Professor offers steps for ministers to avoid burnout
August 9th, 2016
By Mark Pattison
WASHINGTON – C. Vanessa White, who has an extensive and impressive resume, knows all about burnout.
“For the past 10 years, I have been focused on the health of our community,” White said in an Aug. 5 presentation in Washington during the Aug. 5-7 African National Eucharistic Congress, rattling off such issues as obesity, diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure.
But in the case of White, an assistant professor of spirituality and ministry at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and a retreat master who has been in full-time ministry for half of her 60 years, it was a case of do as I say, not as I do.
As White freely admitted to her audience, just six years ago she was 40 pounds overweight, had a blood pressure reading of 160/90, had high cholesterol, was borderline diabetic, had trouble sleeping and had bouts of depression and anxiety.
“I was busy, busy, busy, busy, busy,” she said. “I didn’t have time to cook. I ate a lot of junk food. Popeye’s was my best friend.” White also took to wearing loose-fitting clothes to hide her increasing girth.
Today, though, she’s shed those 40 pounds, her blood pressure is back to normal – as are her blood glucose and cholesterol levels – she wakes up rested and has regained her ability to focus. Now, “I do ministry as a happy person, a joyful person,” White said, and no longer as somebody who is “wore out, laid out and flat out.”
“I’m still busy, busy, busy, busy, busy,” White said during her talk at the congress, held at The Catholic University of America, Washington. But the difference this time was “I decided I had to take care of myself,” she added.
It was not easy, and she encountered some false starts along the way, slipping into old, familiar – and bad – habits. One of those habits was saying yes to every request that came along. “I’m in ministry, right?” White remarked. “You say no to something, and you think you’re a bad person.”
It took a retreat for White to get back on track, she said in her talk, “Do Not Quench the Spirit: Care of Self and the Greatest Commandment.”
White said the element in the Jesus’ greatest commandment about “loving yourself” is “the part we forget about.”
“Jesus was very responsible and took care of himself,” she added. “He knew when to go away.”
She detailed four “loving practices” for reversing burnout and getting back on track: healing the body, enjoyment of life, sabbath time and what White called “an attitude of gratitude.” Best of yet, she said, each of the practices is biblically based.
In terms of healing the body, White said movement was one key, along with both eating and sleeping right. “I hate exercise,” she declared, but she pushed up a sleeve of her dress to reveal a Fitbit activity tracker on her wrist, saying she aims to walk 10,000 steps a day. “Begin treating the body like a temple of the Holy Spirit,” she said.
Enjoyment of life does not seem to come naturally for everybody, according to White: “We don’t need any sour saints,” she noted, recalling the verse in Proverbs 17 that says, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”
From August 11, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.