Preventing priest burnout amidst shortages
In my travels to give parish missions, I’ve come face to face with the ramifications of the declining number of priests. I have not experienced this where I live in Florida, because we benefit from the help of retired priests who move to Florida to enjoy our beautiful weather.
One parish was in a rural area with small churches that are not very close together and where every priest in the diocese is responsible for multiple communities. Another parish was in a city suburb with small churches that are close together but where there is still (barely) one priest per parish; soon parishes will be merged and facilities will be shut down and sold off.
In the rural diocese, because of the distance between communities, the priests have to help them merge into a single community while keeping and using each original, separate facility. (This was one of the reasons why I was asked to come give my parish renewal mission, “Becoming an Easter Parish”.) Many priests, I was informed, simply exist in survival mode, doing little to evangelize or grow ministries or anything else that requires more than minimum effort and time – in order to not burn out. The priest I had come to serve is experiencing severe burnout, because he refuses to do just the minimum. He cares.
He told me that before I arrived, when he had excitedly told other priests that he was providing his partner-parishes with a Lenten Parish Mission, they asked him, “Why?” When he answered that he wanted to build up parishioner involvement and increase ministries, they said he was nuts.
During my week there, I analyzed the causes of his burnout and offered a few solutions. Sadly, some solutions are impossible, and some will require great effort and personal commitment to follow through with.
My first suggestion was to import an assistant priest from overseas (which is being done in my own diocese and my own parish – we have a priest from the Congo and a priest from India helping my pastor). I was told that the local bishop won’t allow it, and his reasons are not clear, perhaps having something to do with the fear of scandals because their backgrounds are unknown, although this worry is easily overcome in my own diocese by the process of vetting the imported priests via my diocese’s chancellor conversing with their superiors or bishops.
My second idea was for each parish to raise up a deacon from within their community – deacons who would be hired as parish managers, but that diocese has no diaconate training program yet, and the bishop has been very slow at doing anything about it.
Well, then a lay person should be hired as a business manager so the priest can focus on sacramental ministry. I did not discover why this has not been done. Finances? The same source of salary for a second priest should be available to a business manager. Perhaps this solution – letting a lay person essentially run a parish – is just too outside the box of what some bishops and priests are comfortable with. Meanwhile, the priests are burning out or else doing the bare minimum, and either way, the parish suffers, the Body of Christ on earth suffers, and those who need to be evangelized are ignored – thus, the Kingdom of God suffers.
One big reason why the priest I worked with is burnt out is that he has no personal sanctuary, no getaway respite oasis for much needed time off. His home is the rectory that doubles as the parish office. Either this needs to be remodeled so he has total privacy, or the office needs to be moved out of the rectory and the money to pay for the new office facilities needs to come from divine intervention. After business hours, when the rectory is not busy with staff, meetings, appointments, ringing phones and ringing doorbells, the phones still ring and people still come knocking. And because this priest cares, he answers every call. He virtually has no day off, ever.
He has been his own worst enemy by not seeking a place to go to for an entire day off once a week every week. And he, by his own choice, has not taken a vacation in seven years. This is the solution that will require great effort and personal commitment to follow through with, but I don’t think he’s got any energy left to overcome the traps that keep him on-site and working every day of every year.
Why isn’t the bishop (or whomever in the diocese is in charge of priest personnel) recognizing the dangers and enforcing time off? That too takes a lot of effort. It’s difficult and time consuming to retrain the mindsets of priests who don’t take good care of themselves, just as it is difficult to motivate priests into greater service when they are preventing burnout by doing minimum work. This is a cultural problem and a psychological problem, but if not dealt with, the shortage of priests – and all of its impacts – will only worsen.
For every problem, there is a solution in God’s hands. Let us pray – not just for new vocations (as we already have been doing for many years) but for a renewal in the Church that will overcome the old mindsets that hold us back from seeking, finding, and implementing the solutions that God has in mind.
Do I hear an Amen?
© 2012 by Terry A. Modica