Spiritual Leader Burnout reason number 8:
“Savior Complex” versus humility
One of the seductive pulls of being spiritual leaders is falling for people’s projections of them being their “savior sent by God”. Many people would like to be “saved”. They see themselves in the victim position and want to become dependent on somebody who would save them from themselves or from others. If spiritual leaders allow for those projections to take hold, people will see that savior figure in them. This can lead to burn out via “spiritual hybris”, which means that the leaders actually start to believe that they can “save people” from themselves, from circumstances or from their physical or mental ailments. One of the seductions for spiritual leaders is the secret belief that they might be Jesus (or at least Jesus’s “best disciple”) incarnate. Spiritual leaders often gain power by believing that God has sent exclusively them to save their neighbors, communities, and possibly the whole world. This kind of thinking and behaving leads to grandiosity, false perception of others and self and finally to burn out. Victimized and needy people’s expectations of their spiritual leaders tend to grow every day. If those then try to match those expectations, try to stay ahead of them or catch up by matching those expectations at any cost, burn out is preprogrammed. Over working, over promising, over committing, over achieving become traits of a spiritual leader who buys into such “savior” syndrome. Typical consequences of such “myth of being sent as a savior for others” become the tendency to control others and their perception of the leaders. Also to surround one’s self with needy, vulnerable and dependent people, and the avoidance of self-reflection and self-awareness are also common occurrences. The obsession with one’s image and also image control take much of such spiritual leaders’ internal and external energies. In spiritual terms “pride” becomes an leading force and obsession.
Humility is the healing balm for such “hyper performing leaders” who fell for the seduction of prideful leadership. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” C.S. Lewis. Humility is the absence of any feelings of being better than any others. It is the notion that we are learners no matter how long we have been leaders. It is the non-judgmental awareness of one’s own humanity, limits, brokenness and all. It is the awareness that God speaks through unlikely persons, like children, non-believers and the marginalized just as clearly as at times possibly through spiritual leaders. It is the freedom from pride and the freedom from people’s projections of power onto the spiritual leaders. Humility means to spiritually follow the Jesus who abdicated his Godly power versus buying into the myths of Jesus as a miracle worker.
As most books on humility are very conservative in nature, (and liberal theologians don’t seem to like the word “humility”), I want to recommend Pope Francis’s recent book: “Lead with Humility: 12 Leadership lessons from Pope Francis.”
Spiritual Leader Burnout reason number 7:
Enmeshment versus clear boundaries
As a spiritual leader it is seductive to become enmeshed with your role and let it “become everything”. Some spiritual leaders become workaholics. They have become enmeshed with their work itself. They often seize to pay much attention to their personal life outside of work. Other spiritual leaders become enmeshed with the people they serve. They confuse their parishioners to be personal friends or family members. They often seize to take time away from their parishioners for vacation or mental recovery. And then again others become enmeshed with the spiritual aspect of their life and work. They usually become rather serious, heady and pious, often losing the ability to fully enjoy life in the here and now.
Remaining differentiated from one’s role as spiritual leader is an important step in developing clear boundaries. When spiritual leaders become aware that they hold a role, but are not their role, they can remain in a “third person perspective”. They can hold their role lightly and not make it the sole meaning of their life. Clear boundaries between a private life and a work life are being established. Parishioners are not confused to be friends or family members and are not “used” as such. Spiritual leaders who remain differentiated from their role are also able to laugh about themselves and their spiritual leader role. The spiritual dimension of life is distinguished from and yet balanced with the “wordly” dimension of life. The ability to enjoy life is seen as a spiritual gift.
The art of setting healthy and clear boundaries is something all spiritual leaders will work on for the rest of their lives. Accountability partners like therapists or spiritual directors can help with pointing out areas of enmeshment and serve as consultants in how to set clearer and healthier boundaries in one’s work and personal life.
Spiritual Leader Burnout reason number 6:
Shame versus healthy Self-love
Spiritual leaders often have been raised in religious households and environments. The love of Self is usually not a value talked about or embodied in many religious homes. It is not even mentioned, or it is overshadowed by the commandment to love God and to love others. Usually children of religious families feel “called” to become spiritual leaders as they feel the strong urge to serve God and others in special ways. Sometimes this need to be “especially called” is a compensation and is based on a sense of shame that something is imperfect, missing or not OK with one’s self (a message that rigid religiosity can easily convey.) And so, to overcome this sense of shame, the step of gaining this sense of special calling gives spiritual leaders a certain “ego” boost and a sense of importance, as true self love was not something that was allowed or even talked about. When a professional career as spiritual leaders is built on the need to be seen as “special”, it often compensates for a deep sense of shame, a lack of love a person has received or a lack of self-love.
Sometimes this sense of “special calling” makes spiritual leaders then to become narcissistic, in that their thinking and preaching revolves around themselves and their own calling and “specialness”. They secretly have their spiritual community take care of them like a spoiled child, unconsciously making up for the lack of love or attention they might have received earlier in life, and covering up the shame they still feel.
At other times, the “special calling” becomes a way for spiritual leaders to sacrifice themselves into the task of serving God and others. Self-neglect or even “self-aside” (not quite suicide, but close) can occur. This is when spiritual leaders neglect their personal health, sacrifice quality time with their family or deny themselves friendships without any sense of loss. They also deny themselves time away, vacations or small pleasures, all of those unconsciously shame based in the false assumption that “called and special servants of God” do not need these.
Neither the extremes of narcissism nor shame filled self-aside match the self-love that spiritual leaders are really called to role model to others. A healthy self-love does not need a special calling to have one’s ego boosted. Self-love overcomes the earlier shame by accepting one’s own imperfections. It also means the every day claiming of God’s grace as “accepting that one is accepted”- “no matter what”. Three helpful resource books are: the classical book on grace by Paul Tillich “The courage to be”, or the book by Katherine Ketcham and Ernest Kurtz: “The Spirituality of Imperfection”. A great current teacher on overcoming shame is Brene Brown. See her writings on healing shame for example “The gifts of Imperfection” or “Daring Greatly”.
In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you. Deepak Chopra
Meditation: Many of us are ending this year 2018 deeply concerned about the political chaos this country finds itself in. The more investigators are closing in daily on our current president ‘s family for possible committed crimes, the more the president’s psychopathology is manifesting. Trying to distract from the legal facts that are surfacing daily, he has to create chaos, no matter how. And so this cornered president orders the withdrawal of troops in Syria and Afghanistan, which leads to the overnight resigning of the chief of defense secretary in protest, which in turn leads to an extreme plunge of the stock market. To distract even further, the president threatens to shut down the government, four days before Christmas. Currently a cornered, paranoid, deeply narcissistic and blackmailed president is the greatest danger to this country and to our world. And behind all of this emerging chaos hides an actively blackmailing Russian president who continues to gain power over and against American and international best interests.
This experience is comparable with a family’s complete break down due to the dysfunctional mental illness of the parent, and then another outside entity using this chaos created to take over the family dynamics, but not to rescue or restore, but to make worse, exploit and ultimately take over.
Prayer: God, we breathe deeply and thus pray in the stillness within to not allow the chaos to make us paranoid as well. We breathe deeply and thus pray in the stillness within to not allow fear to take us over. You have given us the Spirit of a sound mind. We need to keep the American “family” from collapsing and from being taken over by outside powers. Today the president crossed the line. Wake us up! Wake up this nation, so collectively we will make an intervention to rescue and restore, so we will prevent the worst. Amen.
For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. 2. Corinthians 1:7
Spiritual Leader Burnout reason number 5:
Literalism versus Contextual Use of Scriptures
Why should the literal use of Scriptures lead to burn out? I see two main reasons:
First when Christian spiritual leaders read the Old Testament and take it literally, they are basically proclaiming the Jewish law, the Jewish worldview and a Jewish theology to be “Christian”. By confusing the two very distinct parts of the bible, and by taking the historical and contextual dimension out of the Hebrew Scriptures, spiritual leaders have to preach and teach a theology that often does not match what Jesus said or stood for. The consequence is that Christian spiritual leaders are becoming incongruent and contradictory, as they proclaim a Jewish theology while essentially being Christians. This unacknowledged contradiction causes stress and leads to confusion and exhaustion in both spiritual leaders and their listeners/followers.
Secondly if Christian spiritual leaders read the New Testament literally and do not take into consideration the cultural and historical dimension of the many different authors who wrote the New Testament collection of books and letters, they put themselves into the position of asserting an antique and male dominated interpretation and cultural background also as the norm for our current cultural circumstances nearly 2000 years later. This can create great tension between spiritual leaders and their followers. When spiritual leaders take the New Testament literally, then they often have to condemn the current world as it is. When setting the historical time in which Jesus happened to be born absolute, spiritual leaders ignore the necessary hermeneutic practice of translating one context into another, seeking similarities, and acknowledging differences or incongruencies openly. Initially a literal use of New Testament Scriptures might seem to make things easier. However, a literal approach can easily lead to the isolation and estrangement of spiritual leaders as listeners will feel judged and misunderstood by such literal interpretations. Stress and burnout can be the consequence for leaders who believe that their literal interpretation is the only “right one” and everybody else is “wrong”. This kind of thinking can lead to listeners/followers completely rejecting the spiritual leader as self-righteous and judgmental. The leader’s consequent feelings of isolation, resentment and anger/rage can lead to emotional burnout while they lock themselves into false dualistic “black and white”, “right and wrong” way of thinking. They are consequently in danger of embracing fanatism or fundamentalism as further draining and destructive stances that easily emerge when leaders are feeling rejected or challenged.
On the other hand a contextual/historical understanding of Scriptures opens up multidimensional ways of understanding historical and spiritual texts. The process of learning to tolerate ambivalences while openly acknowledging historical and contextual contradictions and differences can lead to a leader’s maturation and greater resilience. Parallel to the spiritual leaders’ increasing flexibility of considering all contexts involved, listeners/followers will also feel considered and understood. The relational and spiritual connections between spiritual leaders and their communities are strengthened. Spiritual leaders’ experiences of “literalism burn out” can be reduced or prevented.
All of us spiritual leaders are encouraged to seek additional and/or ongoing education to learn about the historical and contextual use of all religious scriptures. Professional spiritual leaders need to lead others by becoming deeply contextual while “holding the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other” as the Swiss theologian Karl Barth asserted.
Spiritual Leader Burnout reason number 4:
Neglecting the “body” versus achieving holistic wellness
The role of a spiritual leaders can tempt us to focus too much on and idealize our mind and spirit while discounting our physical dimension. This often has to do with one’s religion’s discounting of the “flesh” as the inferior dimension of life. Having the daily task of preaching, teaching and leading others in spiritual matters is a rewarding and difficult job. Some spiritual leaders neglect their own physical health because they identify completely with their spiritual role and regard it the most important, over and above their own physical well-being. Some actually falsely believe that sacrificing their own bodies as part of God’s calling or will. Others would like to take care of their bodies, but are being swept away with the stress of a 24/7 job of being “professional care providers”. They are aware of their physical needs, but regret and suffer from stress that leads to their neglect or complete lack of self-care.
How do spiritual leaders overcome such internal and external obstacles to physical self-care and well being? The first step is to admit that one’s physical wellbeing is indeed the basis for everything else. Without a healthy body, none of our emotional or spiritual care will be possible over a long period of time. The second step is putting physical self-care in one’s calendar and regarding it as important as everything else. Finding a wellness coach who can design a personalized plan can be a new beginning, or joining a community that focuses on healthy life style choices like healthy eating or exercising. If alcohol or drug addiction has become a secret regular coping mechanism, joining a regular AA group will be the first step of a physical recovery. Here in Atlanta spiritual leaders are fortunate to have access to an amazing resource in the wellness coach Karen Webster who is specialized working with clergy to improve their physical wellbeing. She is the executive director and co-founder of the Healthy Seminarians Healthy Church Initiative.
Spiritual Leader Burnout reason number 3:
“Spiritual Idealism versus Spiritual Realism”
I have watched many professional and lay spiritual leaders burn out, when their own spirituality gets stuck in a phase I want to call “Spiritual Idealism”. This is the phase in one’s spiritual development where one holds onto certain phrases or truths no matter what. We recite those truths over and over, and offer them to others at any opportunity. Those scripture verses or wisdom words are meant to comfort, give hope, strengthen and often also distract from one’s distress or negative feelings. Like spiritual “good feel” pills, those over and over recited spiritual words like: “God does not give us more than we can handle” or “God always protects his own” become phrases we use often. However, these wise sounding words usually begin to loose their meaning over the years when reality proves otherwise. Many times life gives people more than they can handle or good God fearing people are not protected from harm or crisis experiences. Spiritual Idealism can lead to burn out, as the gap between those tightly held ideas and the experienced reality becomes broader and broader. Helplessness and doubt creep up in the spiritual leaders who uphold those idealistic phrases and notions, but no real spiritual growth happens anymore. Outside expectations remain as to have all the answers and to “fix everything”, and thus many spiritual leaders start performing. They become actors who deep inside know that their words are empty. However, “the show must go on”. Letting go of such spiritual platitudes and facing the raw emotions that come with the many unanswered questions of reality invites us into the next stage of spiritual development: “spiritual realism”. The breaking of false images of God and the letting go of our comfortable answers that were meant to fix quickly what cannot be fixed as it is too complex, actually produce spiritual growth. Letting go of old believes creates the fertile ground for new, more open and more aware ways of seeking God. And when spiritual leaders begin to seek God again in their every day reality (without having to fix or to give an immediate answer) they gain humility and a new authenticity that both become wonderful spiritual antidotes against burnout.
One way to enter “spiritual realism” and leave “spiritual idealism” behind is to covenant with a Spiritual Director. A Spiritual Director is a wonderful support and guide during times of sometimes painful spiritual growth, especially when our idealism dies due to overwhelming life events or due to spiritual burnout. Many Episcopal churches have spiritual directors on staff or Monasteries offer spiritual retreats and spiritual direction.