Spiritual Leader Burnout reason number 9:
Trying to be perfectly “holy” versus trying to become “whole”
Some spiritual leaders have begun to reduce their worldview and value system to a microscopic spiritual perspective. Those leaders quote Scripture verses at every occasion and basically see everything from a spiritual angle. On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with this, as after all their role in the community is to uphold the spiritual perspective and offer and represent a certain spiritual value system. On the other hand, burnout happens when spiritual leaders focus exclusively on “becoming holy”, in the sense of becoming “spiritually perfect”. For some spiritual leaders reducing their efforts to “living a holy lifestyle”, of “reaching certain spiritual heights” while “representing God on earth”, leads to burnout in daily painstaking perfectionistic attempts to no longer present as human. The understanding of becoming “holy” can be observed in some Christian spiritual leaders’ perfectionistic pursuit of overcoming their “flesh”, doing away with their “old Adam (Eve)” and avoiding their “sins”. This narrow (and mis-)understanding of “holiness” can lead to burnout as a reduction of Spiritual leaders’ life quality, which is experienced as the loss of the freedom of being authentic and the loss of admission to have human flaws and shortcomings like everybody else.
The notion of “becoming whole” on the other hand means that one’s body, one’s raw emotions, one’s authentic vulnerable and human self with all flaws and particularities are being integrated into the spiritual leader’s awareness and identity. When spiritual leaders stop presenting themselves as “holy” or “holier”, professional burn out is being prevented. When “wholeness” (understood as”healing and “integration”) become the predominate goal of the spiritual leaders for self and for others, the notion of “holiness” is being transformed into a life giving spiritual practice that overcomes spiritual perfectionist striving. The striving for wholeness means the ongoing practice of accepting and healing of one’s body, one’s emotions, one’s personal story, one’s strengths and one’s “sins” and shortcomings. When spiritual leaders allow themselves to remain “human”, they become “whole”, which in itself is deeply liberating and prevents the burn out of spiritual perfectionism.
I suggest Parker Palmer’s books who focuses on the development of authenticity as the basis for all spiritual discernment, ministry and spiritual education.
First we learn that Jesus was the baby of a young couple who were in the midst of travelling and the conditions he was born into were less than desirable for a birth or a baby. Then we hear that because of a threat to his life, his parents had to take him as a young infant to Egypt, so that he would not be killed as their first born son. Jesus was a refugee. Did he have to be quiet as a refugee child? Was he traumatized?
My mother and her two sisters were all born during the second world war. My grandfather was a German soldier fighting in the war, and my grandmother was left alone with those three infants who were born during difficult times very close to each other. She then had to take her three small daughters and flee from the Russian soldiers. They found refuge at a farm in the country side. The place was so filled with refugees that my mother and her sisters had to sit under the table as toddlers. My grandmother had to make sure the toddlers were quiet, so that the farmer’s family would not throw them out.
I remember when I was two or three, my parents rented an upper floor in the house of an elderly couple. Everyday after lunch the couple would take an afternoon nap, and my older brother and I had to be quiet above their heads. I remember my mother’s urging that “I had to sleep and be quiet”. It felt like a “life and death” urgency. Somehow I got the message that we could be thrown out if we were not quiet.
I remember when my daughters were three years old and would not want to be quiet and take a nap, I felt this deep “life and death” urgency about them having to be quiet and sleep. I think I scared them in my attempt to “make them sleep”. I felt deeply fearful, even though there was nobody anymore who could have threatened and thrown us out. Refugee trauma spans through generations.
When we church people sing “sleep in heavenly peace” during Christmas, we easily forget that Jesus was a refugee. We forget that Christmas involves trauma. Trauma that is unconsciously passed down for generations. God enters traumatic places. God identifies with refugees. God becomes a refugee. Our current world story has become a large refugee movement. And those who are not refugees need those who are on the move “to be quiet”.
Let us not “be quiet”. Let the church become a voice for refugees. Let us “God people” speak up for those hidden under tables. Let us be the voice for the refugee children who are still separated from their parents. For those whose very existence is being “hushed”, until we hear that yet another refugee child has died from lack of care.
We humans have lost the wisdom of genuinely resting and relaxing. We worry too much. We don’t allow our bodies to heal, and we don’t allow our minds and hearts to heal. Thich Nhat Hanh
Meditation: Today my fifteen year old daughter got inspired to clean out her room and start the New Year in a new way. She hauled away bags for Goodwill filled with items from her childhood that had become clutter, and that she felt she no longer needed. For Christmas she had gotten new bedding for her bed. Once she was done, her small room looked clean and clutter free, even spacious. After a long day of preparing, she is now resting and relaxing. These are “holy” (“healing”) days of resting in between the years. The past months had been very challenging for her with many painful growing experiences that teenagers have to go through. These days off are meant for her and for all of us to be a time of resting and relaxing. Besides sleeping long, I am engaging some gentle Yoga and meditation. I am also in need for my body, mind and heart to heal.
Prayer: Healing Spirit, we bring to you all our worries that are left from the old year: Painful experiences, worrisome memories and disheartened thoughts. Gift us with the ability to rest and relax. Be present as we become mindful and still. Wipe the healing tears that stream at times while we meditate. We trust in your presence to heal us from the inside out. Amen
“Meditation can help us embrace our worries, our fear, our anger; and that is very healing. We let our own natural capacity of healing do the work.” Thich Nhat Hanh
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