When professional Catholics burn out

Midway through 2018, I was packing to give a talk to a group of Catholics.

Glancing at my phone, I saw what lay ahead: delayed flights through four cities, an arrival long after midnight, jet lag, a meet-and-greet, the talk with a Q. and A. afterwards, and a 4 a.m. wake-up call the next day to make my way home.

Then I would have to get up and teach three classes back-to-back and scramble to meet several writing deadlines.

I nearly threw my phone across the room.

Public speaking opportunities for Catholic women like myself are rare,

I do not take them for granted.

But after many years of writing about difficult issues in Catholicism, ranging from immigration and abuse to homophobia and sexism, I was having an increasingly difficult time giving talks about how the church can do better without throwing up my hands and telling the audience they would have to fix things themselves.

I was not burned out from Catholicism; I was suffering burn out from being a professional Catholic. The phenomenon is not new.

In spite of creeping feelings of cynicism, I was still going to Mass, still Catholic in spite of years of bruising revelations about the church and still friends with many other Catholics.

I was still writing prolifically, juggling multiple speaking engagements with a full-time job teaching.

But I was also exhausted, snarky and constantly feeling a sense of impostor syndrome.

I soon realized: I was not burned out from Catholicism; I was burned out from being a professional Catholic.

This phenomenon is not new.

The psychologist Christina Maslach has studied burnout since the 1980s and wrote the book Burnout: The Cost of Caring, which focuses on jobs that require a great deal of emotional labor, like those in education, counseling and health care. Ms. Maslach eventually designed a “burnout inventory,” to measure how badly an employee has burned out.

The qualifiers for burnout include those who burn out are often highly skilled and specially trained.

This can include people who work

  • as doctors and nurses, but
  • it also extends to people whose faith and professional life are intimately combined.

For this group, the challenge can be particularly acute, because often the commitment to faith that compels a person to work for or on behalf of the church—whether studying and teaching theology, writing about the church or serving in its social services arm—suffers when this work becomes overwhelming.

A challenging workplace can result in a desire to distance oneself from those things associated with it, even the church itself, thus potentially distancing a person from the very coping mechanisms or community that could help weather the storm.

The church is a global community, but after years working for it, it can start to feel like you are stuck in one small corner. Continue reading

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