A Way Out of Burnout: Cultivating Differentiated Leadership Through Lament

Some interesting (and provocative) thoughts from the world of church leadership. “Lament” is not prominent in our culture anymore, at least not in our official culture… and one could wonder how to translate these ideas into a secular setting. Nevertheless, there is much to ponder here and I would feel that all in leadership positions – or roles susceptible to burnout – could benefit from reading this, whether they have religious faith or not.

I found the following paragraphs (of what is a long paper) especially resonated:


Leaders who are most likely to function poorly physically or emotionally are those who have failed to maintain a well-differentiated position. Either they have accepted the blame owing to irresponsibility and constant criticism of others, or they have gotten themselves into an overfunctioning position (that is, they tried too hard) and rushed in where angels and fools both fear to tread.[12]

Many programs often aim to cure clergy burnout by offering retreats that focus on rest and relaxation. However, Friedman asserts, “Resting and refreshment do not change triangles. Furthermore, because these programs focus on the burned-out ‘family’ member, they can actually add to his or her burden if such individuals are inclined to be soul searchers to begin with.”[13] These same soul-searching and empathetic clergy are vulnerable to seeing the overwhelming burdens that they carry for others as crosses that they ought to bear. Friedman calls this way of thinking “sheer theological camouflage for an ineffective immune system.”[14] When clergy bear other people’s burdens, they are encouraging others not to take personal responsibility. And often in bearing other people’s burdens, clergy easily tend to ignore their own “burdens” (ie. marriage issues, financial problems, etc.) and thus fail to be personally responsible for themselves.


London also discusses how “lament” and in some ways “passing the buck onto God” has Biblical roots:

God responds with sympathy to Jesus’ ad deum accusation and lament. Furthermore, one may easily interpret the empty tomb at the end of the Gospel as a sign of God’s ultimate response to Jesus’ lament: the resurrection (Mark 16:4-7). In the psalms of lament and in the cry of dereliction, we see that God does not respond with hostility but with a sympathetic openness to our struggle, our need for someone to blame and, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, our “genuine covenant interaction.”[34] God responds with sympathetic openness to Jesus’ ad duem accusation and then dispels the blame and emotional burden that no human could ever bear. Jesus receives the blame that humans cast upon him and then gives it to God who receives it, absorbs it and dispels it. Jesus let go of the blame by giving it to God. His cry of dereliction became his cry for differentiation. In this way, Jesus serves as a role model for leaders who receive blame from others and then need to differentiate in order to not take accusations personally. By practicing lament, leaders can turn the ad hominem accusations against themselves into ad deum accusations against God, who responds with sympathetic openness while receiving and dispelling the blame. Moreover, leaders can respond with empathy to the suffering of others, knowing that they will not have to bear the emotional burden that they have taken on, indefinitely. They can let go of the emotional burden by passing it on to God through the practice of lament.

This “passing of the buck” to God does not encourage irresponsibility. Rather, it gives the emotional baggage away to the only One who can truly bear it, thus freeing the other to take personal responsibility, without feeling weighed down by unbearable burdens. With this practice, a pastor can therefore receive blame and emotional baggage from parishioners in a pastoral setting because they can differentiate through lament. They can take the blame like Jesus because they, like Jesus, can also pass the buck to God through ad deum accusation. Eventually, the pastor will want to teach the parishioners to redirect their human need to blame onto God as well so as to occlude the cycle of scapegoating in the community.[


Daniel DeForest London

This is the final paper I wrote for the class “Leading Through Lament” with Dr. Donn Morgan at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.


On August 1, 2010, New York Times published an article titled “Taking a Break From the Lord’s Work,” which began with the following statements:  “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”[1] Although these are troubling reports, some of the statistics that came out of a study conducted by Fuller Theological Seminary in the late 1980s prove more disturbing: “80 percent [of pastors] believe that pastoral ministry is affecting their families negatively, 90 percent felt they were not adequately trained to cope with the ministry demands placed upon them, 70 percent…

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Less-than-busy doctors: “The Beetle Hunter” Arthur Conan Doyle

S J Perelman wrote a series of New Yorker articles titled “Cloudland Revisited”, wherein he re-read or re-watched various books and movies of his youth. In what now seems a slightly grating way , he invariably finds them ludicrous pulp. Anyhow, in “Doctor, What Big Green Eyes You Have”, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories come in for the treatment. In this, Perelman writes:

“Petrie, I have travelled from Burma not in the interests of the British Government merely, but in the interest of the entire white race, and I honestly believe – though I pray I may be wrong – that its survival depends largely on the success of my mission.” Can Petrie, demands Smith, spare a few days from his medical duties for “the strangest business, I can promise you, that ever was recorded in fact or fiction”? He gets the expected answer: “I agreed readily enough for, unfortunately, my professional duties were not onerous.” The alacrity with which doctors of that epoch deserted their practice has never ceased to impress me. Holmes had only to crook his finger and Watson went bowling away in a four wheeler, leaving his patients to fend for themselves. If the foregoing is at all indicative, the mortality rate of London in the nineteen-hundreds must have been appalling.


My understanding is that Arthur Conan Doyle had a quiet career as a private ophthalmologist before literary work overtook his medical efforts. Of course, the structure of medicine as a career was very different then. The medical student and junior doctor of popular and popular-ish fiction tends to have more free time than is the norm nowadays.

Conan Doyle’s short story The Beetle Hunter is very much in this mould. Perhaps this paragraph reflects more about Conan Doyle’s own view of the medical professional than strictly being a piece of social history, but there you go:

I had just become a medical man, but I had not started in practice, and I lived in rooms in Gower Street. The street has been renumbered since then, but it was in the only house which has a bow-window, upon the left-hand side as you go down from the Metropolitan Station. A widow named Murchison kept the house at that time, and she had three medical students and one engineer as lodgers. I occupied the top room, which was the cheapest, but cheap as it was it was more than I could afford. My small resources were dwindling away, and every week it became more necessary that I should find something to do. Yet I was very unwilling to go into general practice, for my tastes were all in the direction of science, and especially of zoology, towards which I had always a strong leaning. I had almost given the fight up and resigned myself to being a medical drudge for life, when the turning-point of my struggles came in a very extraordinary way.

A story in which a recent medical graduate now is immersed in idleness would be seen as fatally implausible. He or she would be doing pro bono work down the lab, sequencing some beetle genome or other. Of course, this striving means we are Much Better People than those of long ago. Doesn’t it?








Why are doctors so unhappy?

From the UK junior doctor’s strike to survey after survey , there seems to be growing evidence that a doctor’s lot is not a happy one. Or is it not so much a “doctor’s lot” as a “doctor’s nature?”

I’ve been interested in this question (quite apart from the personal relevance!) ever since working on this review for the TLS of various medical biographies. As I wrote:

In the Western world, at least, the medical profession generally enjoys high status. For sociologists, doctors incarnate various forms of power disparities. Medical science and medical technology have made spectacular progress since the Second World War; procedures such as LASIK laser eye surgery, to give just one example, that once would have seemed magical, are now near-routine.

And yet an air of discontent is evident in much of the discourse of modern medicine. Like many others, the medical profession is under question, if not attack, on a range of fronts. Complementary remedies are increasingly popular, often with practitioners as well as patients, despite the advent of evidence-based medicine and numerous books that have discredited their claims to efficacy. A succession of scandals in Britain and elsewhere has undermined public trust in doctors and nurses. Lewis Terman’s classic study of “gifted” individuals, published in 1954, found that physicians tended to feel inferior relative to those of comparable attainment in other fields, and the Grant Study, George Vaillant’s epic survey of adult development, following the Harvard Class of 1944, identified self-doubt as the feature distinguishing physicians from control subjects.

There was somewhat more I wrote originally, but for reasons of space, had to be cut


. Much was based on my reading of Myers and Gabbard’s wonderful The Physician as Patient – a book I reviewed some years ago . As I wrote then, Myers and Gabbard illustrate the power of the case vignette, a somewhat neglected form nowadays, and I also wondered about the  self flagellation possibilities of audit (linked I guess to the Imperative Voice one gets so much of in medical journals)

I didn’t write in my 2008 review of one of the points Myers and Gabbard make – based on psychoanalytic literature – about the much-vaunted grandiosity and pomposity of doctors – the “god complex.” In their reading, this (when it occurs) is a defence mechanism against the ultimate power of death against all our efforts. Personally, there are only a handful of doctors I have come across – and at this point I must have come across hundreds in various contexts – who in any way lived up to the “god complex” stereotype.

Are doctors less happy than other citizens? Surveys and so forth can no doubt be adduced to prove the point (though I must admit after the US Presidential Election having an even greater scepticism about ANY survey or poll being used as “evidence”)  and the lived experience of doctors is increasingly one of a beleaguered profession overwhelmed by competing and constant demands. Is this because of specific issues – funding, resources, de-professionalisation – of the contemporary world?  Is it because of a cultural shift from doctor-knows-best to consumerist healthcare? Or is it something deeper and perhaps near-inherent to the kind of person who is drawn to the practice of medicine? Or something deeper and perhaps near-inherent to the practice of medicine itself?

There is, on one level, more discourse about health and healthcare than ever before. On another, there is often a a euphemistic, evasive quality to much of it. So many terms – from “evidence-based” to “patient centered” – have become godterms that conceal the complexity and diversity of healthcare (both complexity and diversity are themselves “godterms”, increasingly, but I use them very deliberately here) and the contending priorities at play.

This is an area ripe for pompous theorising about Society and Culture and so on, and perhaps I have done my share of this already. One final thought: the WHO definition of health is:

a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

Do you, reader, really believe that? Do you really, when you think of what it is to be healthy, think of”complete social well-being”?  What is “complete physical, mental and social well-being” anyway?

The point is not to denigrate “well being” in some way – or not to recognise the value of a positive rather than negative definition of health. The point is, this  grandiose definition has consequences – underlying not just health policy and practice but how we think about what it means to be healthy, and also what doctors (and nurses, and psychologists, and OTs, and physios, and everyone else with apologies for those left out) are trying to achieve. I would argue that the WHO definition is something out of a kind of worldly messianiac pseudo-religion rather than a workable basis for a human-scale endeavour.