Time to talk – acedia and ‘ministerial meltdown’

 

Women and men who engage in Christian ministry often pour their hearts, souls, bodies and minds into their work and it can prove extremely challenging to balance self-care with ministry responsibilities. Thus, ‘burnout’ is liable to rear its head if care is not taken to minister to oneself. ‘Time to Talk’ Day encourages us to be open about mental health, sharing experiences and strategies. Here we introduce a new set of resources based on research that the Susanna Wesley Foundation has supported.

In 2015-16, The Susanna Wesley Foundation funded research by Rev Dr Alan Palmer – Deputy Lead Chaplain for the Ipswich Hospital NHS Trust – into the topic of ‘burnout’ and resilience in ministry, a topic of interest to him through personal experience, conversation and research. Alan Palmer connects the experience of burnout in ministry with the notion of acedia – the ‘noonday demon’ – which afflicted the early monastic church mothers and fathers. Its symptoms included “a mounting sense of exhaustion, compassion fatigue, loss of joy, purpose and fulfilment in his desert location and spiritual vocation” and in his introductory article, Palmer correlates it with a modern day “depletion of pastoral resilience” [1].

What has emerged from this research to this point is the following series of articles to be published in Holiness journal beginning late 2017 in which Alan Palmer surveys the literature from a number of interconnected disciplinary angles.

  • Acedia, its history and development
  • Echoes of acedia: introverts in the Church
  • Echoes of acedia: perfectionists in the Church
  • Echoes of acedia: depression in the Church
  • Echoes of acedia: compassion fatigue in the Church
  • Echoes of acedia: ‘burnout’ in the Church
  • A new paradigm: healthy Church
  • Dealing with the echoes of acedia: pastoral resilience.

In the first issue (Vol 3, Issue 2) he presents an overview of the series to appear, and offers the first article: Acedia, its history and development. As the title suggests, he explores the origins of the concept and experience of acedia in the early church, and explores the connection with the desert context.

We asked Alan about this series of articles and what drew him to this topic:

Q: You explain a little in your introductory article, what prompted you to study acedia, or ‘burnout’ in ministry – can you say more about this?

The fundamental ‘driver’ for my exploration of ‘Burnout’ or ‘Ministerial Meltdown’ as I have called it elsewhere, was my personal experience of ‘hitting the wall’ in terms of my own mental health in ministry. As a Senior Minister in a very large multi-staffed Church in Canada I had the traumatic experience of literally grinding to a halt emotionally, spiritually and physically. I also found that my experience as a pastor was far from unique, that literally thousands of my ministerial colleagues, particularly in the UK and North America were going through the same kinds of ‘ministerial disablement’. It was from this point that I wanted to pursue research and reflection on Ministerial Mental Maladies – to understand why and how, and to look for some answers.

Q: In your first article about the history of acedia, you list Snell’s four strategies for dealing with acedia [1]: start seeing boredom as a heresy, start loving the world passionately, start engaging with joy, and start approaching the world with wonder. There is an outward-facing intentionality to this list – how would you see these practices sitting alongside and balancing ‘interior’ practices of prayer and meditation?

The main problem with most approaches to ‘spirituality’ is balance. We tend to come across a way of structuring lives and then all rush to ‘that side of the boat’- causing a near capsize! What is needed here is a spiritual approach that takes on board the interior and the exterior together, as a unity. According to Hebrew understanding we are not a separate ‘body and soul’, we are a psychosomatic unity.  So, in fact, the interior elements of prayer and meditation are linked inextricably to the ability to express wonder and embrace joy, and so on. Both interior and exterior practices need ‘space and time’.

Q: What is the most significant, practical lesson or insight you have learned from your research so far?

To put this baldly, the shocking self-neglect that we clergy engage in! We have somehow thought that we can break all the rules in terms of spiritual, mental and physical wellbeing and just keep on going. Also, the congregations and denominations have in general ignored ways to stay healthy and keep their leaders healthy, too.

Q: What do you see as the next step in this research, either in terms of academic research, or practical application (or both)? In particular, how will it inform the workshop for Methodist ministers in London in March?

The next steps in terms of research is to look at how we can embed ‘grace and compassion’ into how we treat ourselves as serving clergy and to investigate further how Methodism (and other Denominational groups) can look again at their structures and protocols in terms of proactively supporting ministers’ and their families’ wellbeing.

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[1] Snell, R. J. (2015), Acedia and its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire, Kettering, OH: Angelico Press.