Arthur Middleton on pastoral burnout

Pastoral burnout is mistakenly thought to be a modern malaise, yet it was a familiar condition known to the classical pastoral writers, who repeatedly faced it thoughtfully and resourcefully in order to avert it. ‘Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has given you charge’ [Acts 20.28].

Pastoral care is impossible if the pastor himself is unfit and fails to feed and nurture his own body, mind and soul. It requires knowing one’s own needs and unique requirements. This principle is a fundamental requirement of the pastoral tradition, if the challenges and difficulties intrinsic to pastoral ministry are to be candidly faced and averted.

The fundamental principle of classical teaching is that the one who gives care needs regular and special care himself. Gregory the Great in his Pastoral Rule saw that the specific hazard of pastoral ministry is that one becomes so focused upon others’ needs that one’s own health and well-being may be at risk. ‘In restoring others to health by healing their wounds, he must not disregard his own health…let him not, while lifting up others, fall himself… The greatness of certain men’s virtues had been an occasion of their perdition, in that they have felt inordinately secure in the assurance of their strength, and they died suddenly because of their negligence.’

Similarly, John Chrysostom argued that, “The priest’s wounds require greater help, indeed as much as those of all the people together.. .because of heavy demands and extraordinary expectations associated with the pastoral office.’ ‘For when a harbour is full of ships, it is easy for them to get crushed by each other, especially if they are secretly riddled with bad temper as by some worm’ [John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent].

For Gregory the Great, effective care of souls cannot separate care of others and care of oneself. ‘Pastors are called to fulfil their charge over others in such a way as not to fail to accomplish the charge over themselves, and to be ardently solicitous on their own account in such a way as not to grow slack in watching over those entrusted to them.’ This is genuine ordinate self-love, and is cited as a pastoral duty.

Pastors should pray for their own needs. Aelred of Rievaulx prayed that ‘the vices and the evil passions which still assault my soul, (whether they come from past bad habit, or from my immeasurable daily negligence, whether their source is in the weakness of my corrupt and vitiated nature, or in the secret tempting of malignant spirits) against these vices, Lord, may your sweet grace afford me strength and courage; that I may not consent thereto, nor let them reign in this my mortal body.’

It is impossible to list in advance all the difficulties one might expect to encounter in priestly ministry: ‘Making a list of all the difficulties involved is like trying to measure the ocean’ [Chrysostom, On the Priesthood]. Often one finds the deepest joys of ministry directly related to what makes ministry at times very difficult.