Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Priests and pastors shoulder a huge emotional burden, but they're burning out ... alone

Priesthood may be a calling, but no one can go it alone, writes CBC contributor Ainsley Hawthorn.
Parish priests have a diverse set of responsibilities, including helping people through emotionally distressing times. (Shutterstock)

When we were 16, one of my closest friends told me he wanted to be a priest. I must have looked as shocked as I felt, because he reassuringly added "a Protestant priest, dear."

He read me right.

Having been raised Catholic, my mind jumped straight to celibacy, a concept that made my hormonal teenage mind reel. I was relieved to hear my friend wasn't committing to a life of total abstinence. For a moment, I had been afraid that I didn't know him at all.

Celibacy aside, I was still puzzled. I couldn't imagine joining the clergy. I realized that part of the reason I was confused was because I had no idea what being a priest entailed.

What do priests actually do?

A surprisingly diverse set of responsibilities

Twenty years later, my friend and I are still close, he is indeed ordained and working, and I've somehow managed to befriend other priests in the meantime here in Newfoundland and Labrador. As a result, I've had a chance to see what it means to be a full-time member of the Christian clergy, and it's not what I expected.

The most visible aspect of religious ministry is, of course, its rituals.

Priesthood may be a calling — but no one can go it alone.

In addition to theology, learning to lead worship and perform blessings is part of any would-be priest's training. They even receive specialized coaching on details like how to swing a censer and how to hold a newborn so it doesn't slip into the baptismal font.

Beyond rites, parish priests have a surprisingly diverse set of responsibilities.

Doctors, nurses, therapists and others — including clergy — are at risk of injury because they regularly witness the intense suffering of others. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

They need to be proficient in creative writing and public speaking to deliver their weekly sermons.

They play the role of manager to church staff and volunteers, oversee church properties, fundraise for the parish, and develop outreach programs. One of their most important duties, though, is pastoral care.

"Pastor" derives from the Latin word for "shepherd," and "pastoral care" refers to the many ways priests are expected to tend to their flocks. It includes not only providing spiritual guidance, but creating a sense of community, giving emotional support, and offering counsel.

On call: 24/7

Despite the declining role of churches in our society, priests are still called on to help people through some of the most difficult moments in their lives.

They visit ailing parishioners in the hospital, administer last rites to those who don't recover, conduct their funerals, and comfort their families.

They counsel couples through marital strife, divorce, and widowhood. They support church members who are affected by addiction, violence, homelessness, and poverty.

Like first responders, parish priests and church leaders are on call. They must be available when a parishioner has an emergency and urgently needs their care.

I didn't fully understand the magnitude of the emotional support work that parish priests do until my friend told me he was spending much of his time at the hospital with a family that was losing their toddler to a terminal illness. He was there afterward, too, as they grieved their loss.

Unlike therapists, parish priests do not have an internal, organized support system. (Alan Diaz/The Associated Press)

Cumulative trauma

In recent decades, we've gained a better understanding of the effect that helping people through trauma can have on the helpers.

Doctors, nurses, psychologists, therapists, and social workers are just some of the professionals who are at risk of compassion fatigue, burnout, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of regularly witnessing the intense suffering of others.

These ailments are caused by what's called secondary or vicarious trauma. When someone describes a painful life event, an empathetic listener will feel grief, fear or anxiety on a small scale, like an echo of the original pain.

Almost all of us have experienced this type of emotional strain when our family members or friends confide in us about their tribulations, and, usually, we can put our feelings aside to support those who need us without suffering any long-term consequences.

When you hear about the trauma of others every day, though, the effect is cumulative. The stress builds up and can lead to mental health problems.

Like first responders, parish priests and church leaders are on call. They must be available when a parishioner has an emergency and urgently needs their care.

This is why it's considered best practice for therapists and counsellors to be in therapy themselves. It gives them a chance to process the trauma they're taking on, which in turn helps them to remain calm and impartial when meeting with their own clients.

For parish priests, however, there is no internal, organized support system. It must be difficult to turn to fellow clergy, who are under strain from ministering to their own parishes. Most priests are supervised by a bishop, but the bishop's control over their careers may make priests reluctant to fully express their emotions, lest they be deemed unfit for the job.

Not every priest is equally invested in pastoral care, of course, and not every priest is good at it.

But as we as a society put more emphasis on mental health, we should be mindful of the supports that priests and other clergy provide, especially in rural areas where access to services is limited. The parish priest remains a vital, free source of counselling to community members that might not otherwise have access to it.

Priests are in need of a process to help them cope with the emotional impact of their work.

Priesthood may be a calling —  but no one can go it alone.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ainsley Hawthorn

Freelance contributor

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.