Op-ed from Dr. Jamie Aten, founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College and Ed Stetzer, director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism
Lessons on Hurricane Katrina’s 11th anniversary on preventing clergy burnout from those that have been there…
Dear Louisiana Pastors,
On this day, the 11th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we want to share one of the most important ministry lessons we learned from experience, serving in the midst of disasters, and clergy interviews conducted in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster to ever strike our nation. Don’t forget to take care of yourself as you care for others.
For some of you the current Louisiana flood is your first experience with disaster ministry. Others likely pastored congregations that were affected by Katrina in some way. If not by the winds and rain then by the flood of people who evacuated to your communities in need of shelter. Today you are experiencing a different kind of flood. Regardless of your experience, you need to read this, because you are at risk of compassion fatigue and burnout.
Your church and community need your help now. But they are also going to need you later too.
You probably already realize this, but disaster recovery is a marathon not a sprint. If you are going to fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith (2 Timothy 4:7) you are going to have to make sure there’s enough in the “tank” to reach the finish line.
The following are some steps you can take to help keep you from burning out. Don’t just take our word for it, here’s what pastors from Hurricane Katrina have to say.
Hold on to faith
The Katrina pastors interviewed talked at length about clinging to their faith. Doing so provided a sense of peace, meaning, and purpose. Many of the Katrina pastors reported their faith had grown unexpectedly from being challenged in new ways. They talked about how their faith had been strengthened from grappling with the disaster around them.
The Katrina pastors also shared times of spiritual struggle and strain. Some shared about times when they felt distant from God and vice versa.
You’ve probably preached numerous sermons encouraging others to remember that God is with them even in times of trouble. Now is the time to practice what you preach. Here are just a few ideas from the Katrina pastors on how to practice/remember God’s presence.
Set aside special times for prayer, especially in the moments when you feel you don’t have time to pray. In those difficult times, we need prayer the most.
Try and view your situation from a different perspective. After losing his home to Katrina, one pastor shared, “We were probably there [the church nursery] sleeping for two weeks before we realized that the mural on the wall above our army cots was Noah’s Ark, and all the animals going into the ark … it was such a difficult time … but in that moment we laughed until we cried … we were ultimately reminded of God’s promise.”
Seek social support
Don’t hesitate to reach out to others for support. The Katrina pastors said their family and friends’ social support was critical to their staying healthy and to ministerial effectiveness. Be sure to take time out when you can to recharge by spending time with those you care about.
For instance, “I had, before the storm, a lone ranger kind of approach to ministry, and I’ve learned pretty quickly what I could not do. So, there was some learning, reaching out asking for help and asking for advice, and looking for ways people could come in and give you a hand,” said a Katrina pastor.
You might also consider trying to get out of the area for a day or two every once in a while to connect with others. One pastor and spouse tried to get out of the disaster zone on occasion for what they called, “Debris Free Weekends.”
Some of the pastors also invited friends and loved ones to come stay with them during periods they knew they needed extra support but didn’t feel like they could get away.
Also know when to get professional support. “I woke up one morning and didn’t recognize my wife or myself. I helped and helped so much I finally ‘broke.’ Spent a week in the hospital. Pastors sometimes need help too,” stated a Katrina pastor. Being a pastor doesn’t mean you are immune to common disaster struggles (e.g., stress, anxiety, depression).
The majority of clergy we interviewed described their Hurricane Katrina experience as traumatic. The pastors commonly described reports of what they referred to as “emotional breakdowns” (e.g., sadness, anger). They also said they put too much pressure on themselves to “keep it all together.”
Give yourself some grace, you are not just a minister, you are also a survivor. This flood is too big of a disaster to try and go it alone.
Establish a routine
Many of the Katrina clergy spoke in detail about the loss of “normalcy” they experienced as they moved forward after the storm. In times of disaster life can feel like it is changing day-to-day if not hour-to-hour during the response phase.
“Nothing is the same anymore, everything is different. Where I live is different. The people I talk to every day are different. I think I am even different,” said one Katrina pastor.
Temporary changes in their pastoral roles were also common, from shifts in their preaching style to an increase in outreach activities. In some cases, as described by researcher Bill Day at the Leavell Center, many churches moved – sometimes to other states, some closed, and others thrived. But, they did so by eventually getting back into routine.
The more you can try and get back to what you were doing in life before the flood, the better. We realize you can’t just go back to how things were, rather we are suggesting you try and carve out some calm in the chaos. Try to build in some structure as best as you can to your day. Familiar faces, schedules, and places can go a long way in helping buffer against burnout. There is something soothing and healing in routine.
Though this may be your new “normal” for some one, life will not always be the way it is now. Think of it as a stage of life that you are going through.
Set some boundaries
The flood has caused more work to be done than you’ll ever be able to accomplish in one day. “My cell phone and office phone have been ringing off the hook for months. It’s gotten so bad I had to get a separate cell phone so that my family could reach me, they are the only ones I’ve given the number too,” shared a Katrina pastor. Facing what can feel like unending daily challenges can feel disheartening. Recognize and admit that you can’t do it all. Then set some personal boundaries.
I’m not telling you to stop helping others. I’m not even going to ask you to strive for balance right now. Sally Schwer Canning, an expert on self-compassion suggests there’s no such thing as true “balance.” Rather, she compares life more akin to surfing. Noting it’s okay to ride cresting waves of business as long as we remember to get off the “board” every once in a while and enjoy still waters.
Here’s a good example on how to set boundaries from one of the Katrina pastors, “I tried to pace myself and acknowledge my limitations and do what I could do, and then when I couldn’t do any more, I was very upfront about that.”
Overall, be sure to create space for rest, eating healthy, exercising, and unwinding when possible.
Yes, you are doing God’s work as you care for others. But keep in mind that even Christ sought out moments and times of solitude, fellowship, and renewal during his ministry on Earth. You would be wise to do the same. Don’t get so caught up in the work of the Lord that you forget the Lord of the work – and his call to rest.
Jamie Aten & Ed Stetzer
Jamie D. Aten is founder and director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Disaster Ministry Conference at Wheaton College. His latest books include, as co-author, the “Disaster Ministry Handbook” and, as co-editor, “Spiritually Oriented Psychotherapy for Trauma.” Follow him on Twitter at @drjamieaten or jamieaten.com.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission and Evangelism at Wheaton College and is executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism