Spiritual Leader Burnout reason number 3:
“Spiritual Idealism versus Spiritual Realism”
I have watched many professional and lay spiritual leaders burn out, when their own spirituality gets stuck in a phase I want to call “Spiritual Idealism”. This is the phase in one’s spiritual development where one holds onto certain phrases or truths no matter what. We recite those truths over and over, and offer them to others at any opportunity. Those scripture verses or wisdom words are meant to comfort, give hope, strengthen and often also distract from one’s distress or negative feelings. Like spiritual “good feel” pills, those over and over recited spiritual words like: “God does not give us more than we can handle” or “God always protects his own” become phrases we use often. However, these wise sounding words usually begin to loose their meaning over the years when reality proves otherwise. Many times life gives people more than they can handle or good God fearing people are not protected from harm or crisis experiences. Spiritual Idealism can lead to burn out, as the gap between those tightly held ideas and the experienced reality becomes broader and broader. Helplessness and doubt creep up in the spiritual leaders who uphold those idealistic phrases and notions, but no real spiritual growth happens anymore. Outside expectations remain as to have all the answers and to “fix everything”, and thus many spiritual leaders start performing. They become actors who deep inside know that their words are empty. However, “the show must go on”. Letting go of such spiritual platitudes and facing the raw emotions that come with the many unanswered questions of reality invites us into the next stage of spiritual development: “spiritual realism”. The breaking of false images of God and the letting go of our comfortable answers that were meant to fix quickly what cannot be fixed as it is too complex, actually produce spiritual growth. Letting go of old believes creates the fertile ground for new, more open and more aware ways of seeking God. And when spiritual leaders begin to seek God again in their every day reality (without having to fix or to give an immediate answer) they gain humility and a new authenticity that both become wonderful spiritual antidotes against burnout.
One way to enter “spiritual realism” and leave “spiritual idealism” behind is to covenant with a Spiritual Director. A Spiritual Director is a wonderful support and guide during times of sometimes painful spiritual growth, especially when our idealism dies due to overwhelming life events or due to spiritual burnout. Many Episcopal churches have spiritual directors on staff or Monasteries offer spiritual retreats and spiritual direction.