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.

INTRODUCTION

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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“Happy Organisations and Happy Workers” – blog post by Maria Quinlan

On the ARCH (Applied Research in Connected Health) website, research lead Dr Maria Quinlan  has a blog post entitled
“Happy Organisations and Happy Workers – a key factor in implementing digital health”

The whole is worth a read. Of course, having a happy organisation made up of happy workers is inherently important of itself, as well as from the point of view of implementing digital health. As Dr Quinlan writes in the first paragraph:

To paraphrase Tolstoy, “all happy organisations are alike; each unhappy organisation is unhappy in its own way.” The ability for healthcare organisations to innovate is a fundamental requirement for adopting and sustainably scaling digital health solutions.  If an organisation is unhappy, for example if it is failing to communicate openly and honestly, if staff feel overworked and that their opinion isn’t valued, it stands to reason that it will have trouble innovating and handling major complex transitions.

Reading this, I am struck by how important it is to make time in a day with an accumulation of pressing demands for reflection:

 

What these factors combine to achieve is happy, engaged workers – and happy workers are more effective, compassionate, and less likely to suffer burnout [2]. Clear objectives, praise, a sense that your voice matters – these can seem like fluffy ‘soft’ concepts and yet they are found over and over to be central to providing the right context within which new digital health innovations can flourish. Classic ‘high involvement’ management techniques – for example empowering team members to make decisions and not punishing them for every misstep are found to be key [1].  As Don Berwick of the Institute of Healthcare Improvement (IHI) says, people who feel joy in work are “not scared of data”, rather “joy is a resource for excellence” [3]

Managing what Sigal Barsade, Professor of Management at Wharton calls the ‘emotional’ culture of an organisation is a very important concept – especially in the healthcare environment which expects so much of staff [4]. Healthcare workers face pressures which many of us working in other fields can’t really comprehend, a recent systematic review found that clinicians have higher rates of suicidal ideation than the general population, with a high prevalence of burnout, psychiatric morbidity and depression linked to excessive workload [5].  Attempting to introduce innovative new ways of working within such constrained environments can be challenging to say the least. Exhausted workers, those with little time in their day for reflection, or those who work in organisations which fear failure are less likely to innovate [6].

Much of the rhetoric around healthcare innovation tends to be messianic in tone. A gap between this rhetoric and the messy, pressured reality of healthcare can diminish the credibility of innovators.

The concept of “adaptive reserve” is an important one, especially in the context of reforms and innovations being introduced into already pressured environments:

Drawing from their work researching healthcare organisations ability to handle complex transitions in the US, Jaen et al (2010) developed a 23-item scale measure for what they term ‘adaptive reserve’. Adaptive reserve is an internal capability for change which includes being agile; capable of continuous learning; and being adept at self-assessment, reflection and improvisation. The Adaptive Reserve questionnaire asks staff to rate their organisation according to a variety of statements which include statements such as; ‘we regularly take time to consider ways to improve how we do things’ and ‘this organisation is a place of joy and hope’.

Overall, this a fascinating blog post on an issue which is close to my heart. I intend to post some more on this topic over the next while.