Spiritual Leader Burnout reason number 2:
“Unawareness of one’s family of origin patterns versus awareness of them and the freedom to make new choices.”
Working within spiritual communities and holding a certain role of authority (“parent position”) awakes basic family systems dynamics for all participants. Actually, a congregation of 200 member families comprises a complex family system of 200 various micro family patterns that together weave a large macro family pattern. This is the preexisting pattern that the spiritual leader steps into when taking on a particular position. Becoming a player in this larger family can become a smothering and restrictive experience when it resembles the leader’s unconscious and unresolved family of origin dynamics. It is just a matter of time that certain limiting roles, reactive behaviors and unhealthy projections from all sides begin to drain the energy and joy of the spiritual leader on a daily basis. What initially felt comforting and familiar (and it is fascinating how the leader unconsciously chooses and is being chosen because of a certain “match factor”), eventually becomes an overwhelming macro family dynamic of certain rigid expectations, fixed roles, stuck power dynamics and repetitive core conflicts. Spiritual leaders begin to burn out. They often feel they have no option but to keep “acting” and see themselves tirelessly reacting instead of having the freedom to respond in new ways. This repetitive “relational system dance” can lead to patterns of exhaustion, desperation, boredom or even (mutual) destruction. However, if spiritual leaders do their own family of origin work and begin to understand their role, their reaction patterns, their position and unresolved conflicts within their original micro family, they will eventually become free to engage the macro spiritual community in a whole new manner. This phenomenon called “differentiation” becomes the fruit of long and hard work on the self within one’s original family. Such newly aware leaders come to discover the freedom of (possibly 200) new ways of responding to the complex macro family dynamics they are part of. Differentiation is gained initially (among other practices) by honest and authentic engagement, dialogue, forgiveness and painful boundary setting first within one’s own family of origin. Once this challenging task is being undertaken, now in a parallel process, the engagement with the larger spiritual community one has been called to serve will be met with increasing authenticity, new possibilities, renewed hope and energy. A spiritual leader who is aware of self within systems will engage authentically, dialogically, humbly claiming her/his own shortcomings while not shying away from naming destructive patterns within the community, modeling forgiveness and the setting of clear and sometimes initially painful boundaries. Increasing one’s awareness and level of differentiation within systems will bring about real and permanent change. It will open up new ways of responding even within complex systems. Nothing can prevent the burnout of spiritual leaders more than doing this ground laying family of origin work.
Helpful resources to learn more about family systems and leadership are Ronald W. Richardson’s pragmatic books: “Becoming a healthier pastor” and “Creating healthier churches”. More theoretical and comprehensive resources are the classic books by Edwin Friedman: “Generation to Generation” and “Failure of nerve”. The enrollment in a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program will allow spiritual leaders such family systems engagement in an action-reflection model. A very helpful avenue of pursuing family of origin work and increasing one’s differentiation is individual therapy with a marriage and family therapist.