lately, though, is whether my college professor had correctly stereotyped a character flaw of those of us born after 1980, or whether our protracted civil angst in the early 2000s was an early manifestation of a greater social problem: Outrage Fatigue.

Outrage fatigue is a completely different phenomenon from whatever we might term a generational failure to understand the perseverance required for political activism. Outrage fatigue is that combination of exhaustion and despair that we sometimes feel when we’re overwhelmed with issues that assault our various sensibilities. The origins of the term are not entirely clear, but the expression outrage fatigue is quickly breaking into the American vernacular. It is listed in online dictionaries, shouted ironically by news pundits, used by DJs and bloggers, and nearly eight years ago, the expression appeared in the headlines of the satirical newspaper The Onion (“Nations Liberals Suffering From Outrage Fatigue” The Onion 40:27 July 7, 2004. www.onion.com).

So when and where can we find outrage fatigue? The various hot-button issues raised by politicians during an election year can leave us all feeling overwhelmed and despondent. The housing market, various atrocities in the corporate world, and any type of injustice that has no foreseeable relief in the future can leave us too numb and dumbstruck to even be angry anymore. My favorite example this year is gasoline. Remember when gas first went over $2.00 per gallon? I was incensed. The entire country was just livid, which even drove the media to run a smear campaign against big oil and some shady forms of speculative trading in the oil market. But this year, when gas topped $4.00 a gallon? I just stand there, staring at the pump as the numbers keep climbing, too numb to feel anything about it anymore.

And they keep going up!

And this outrage fatigue is not limited to the political arena. It is a form of burnout – a very specific response to our sense of justice. Anytime we perceive injustice, outrage is one of our possible responses. And once we’ve become desensitized to this injustice – once we realize that it isn’t going anywhere, that we can’t change things – then we’re in serious danger of feeling outrage fatigue.

So where is Christ in all of this? Did he have outrage fatigue during his ministry? Should we turn to him for shelter from injustice? Or for inspiration in fighting to introduce God’s justice into the world?  And how has the Church handled outrage fatigue in past generations? Thankfully, there is a great deal of help to be found in the teachings of our Lord, and by the traditions of the Church. While the term outrage fatigue is new and trendy, despondency and despair have been discussed in the church from its earliest days.

The difficulty at the heart of outrage fatigue is the exhaustion of victimhood. To some extent, we have a sense of captivity, a sense of powerlessness. Maybe “I can’t change the world,” or maybe “‘the Man’ is keeping me down.” In any case, we feel helpless. Meanwhile, we have all been taught that we have the power to make our own destiny, that we’re in control. So we experience an acute frustration when we realize that this may not actually be the case, say, for the plummeting value of my home. Once we’ve gone through all of the emotions and actions that we can muster to counter our sense of injustice, and to no avail, we start to despair, and eventually stop trying to change things. We’re too exhausted to feel like victims now, and we develop a callousness to protect ourselves from these feelings of frustration and impotence.

Despite a number of criticisms to the contrary over the centuries, Christianity does not offer a coping strategy for victims. Instead, Christ, through his own death on the cross, completely obliterates the familiar categories of victim and oppressor. Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams, in his reflection on The Resurrection, discusses this at length in his first chapter. Not only is the victim (Christ) justified in the resurrection, but more importantly, we are no longer required to relate to each other, and to Christ in terms of victim and oppressor. Christ is the victim for all eternity, but also the ruler of all. This paradox nullifies all of our familiar social relationships that are based on power differentials. Although the victim/oppressor binary relationship obviously still exists in society, we are free from believing that our social worries have any relation to God’s justice or his saving plan for the world.

Does this logical shift make being a victim any more bearable? It certainly can, but not because the experience of being victimized by the state, of being wrongly accused of crimes, or of being crushed by the inertia of a political or ecclesial entity is any different in light of the cross. Rather, the experience of our own victimhood has been transformed into an opportunity to witness to Christ and his conquering victimhood; his voluntary suffering.

The Church has long recognized the centrality of martyrdom as a noble death that witnesses to Christ’s own death on the cross. The martyr’s death has all of the trappings of a victim/oppressor, and yet in our memory of the martyrdom, the true relationships are entirely reversed. The martyr is at once a victim and an anti-victim, and the state’s sentence of execution is rendered powerless by the martyr’s faith in Christ and in the resurrection.  In this great reversal, the martyr’s identity is destroyed, and they serve only to point to Christ, to show the authority of the Lord over his creation, and to show the victory of live over death.

Martyrdom of St. John Kochurov

So one might be led to wonder: did the martyrs ever have outrage fatigue?

I would venture to say no, the martyrs did not have outrage fatigue. They did not despair of the state of the world, because they were not powerless. The greatest threat in the world (both then and now) was physical and social discomfort and ultimately death, but the martyrs understood that accepting suffering and death for the sake of Christ witnesses to the good news of our incarnate Lord. This was a choice, and a difficult one, but once the choice was made, there was room for neither outrage at the state of the world, nor fatigue from beating their heads against metaphorical walls.

Furthermore, the fathers of the church have always been reluctant to express too much outrage at the state of affairs of the world in which we all live. This is the world that God created, and this is the world that Christ came to save. Are we prepared to question God’s creation or his willingness to save us? I think not. Therefore, the experience of outrage fatigue, as familiar as it may be, is a dangerous position for the Church or for a Christian.

A second danger of outrage fatigue is its frame of reference. Very often, it is a concern for our own well-being, and certainly a sense of our own inability to effect change, that leads us to despair. But martyrdom is a forgetting of the self, in the interest of Christ. In the accounts of their deaths, the martyrs’ identities are obscured and erased as thoroughly as their human bodies. Nothing remains of the martyr except the iconic image of a human being whose life and death points entirely toward the crucified and risen Christ.

The emotions of outrage fatigue are still to be encountered, processed, and occasionally expressed. Our sense of justice and injustice is intimately related to our understanding of God. We should be bothered when we witness injustice. Some of us will be saddened, some of us will be outraged. But the proper expression of such frustration is martyrdom. Martyrdom, but only after careful, prayerful discernment of when and where self-sacrifice can even be perceived as a witness to Christ. There are any number of political and religious matters today that we all might have strong feelings about. And for any of them, we have the opportunity to be social heroes. But if I give my life over to a cause, will people see an impassioned, concerned person, or will they glimpse a living icon of our Lord Jesus Christ?

A living icon of our Lord

Our call is to witness to the gospel, not to be heroes. Accordingly, as each of us awaits our own trial and our own martyrdom, whether in the Roman arena or through the arena of our daily lives, we can combat our outrage fatigue by introducing the message of Jesus Christ into all of our frustrating experiences. No despondency can withstand the joyous message of the resurrection!

Burnout and the Workplace; The Quest for Balance

June 19, 2012

by Fr. Christopher Rowe

Everyday something new reaches our desk.  Email is demanding attention and, of course, we all have a boss who demands more than anyone can possibly achieve.  Goals are unrealistic and after a lot of overtime, burnout starts to overcome us.  What in the world is burnout?  Or more to the point, what are the symptoms, physically and spiritually?

Burnout has been defined as a general wearing out or alienation from the pressures of work.  It could also be defined as what happens after one works too hard, too long with too little down time.  I went to Wikipedia to do a little research on the topic of burnout.  And I found a number of things there that started my thoughts process.  What are the components of burnout?  I think most people know when they are tired and ineffective – I am not so sure most people really know what to do fix it though.  Mostly because it is really hard to heal yourself!

According to Wiki, here are some contributors and indicators of burnout:

  • The Compulsion to Prove Oneself – Often found at the beginning is excessive ambition.
  • Working Harder – Because they have to prove themselves to others or try to fit in
  • Neglecting Needs – Since they have devoted everything to work, they now have no time and energy for anything else.  Friends and family, eating, and sleeping start to become seen as unnecessary or unimportant, as they reduce the time and energy that can be spent on work.
  • Revision of Values – The work consumes all energy they have left, leaving no energy and time for friends and hobbies.  Their new value system is their job and they start to be emotionally blunt.
  • Depersonalization – it’s possible that they no longer see themselves as valuable.

Does any of this sound familiar?  These are fairly extreme and most of us will not get to these stages of psychological distress.  However, some of these things affect us all at some level when we become insensitive to our own needs.  When we become unaware of the Lord’s presence in our life.  We suffer when we loose our balance!

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”  Matthew 11:28-30

The problems we face in the working world are many and they can easily overwhelm.  We want so much to do a good job, to help others, to advance to the next job, or whatever.  But we forget about balance.  Unless your batteries are recharged, you won’t be able to do anything.  The quickest way to recharge those batteries is through caring for your spiritual self through prayer.  Probably one of the most common confession themes deals with prayer – or the lack of it.  We are all beset by a lack of time.  But it isn’t so much about time, it is really about a lack of planning.  We have time to pray.  We just don’t do it with any kind of discipline.  But to remain balanced spiritually and emotionally, we need to feed our soul.  Prayer!  Find the time!  Set up a routine.  Many people wake up early to exercise.  They say that they feel more alive and ready to take on the day after a workout.  Prayer does exactly the same thing for your spirit.  Take a moment or two and reach out through prayer to the saints; to our Lord and acquire the peace of the Holy Spirit.  Burnout avoidance is really all about balance.

Then you get to work…  OK, now the real challenge starts.  How do you maintain the peace that you had just before you walked into work?  Again, the bottom line is balance.  Always remember that you are generally not in it alone.  Rely on others to get you through the tough times.  Reach out to your priest when the going gets tough.  When you are convinced that you are indispensable – that is about the time the organization figures out that you are dispensable!   That sounds harsh, but we know not to ‘put your trust in Princes, nor in a son of man’.  The advice is ‘it’s only a job.’  Take that seriously.  When you maintain balance and perspective you protect yourself from the stresses of the world.  Good advice for a lot of different occasions.  Don’t invest yourself so much in the ways of the world.  “What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?  One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever.  Ecclesiastes 1:3,4.  Balance!

So much to worry about. So many things can go wrong.  It’s hard to know where to turn sometimes.  Probably the best advice is don’t worry!  Live your life.  Love the Lord.  Work as hard toward building a relationship with Him as you do anything else in your life.  The rewards of that kind of balance are beyond value.  And lastly, I’ll put in a word for that ‘old fashioned’ spiritual healing tool – confession.  Go to confession.  Unburden your spirit from all the weight of sin.  OK, you missed the mark, now go confess it and let the Lord take it from you.  Let Him give you rest and refreshment.  And above all keep balanced.

Compassion Fatigue: Legend or Danger Sign?

June 19, 2012

by Archpriest Steven Voytovich

This Spring I was invited to address a group of caregivers on the topic of Compassion Fatigue.  As a teaching chaplain and licensed community counselor, such opportunities to share are meaningful indeed, and yet my inner response to the topic was to wonder whether there might be another topic…

As a third generation of immigrants to this country, a strong cultural work ethic had been instilled early on within our family.  In addition, I spent significant time with extended family members who were dairy farmers.  Vacation was not a word that was spoken or lived.   The work ethic here was to apply oneself fully to the work at hand every day as this directly represented livelihood, and there was simply no one else who would otherwise take care of it.  Fast forwarding to counseling training, while I could certainly relate to the concept of “wellness” as a pastor and person of faith, the notion of compassion fatigue struck me as a form of cop-out given my background.  Nonetheless, I decided it was time to push through my own ambivalence to engage this topic in preparation for this presentation.

Compassion itself comes from the Latin, “Com pati:” to bear, suffer with, a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”  Compassion is known as a highly held virtue in virtually all the mainline religious traditions.  Defined from a pastoral counseling perspective in the Dictionary of Pastoral Counseling: “compassion appears to be rooted in the capacity to reconstruct the situation of another imaginatively and respond to it emotionally in ways shaped by cultural and other meanings and values.”  This response is further noted to be inclined toward informed, intelligent decision making, and the willingness to risk and give of oneself to alleviate suffering.  An important follow-up note is included in this definition:  “The ability to reconstruct another’s situation imaginatively entails the capacity to maintain sufficient cognitive distance to avoid mistaking one’s own reactions for the other’s while remaining close to one’s own vulnerability to suffering and participation in the common experience of being human.” (Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling, Rodney Hunter Editor, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1990, p. 206)  No wonder as pastors and caregivers we get tired while ministering to others’ needs!

Compassion Fatigue, an admittedly recent term that was first diagnosed in the 50’s among nurses, is a condition characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion over time.  Sufferers can exhibit symptoms including hopelessness, decreased experience of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, and a pervasive negative attitude.  These symptoms may manifest professionally and or personally, decrease productivity and ability to focus, and grow new feelings of incompetency and doubt in one’s self.  Suddenly I became more fully engaged.  My hospital administrator had been cautioning me repeatedly about the high number of hours of work I logged weekly, and although I made full use of these hours, what I was able to accomplish was diminishing.  The smallest challenges were becoming tsunami waves, threatening to wipe out whatever energy and where-with-all I still had hold of.  A sense of vulnerability rode with me everywhere I traveled.  Bottom line was that I was throwing every ounce of energy into my work each day, and yet it kept piling up deeper.  To compensate, in reflection I saw myself taking work home, and resisting recreational activities in favor of trying to catch up.

Too burned out to care

An article in a family practice journal observed similar responses among physicians. They noted doctors trying to dictate orders while eating lunch, and in order to focus more intensively on patients, tended to eliminate friends, prayer, and meditation. And, they were increasingly prone to blaming others. No matter how much sleep they were able to get, they awoke exhausted. The same article includes a self assessment. To do nothing is to flirt with self destruction that will over time compromise our ability to reach out and care for anyone.

So in fact, compassion fatigue calls for what may be experienced as counterintuitive response.  Do less.  Take time to talk to others.  Exercise regularly.  Keep setting time aside for prayer, enjoyable activities, and relationships.  No, there is nothing terribly new here.  Being recharged through these self-care related activities, however, we are once again prepared to respond with compassion to those in need around us.  An article focusing on balancing personal and professional dimensions calls upon us to commit to life-long balancing that includes:  commitment to excellence, responsiveness to those we are called to care for, continuity of care, and self care before depletion sets in.  As Orthodox Christians we would add an active prayer life, work with one’s confessor, and regular participation in the Sacramental life of the Church.

“Regular participation in the sacramental life of the Church”

While perhaps needless to say, I found myself standing before this caregiving group as a convert, thankful to God for the message to me in this very invitation!  In being attuned to the level of compassion fatigue operating within me, I was likewise empowered to encourage those I was addressing to take time for what is important in the midst of our caregiving obligations.  If you are a parishioner reading this, be prepared to reach out for support from your pastor.  If you see signs of compassion fatigue in your pastor, reach out to him in support.  If you are a pastor or a caregiver struggling with dimensions of compassion fatigue, work with your confessor, trusted brother priests or peers, and if need be a counselor, to aid you in re-establishing the life-long balance that will best serve to distance you from this malady.  The good news is that taking such time can positively impact our ability to manifest compassion to others.  Even more importantly, as noted in Second Corinthians 1:3-7, God has prepared us for compassionately responding to others by first showing such compassion and comfort to us.  Thanks be to God.

By first showing compassion to us

Volume 3, Number 6, Authors and Contributors

June 19, 2012

Archpriest John Jillions is the Chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America and Associate Professor of Theology in the Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at Saint Paul University in Ottawa. He was ordained deacon in 1981, priest in 1984 and has served in the US, Australia, Greece, England and Canada. He and his wife Denise have three grown sons, two daughters-in-law and an English Cocker Spaniel named Achilles.  

Deacon Jason Ketz is a recent graduate of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds a B.S. in Microbiology, and worked as the Quality Manager at a printing company for several years in his home town of Minneapolis, before answering a long-standing call to theological studies. He and his wife Elizabeth have three children; Sophia, Patrick, and Natalie. He is attached to St. Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

Fr. Christopher Rowe is the associate pastor at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Overland Park, Kansas.  He is also the chaplain for the Eastern Orthodox Youth Camp is Kansas City. Fr. Chris is leading the Youth and Young Adult strategic plan team. He is married and has two children at the University of Kansas. 

Archpriest Steven Voytovich is the Director of the Department of Institutional Chaplaincies for the Orthodox Church in America. He holds M.A., M.Div., and D.Min degrees from St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He works in institutional settings training and educating chaplains. He is attached to Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in New Britain, Connecticut.

Special thanks to Jonathan Bush for this great photo . He makes customs jewelry and chains out of chain mail. See more of his work here