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Finding Our Way
by Marlene Sweeney
During winter, DREs might face more than cancelled classes due to weather.
During winter, DREs might face more than cancelled classes due to weather.

Winter in the Midwest is full of challenges. Snow, ice, and sub-zero weather are the obvious nemesis to most, but this is also the time of year when many of us face burnout.

Those of us in ministry can find burnout a tough subject to discuss—much less own as our personal struggle. We’d rather dismiss our tiredness, lethargy, or aloofness as a seasonal disorder or the winter blahs.

As we struggle through our daily routines, often feeling overwhelmed and under-appreciated, we sense our ministry has become just a job. We hesitate to tell another that our passion for building God’s kingdom has depleted us of what we thought was an endless supply of energy and enthusiasm. We long for those joyful days of vitality and vision. We want God to save us from ourselves, yet our guilt, lack of motivation, even anger can keep burnout closeted and away from a place of healing and ownership.

Yet, like all of life’s challenges, burnout must be dealt with. What better time than Lent!

The 40-Day Challenge

Our culture seems to have discovered the value of counting days in anticipation of some end result. We cannot help but notice the plethora of articles, websites, and books that promise “ ___ days to transformation.” Whether it’s the 27-day self-improvement plan, the 10-day diet, or the 30-day makeover, we are invited to embrace setting goals to be accomplished over a designated time that will lead to change.

It is no small wonder that the Church, in her wisdom (long before instant communication), gave us the gift of 40 days to turn our lives toward God. Lent is the time we can focus on our bodies, souls, and spirits—all of which are affected by burnout—and seek to replenish and restore ourselves so we can once again embrace the holiness of our vocations.

Restore Your Body

What DRE has not sacrificed his or her time or physical well-being in order to be with/for another? DREs often function without food, sleep, or exercise—all for the sake of their responsibilities. “Compassion fatigue” is a descriptive used to describe this experience, referring to professionals who are experiencing burnout. It speaks to the self-violation that often occurs in the name of “being there” for others.

Taking care of our own bodies for 40 days might look quite different from our childhood Lenten seasons of “giving-up” favorite treats. In fact, I would guess that more ministers need to add treats to their daily routines: healthy snacks, regular walks, restful moments of relaxation, and early bed times.

When our bodies are restored, we face challenges with a different perspective.

Renew Your Soul

American essayist Agnes Repplier said, “It is not easy to find happiness in ourselves, and it is not possible to find it elsewhere.”

Tending to our souls for 40 days is the work of Lent. Rediscovering where our passions lie, tending to our daily spiritual practices, and listening to God are positive actions we can take.

One tired DRE admitted to me that in the midst of her hectic job, there were opportunities for daily prayer, devotions, meditation, and other opportunities to just show up and listen for God’s voice. Yet, she found herself looking everywhere but where she was.

Is that so unusual? When we feel detached, we often miss the obvious. Our frantic search sends us in a thousand directions. Rather, tending the soul often means “staying home.” To reintroduce ourselves to God in our daily lives involves paying attention to God’s presence right where we are.

Perhaps for the next 40 days we might journal each day about our God-sightings, asking ourselves, “Where did I see God’s presence in my daily conversations today, in my co-workers, in my catechists?” Gradually, in noticing God’s movements, we once again will find the real treasure of God within.

The soul yearns to be united with the One who made it and, as the saints say, will not rest until this is accomplished.

Find Your Spirit

In her book titled Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive, clinical psychologist and author Joan Borysenko says “When I burn out, my most loving, creative self goes missing.”

When we suffer from burnout, we may not even recognize that we have lost the spirit in which we once operated. What’s more, people around us, especially in parish settings, may be hesitant to bring to our attention our obvious lack of joy and enthusiasm.

Ideally, you have a confidant who will confront you with gracious kindness, not criticism, so that you can consider options and actions. If your life has not provided that kind of support, seek it out, professionally or clinically. Prayer, meaningful conversations, laughs, guidance, a shared cup of coffee: These can be the hope-therapy we need during these 40 days of conversion.

Burnout can be a life-changing experience. Trusting in God’s promise, we will once again find the way, even if the road looks unfamiliar. It will lead to Easter.

Marlene Sweeney, M.Ed., MA, is a Certified Pastoral Associate in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Marlene is a writer and poet whose works have appeared in numerous books and periodicals. E-mail Marlene at

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