Counsel For Ministry

I was checking on reactions to the latest liturgical document, when I ran across this query:

(O)ver the past year I feel myself falling into more and more. Interpersonal, quasi-political things bother me more deeply than ever, and my coping mechanisms are wearing down fast. …

So my question: I don’t want to become the next dramatic burn-out story in sacred music — All you life-timers, … how do you do it? What strategies do you use to cope, to get by, to thrive?

… (I)s there some way for people with normal human emotions to endure and succeed in this kind of work?

I have seen many friends and colleagues transition out of ministry in the last decades. Sometimes that was a lament, and sometimes I interpreted it as a relief. In an ideal church, it might be more of the latter than the former, but I don’t see that happening.

Each individual will do better or not so well with some of the practices I’ve tried, stuck with, or discarded. Here are some:

  1. Daily prayer life. I confess I switch between several and I have difficulty latching on to more than two at a time. Lectio Divina. Ignatian Examen. Liturgy of the Hours. Centering Prayer. Daily Mass. That is the order they seem to have worked for me. The key to daily prayer, whatever it might be, are twofold. Pick something and stick with it, even when it doesn’t seem to be working. I find myself surprised at a turn in the road that something ineffable has happened in the intervening months since I renewed or recommitted to a particular practice.
  2. If number one is working, it might be time to get a spiritual director to guide through the navigation of one’s Christian life. Note: this isn’t the same as a counselor or therapist.
  3. A weekly day off which is inviolate. My last parish gave me two. 3a would be to cultivate a hobby away from music or religion. For me, it’s been playing backgammon and bridge, joining the local astronomy club, going to sporting events, taking day trips to see museums and sites in other cities nearby, painting, and especially visiting libraries regularly.
  4. An annual retreat, longer than an overnight or weekend. A vacation alone might count, like a week at a lake cottage or mountain cabin. But monasteries or retreat centers have always worked best for me.
  5. Connecting with colleagues, especially informally. I think back to my first years in ministry, and I valued the companionship of both the diocesan liturgy commission and my Twelve-Step group. They helped me through three very difficult years.
  6. For me, a counterweight to social media has been to seriously cultivate a sense of gratitude in my parish. Call me a pollyanna for looking on the bright side, but I found that encouraging people, affirming the good they do (even if it seemed in my view too little), and trying to interact with colleagues positively has helped. My last two years in Washington there were times when I failed to say thank you to people who, in my opinion, gave poor homilies, mishandled parishioners, vanished when there was work to be done, or the like.
  7. As a corollary to #5, it does help to say “I’m sorry.” Even when it seems to cost some political capital.

One very important thing that started working for me about twenty-some years ago. Even if a volunteer has bombed and especially if it looks bad on them and me, I will say thank you. The psalm was flubbed, and I will still express gratitude. I don’t say, “Thank you, but …” I can appreciate they gave it a try. And when someone has done a good job, I will get specific: an insightful homily, a reading that was clearly well-prepared, a good talk at a workshop or retreat.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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