My first career was in Fashion Design. I studied for four years and found a job through a friend designing children’s clothes for a company that supplied to Myer, Target and Big W. It was a steep learning curve! It started out with much excitement and enthusiasm as I used the skills I had learnt at TAFE and learnt new skills on the job about shipping, designing a year in advance, and looking at previous sales to dictate future styles. But nothing from my studies could prepare me for the emotional toll the job would have on me and the difficult personalities I would meet along the way. One manager I had was prone to throwing things and didn’t believe me when I came down with influenza: the real one that makes your body shake uncontrollably and binds you to your bed for a good week. There was very little trust in that workplace, a lot of gossip and much finger pointing when things went wrong. After four years I couldn’t take it anymore and after one particularly bad week I told my husband I was quitting…tomorrow! After leaving I had plans to create my own pieces of fashion so I went out and bought unique fabrics from fancy shops, and bought an industrial sewing machine. Sadly, I was exhausted and uninspired. All the joy and enthusiasm I began my career with was gone. I sold the sewing machine and I still have the bag of gorgeous fabric sitting in storage. I didn’t have the words for it at the time, but I was burnt out. I never returned to the fashion industry and the thought of sewing garments still fills me with anxiety.
In their book ‘Burnout: From Tedium to Personal Growth’ Ayala M. Pines and Elliot Aronson describe burnout as, ‘The result of constant or repeated emotional pressure associated with an intense involvement with people over long periods of time…Burnout is the painful realisation that they can no longer help people in need, that they have nothing in them left to give.’
Sadly, my story isn’t unique, burnout is very real and the price of burnout to self, family and community is high. As a now ordained Deacon working as a prison chaplain and Spiritual Director, God has been good and has certainly taken me on an interesting journey through life. In a way, I’m fortunate that I burnt out from the fashion industry and not from ministry – though it could easily happen. It’s very upsetting when someone burns out from working in Christian ministry. Where they were once full of joy and enthusiasm, they become fatigued, gloomy, fearful and resentful. Unfortunately, I know people who have burnt out and I am aware of others who are on the precipice of it.
One issue I perceive is that we start out our ministry vocation with great passion! Comparing our ministry to Jesus, Paul or other greats who have walked before us, who appear to be so self-sacrificing and sold-out that when we feel tired or weak, we berate ourselves for not being more capable. After all if they can do it shouldn’t we? Actually, we are all unique and our ministry settings and situations are unique too. As members of the body of Christ comparing our ministry output won’t benefit us and may bring more anxiety than anything else.
Another issue I observe is the toll of being a solo minister. As the number of ordained clergy decline and church membership lowers there is less opportunity to employ curates, deacons or assistants. If ministers don’t set good boundaries from early on and delegate to lay parish members, they can end up doing everything and being the sole solution to most problems in the parish.
These are just two areas I identify that can cause stress and pressure. So, what can help with all this? I believe one key answer is sharing our mental load with others.
Prioritising our mental health and wellbeing means we are putting in measures so we can last the long run in ministry. One way I encourage is to have a recurring monthly appointment in our calendar for supervision, counselling, or spiritual direction. Many dioceses are now providing pathways to subsidise supervision which will enable more people to afford this essential care and oversight. Unlike when we go to the doctor when we are sick, or to the physio when our body aches, supervision is something we can put into practice before we get too sick and achy and, is a means of prevention before we need intervention.
What does supervision look like? Professional Supervisor Emily Rotta, a registered supervisor and member of the ACA College of Supervisors says “In sessions, I create a supervision relationship based on trust and transparency. As well as providing an open space for learning and best practice which focusses on the supervisees self-reflective practices and wellbeing.”
Supervision should be a safe, confidential space where the wins and hardships of ministry can be aired and explored and where one should come away feeling heard and supported.
Let us strive to run the long race in ministry, be encouraged to find a supervisor and make an appointment today.
Fiona Preston ministers with MinisTree Bendigo and is a Spiritual Director.