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Ministry Burnout in Religious Life

A catholic sister suffered ministry burnout because she managed her time poorly.

She was putting in time at all hours of the day because of the way she defined ministry...with no time boundaries.

She was a certified grade school teacher by profession but she gave up working in schools out of a sense that the world was a bigger place and the world had more need of her. (It's likely that she suffered ministry burnout in her grammar school career and simply needed a sabbatical.)

With these vague ideas she actually narrowed her world and worked harder than she had ever done -- without financial remuneration.

She was between jobs when she met a young single mother who did not complete high school -- and who had two preschoolers children.

The young woman was under stress from her own mother -- with whom she and her two children lived.

Her mother wanted her to get a job and/or a GED diploma to finish high school. Since her own mother worked -- the young woman was in a bind. she could not take care of her children look for a job and study for her GED.

In stepped sister -- already partially suffering from ministry burnout. She offered to care for the children for a "few hours" each day during the week while the young woman looked for work. Or went to the library to study for her GED.

A "few hours" was never defined. And teenagers have a very different sense of time than adults do. Sister had some idea of what a reasonable amount of time was but never specified the number of hours she would be with the children.

The days grew longer and longer for Sister as the young woman stayed away longer and longer each day. Now Sister was not only minding the children for a few hours a day...she was feeding them...changing them...putting them down for naps...bathing them.

In an unintended way she was managing her time effectively because she had the two children on a predictable schedule. She also read to them and played with them instead of planting them in front of the television.

The young woman never did get a job or apply to take the GED exam during the time Sister watched her children. But, she and her mother were effusive in their gratitude and praise for Sister.

Sister was ripe for ministry burnout. And predictably it found her.

It was Sister's superior who finally put a stop to this 'ministry.'

Sister was a very kind person...easy to take advantage of. But there are several things to question about such 'kindness.'

The first is to ask whether it is actually a kindness to help someone stay exactly the way they are -- in their problem state.

The young woman accomplished nothing while Sister was available. But she did get to rehearse her irresponsible life-style -- she did not have to care for her children and no one supervised her time in the library -- to see if she ever went there.

  • Sister had an obligation as a professional to bring revenue in for the support of her religious community

  • She was not reimbursed in this particular non-'ministry'

  • She was too tired to take part in the life of her religious community with the other sisters
The young woman's mother would call Sister in the evening to discuss her daughter and what to do about her -- taking up more of her time.

By now you may have an understanding that something is quite wrong with taking on such a "ministry" -- or you may think that a life of self-sacrifice is important to the spirituality of a catholic sister.

However, her uncompensated employment was not ministry...not religious activity.  It mere helped a teenager act more and more irresponsibly, it deprived the religious community of the sister's support and companionship and did not, as ministry must do, bring them closer to God.

It is important to note that in being kind to the young mother, Sister was inflicting financial hardship on her community, and diminishing community life by her absence.  Ministy does not injure one party in order to favor another.

It would be useful for your own sense of time management -- either to rehearse your good time management practices or to start thinking of them -- to specify what boundaries are included in this example and how they were violated to Sister's detriment.

Make sure that your boundaries are in place so your actions are related to ministry and not to non-ministry.  Download the FREE book and audit your own boundaries before a superior does it for you.

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