Avoiding Priest Burnout – What the Laity Can Do

Our parish priests have a staggering amount of responsibilities. Between Mass, confessions, baptisms, weddings, funerals, hospital visits, and managing the parish staff, their days are filled to the brim. And that doesn’t even take into account their own need for prayer, rest, and building relationships with their parishioners.

With so many responsibilities, it is easy for a priest to overextend himself and burnout.  So what can the laity do to help? Rev. Tony Cutcher, President of the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, stopped by Morning Air® to discuss priest burnout, and how to avoid it.

“We have to change our mindset, I think,” Fr. Tony said. “In modern America, we’re very much in a consumer mindset. And they look at me as a purveyor of goods and services – so I’m peddling grace and all that sort of thing. But there really isn’t that relational aspect of ministry.”

Fr. Tony suggested that parishioners change their mindset, and rather than seeing their parish as a grace dispensary, see it instead as a family.

“In Scripture and even in Church laws we talk about the feeling of family,” said Fr. Tony. “That’s why we’re called ‘Father.’ Father is not really our title, our title is ‘Reverend.’ Father came out a few centuries ago as a spiritual fatherhood. But the idea is that it should be a loving family environment. And if you approach it from that point of view then burnout doesn’t happen because it doesn’t feel like it’s a professional situation, it feels like it’s a family.”

Fr. Tony also pointed out that priest burnout can happen simply because a priest is unwilling to accept help from others. He said, “People say, ‘Father, can I help you?’ and we’re always reticent to say, ‘Yes, I need help.’ I think it has to do that it’s kind of ingrained in us in our training – and probably by personality – that we need to be the caregiver. And it’s hard for a caregiver to be a caretaker.”

But there are some simple ways that parishioners can ease the burden of a priest’s heavy load. Fr. Tony gave some examples of how the laity have helped him in his own parish.

“I love to cook, but I can’t find time to,” he said. “So we have some folks in the parish who got together and made a ministry so that every Thursday someone brings a meal for the three of us who live in the parish. And it’s great, because I never know what’s going to be for dinner before it gets here. It’s such an easy, simple act of love for your priest, because we are so busy.”

An often unseen aspect of a priest’s responsibilities are their role in taking care of our church buildings. Between the church, the parish hall, the church grounds, and perhaps a school, there is a lot of maintenance that must be overseen – and a tight budget in which to operate. But here a change of mindset is also helpful. If the parish is a family, then the church buildings are the family’s home. And we parishioners can do our part to keep it beautiful.

“I have about a dozen flower beds on the church property here, and I don’t have a green thumb,” explained Fr. Tony. “Luckily, there’s a group of women who have taken it upon themselves to look after the flower beds so that our campus looks wonderful.”

But it’s not just your time and talent that can help your priest. He needs your treasure too, and the treasure of knowledge can be incredibly valuable to a priest who is overseeing so much. Fr. Tony shared how helpful this is for him in his life.

“There are people with expertise in the parish that I can trust – they don’t have to be able to do it – but I need to say, ‘Do I really need this? Or is this contractor trying to get more money out of us?’

But what if your priest is already burnt out? What if you can see his need for help but he hasn’t accepted any of your offers?

“It’s so hard to finally say, ‘Father, it’s OK to need help,’ Fr. Tony said. “Just keep asking. Point out to him, ‘Father, you’re running ragged. We can see it, we can feel it. If you don’t do something soon, you’re going to wind up in the hospital.'”

Listen to the full conversation below:

Morning Air can be heard weekdays from 6:00 – 9:00 a.m. Eastern/3:00 – 6:00 a.m. Pacific on Relevant Radio®.

Stephanie Foley serves as a Digital Media Producer at Relevant Radio®. She is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where she studied journalism, and she has worked in Catholic radio for 12 years. Stephanie is a wife, a mother of three boys, and in her free time she enjoys reading, running, and really good coffee. You can find more of Stephanie’s writing at relevantradio.com and on the free Relevant Radio mobile app.