Burnout is the whole church’s problem

Image: Nature Line
Published August 31, 2023

In my recent book, Why Gather? and during the talks I’ve given about it across Canada, I’ve spoken openly about my struggle with burnout in ministry. Although I didn’t want to admit it at the time, I went into 2020 actively wondering if there was something else I could do with my life. With the advent of COVID-19, those wonderings became all-consuming. The pressure and anxiety of juggling so many needs and expectations, and then the sudden free-fall in which we all found ourselves, were too much.

The Anglicans I’ve spoken to about this have been most eager to share two things:

  1. Clergy are grateful for the opportunity to name and normalize talking about a struggle that is exceedingly common but which can be cloaked in shame and secrecy.
  2. It’s not just clergy who are feeling the grief and pressure of ministering in a church that is institutionally dying. Whole congregations are weighted down with guilt, feelings of inadequacy and the exhaustion and despair of trying to keep afloat the church that means so much to them.

Many Anglicans are doing good, hope-filled and faithful work, serving communities and congregations in life-changing ways. Some of our congregations are financially viable. Clergy and congregations able to post traditional indicators of growth and vitality—still our measure of success in Christian leadership—dot the country.

Most of our congregations and leaders, however, are struggling to do more with less and have serious concerns for their immediate or future viability. Across the spectrum of how we define success and struggle, our churches routinely buy into the secularist mindset that is at the root of the overall trend of decline in religious faith: survival of the fittest, and may the best leaders with the right ideas win—a mindset that can lead to hero worship at one extreme and scapegoating at the other. Whether things seem to be going wrong or right, the dynamics of both can be soul-destroying. Meanwhile, we’ve failed to notice that the people in our pews are also feeling the frazzle of trying to compete in a church landscape of fewer resources and a smaller pool of people in our secular world who identify as religious. As it does in institutions in all times and places that become mired in fear for their own survival, anxiety drives the bus. It shuts down honest and critical conversation and creates a death spiral of ever-increasing isolation and despair in our faith communities and their leaders.

What we have on our hands is a collective problem and it requires collective solutions. It won’t be solved by telling priests to take their day off and get a hobby. Across Canada, with few exceptions, our church communities are under-resourced, and the strain of that under-resourcing creates stress on all levels of the church and is a responsibility in which we all share. Are there ways we must reduce the institutional weight of the church? How can we put more of our resources locally, where faith communities, community engagement and prayerful discernment always get lived out? And if we do put more into local communities, what exactly needs to be centralized? Is there an even greater centralization that needs to happen (reducing, say, the number of dioceses and diocesan offices) in order to better support local ministry? And how are we pooling resources on the ground in order to create ministry teams and parish communities that can flourish rather than barely scrape by? Are we intentionally creating space for the wrestling, discernment, listening and honest, critical conversation needed to navigate our way through this new landscape with health and hope?

The good news is that we have money. Individual parishes or even dioceses may not feel wealthy as budgets become ever more strained. And yet, collectively, the wealth in our real estate holdings across Canada, not to mention the endowment funds that exist in some parish and diocesan bank accounts, is significant. Past generations bought land, built buildings and left money to the church. That generosity needs to be stewarded thoughtfully, responsibly and prayerfully. As we say in our household budgets, “We can do anything, but we can’t do everything.” What do we want to do? And why? And what do we need to let go of in order to do it? What are the central offerings of our Anglican church and why do they matter? How are we going to equip and support those offerings so that we can do more than survive? It’s time to discern together what might be needed—hub ministries, streamlined diocesan budgets, careful decisions around how we centralize and how we localize ministry—to properly equip the church we feel called to be.

Honesty is liberating. We can take seriously the pressure and grief with which we are all living in this church we love. When we do, we may find we can breathe a little more easily—and begin to hope for a future that is both possible and faithful to our calling.


  • Martha Tatarnic

    Canon Martha Tatarnic serves as the rector of St. George's Anglican Church in St. Catharines, Ont. She is the author of The Living Diet: A Christian Journey to Joyful Eating and Why Gather? The Hope and Promise of the Church.

Related Posts

Skip to content