Orthodoxy Today
Clergy Burnout and Fatigue

The apostles returned to Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, "Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while. For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat (Mk 6:30-31).

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Mt 11:28).

In emulation of Our Lord Himself, priests are “on call” at all times. As St. Mark records of Jesus in his Gospel (1:33-34): “And the whole city was gathered together about the door. And [H]e healed many who were sick with various diseases… ” The priest, the icon of the healing Christ, is the instrumental physician of the souls they pastor. In the role of healer, the priest must hear their flock recount their personal problems. As discussed in Morelli, (2006c) many of these problems involve uttermost human and spiritual suffering, the disclosure of dysfunctional emotional reactions such as anger, anxiety and depression, the confession of helplessness, hopelessness and estrangement from God.

Priestly ministry is especially demanding because as Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev (2002) writes: “The sacrament of priesthood is deeply significant…Despite the Orthodox emphasis on the ‘royal priesthood’ of all believers, the Church also recognizes a difference between laypeople and ordained clergy, the latter being entrusted with the celebration of the Eucharist, and having the power of ‘binding and loosing’. Ordination into a hierarchical rank, be it of bishop, priest or deacon, is not only a change of status but a transition to another level of existence.”

He goes on to quote St. Silouan the Athonite: “[This] grace is so exceedingly great that were men able to see the glory of this grace, the whole world would wonder at it; but the Lord has veiled it that His servants should not be puffed up but find salvation in humility … Truly noble is a priest —- the minister at God’s altar.” The words of Christ Himself given to his apostles and followers tell us of the consequences of receiving His gifts: “…to whom much is given, of him will much be required…” (Lk 12:48)

Behavioral science researchers have noted the deleterious psychological effects on the healing professionals who are exposed to secondary trauma, that is to say by listening to individuals reveal traumatic events and or their reactions to such events. Figley (1995) calls this compassion fatigue. Pearlman and Saakvitne, (1995) have an even more pointed name for this diagnostic category: vicarious traumatization. In other words, the mental health professional, and by implication, the priest of Christ, is open to be traumatized themselves by simply being exposed to the verbal recounting of the traumatic events others have suffered.

Signs of compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue has many indicators that are shared by other psychological disturbances such as depression. The following, therefore, should be taken as warnings, yellow flags so to speak, to consult a licensed, scientifically trained and Christ-centered mental health professional for evaluation and possible psycho-spiritual intervention. (Morelli, 2006a,c) Some of these signs include:

  • A general unhappiness, preoccupation with those whom the priest is helping.
  • A lack satisfaction with one’s healing ministry.
  • A lack of connection with those being helped or other parishioners.
  • A lack of feeling ‘energized’ after a helping encounter.
  • A difficulty separating one’s thoughts, feelings and spiritual life from the problems being dealt with.
  • Feeling the trauma of the one(s) seeking aid, feeling trapped in the pastoral ministry of helping.
  • More irritability about everyday matters.
  • A general feeling of discontent.
  • A general feeling of dissatisfaction with one’s ministry.
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed exhausted and fatigued, and a sense that one’s priestly efforts are not worthwhile.

Orthodoxy uses the synergia of medicine and Christ’s spiritual gifts in healing

Many are familiar with the adage: grace builds on nature. This is consistent with the words of St. Maximus the Confessor who notes "the grace of the most Holy Spirit does not confer wisdom on the Saints without their natural intellect as capacity to receive it."(Philokalia II). Thus as St. Paul tell us: “…for in Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth… and in him all things hold together. (Col. 1:16-17). The early church fathers who used the medicine of their day in healing, considered this use of the intelligence God created us with in just this way. (Morelli, 2006c) As Fr. Stanley Harakas notes: “Medical treatment is also seen as a human cooperation with God's healing purposes and goals…[medicine has] … generally been understood throughout history in the Church to be appropriate, fitting and desirable ways of cooperating with God in the healing of human illnesses.”i

Psychological Aids to Prevent and Combat Compassion Fatigue

Limit mental rehashing time (Time Management)

Make out a detailed work schedule for each day of the week. With computer Personal Data Assistant (PDA) programs or old fashioned daily planners, this is not a difficult task and will reap great psychological and spiritual reward. Train your mind not to entertain or converse with the factual and emotional details of the situation or case. Some years ago when I was actively counseling and teaching, in addition to my pastoral tasks, I was very busy and was in a position to easily “burnout.” I developed what I called the “Appointment Book Technique.” I would write down all pastoral, clinical, academic, and spiritual tasks with the specific start and end time and travel time, then close the book. I would not think about what I had written until the appointed day. Tasks that required preparation would be listed in a specific slot on the days before. Other than praying for them, and keeping in mind the presence of God (“pray constantly, 1Th. 5:7), I did not dwell on the details involving any person I had to counsel or to whom I had to minister. I closed the book: keeping it “out of sight, out of mind”, until the time of the event. Doing this takes practice but it can be done. The depth of compassion I felt for the suffering person was not lessened, but the amount of time I spent exposed to secondary trauma was limited to the time I was actually with that person.

Prioritizing events

Intellectually we all know events differ in their importance. But this is very easy to ignore in everyday life and can be a cause of stress and leave us susceptible to burnout. In effective time management it is critical to prioritize the events that are listed in our schedule. For example, under usual conditions (excluding for example, natural disasters, catastrophes, warfare, etc.) Divine Liturgy on Sundays and Feast Days (and their preparatory services) would be highest in priority. Also visiting a critically ill parishioner would be an emergency “high priority’ and require a modification in the Priests schedule. That means a lower priority event may then have to get re-scheduled.

In prioritizing the events in one’s daily, weekly monthly and yearly schedule, balance of major life domains must be maintained. For the Orthodox Priest this means: Ministry, including prayer life, Family, and Recreation. Each of these domains can be subdivided into sub-domains. For example, Ministry, would include: The Divine Services and Holy Mysteries, parish administration, Scripture Study, pastoral visitations, pastoral counseling, etc. Family would include, dinner time, time spent with spouse, children, their school and extra-curricula activities, and special family events, etc. Recreation (re-creation) is for many priests, the forgotten domain. Note above I emphasized the parts of the word, recreation, that is to say: to re-create oneself.

Another frequently encountered prioritizing situation occurs when a priest is faced with an unexpected encounter with someone in the parish who communicates a need for prompt attention. This is even more stressful if the parishioner perceives themselves as entitled to special attention because of their ‘status,’ for example a parish council member or officer. I discuss in more detail the problem of entitlement in the context of marriage (Morelli, 2007a) but the points I make are quite applicable in priest-parish situations. Basically entitlement is psychologically an unrealistic expectation and spiritually is based on the sinful passion of pride.

In such encounters the parish priest has to discern the “realistic” importance of the stated ‘need.’: If the request is critical, (e.g. need for immediate confession and reception of communion of someone in danger of death), then the priest would re-prioritize his schedule. In other situations, the priest has to learn to be assertive, and straightforwardly, firmly and in Christ-like charity, set up an appointment when the issue can be addressed. Assertiveness is discussed in more detail below.

The special case of prioritizing: Re-creation

Here I am only going to consider this psychologically below I will consider this domain from a spiritual viewpoint. We all need a time out from usual activity so to speak. This could be anything from walk, run or bicycle in the park to listening to a favorite musical piece. It could be a visit to a museum, walk on the beach, a walking trail in a park. (All these activities should and can involve a sense of the presence of God.) Re-creation conveys a sense of dissociating with and leaving the active world behind and just being absorbed by the present moment.

Some psychologists have even developed techniques of psychological meditation, which is a mental self discipline exercise the aim of which is to learn to focus attention, raise awareness and bring cognitive and physical processes under voluntary control (Bloomfield & Kory, 1976). In a meditative state, electroencephalograph (EEG) studies (Travis, 2001) indicate an increase in brain alpha and theta waves, accompanying attenuation of heart rate, carbon dioxide output, oxygen intake respiration rate, and skin conductance. Subjectively those tested reported feeling quite un-aroused and relaxed. Sympathetic nervous system hormones which are associated with anxiety (Morelli, 2009a), are also lowered (Davidson, Kabat-Zinn, Schumacher, Rosencranz, Muller, Santorelli, Urbanowski, Harrington, Bonus & Sheridan, 2003).

Re-creation time should be scheduled at various times during the day, week, month and year. The length of time of the re-creation period should be commensurate with the time interval involved. For example, several 10-30 minute sessions would be adequate for a given day, a longer time period scheduled for each year.

Knowing memory limitations

Human working memory, also called working consciousness, has limited capacity. Research psychologists have found that the average individual has seven slots, plus or minus two, in which to store information at any one time. George Miller (1956) conducted the initial study some years ago given the whimsical title: The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity to Process Information.ii When the capacity of working consciousness is filled, new information is either not stored or replaces the information currently in store. Applying these findings to burnout, or compassion fatigue, the more we try to rely on our memory to recall our task schedule or the details of the troubling experiences of those we are counseling, the more additional fatigue strain and tension we are putting on ourselves over and above the events we are dealing with or individuals we are ministering to. Use of digital or paper calendars and notes is highly recommended.

One Time, One Event

Multitasking in today’s world is commonplace. But it is a psycho-spiritual disaster for priests in any counseling ministry or in prayer life. During the time I am with Jack Smith, so to say, I am with him and him only, I totally focus on him and what we are talking or praying about. Tom, Dick or Harry are out of sight and out of mind. It is like I tune out alternate radio or TV stations by tuning into the one I want to hear. This also means, for example, during breakfast, lunch or dinner, that is the only task being performed: eating.—this is not the time for work, etc. Once again this technique has to be practiced.

Permit me a non-pastoral personal example. Several years ago I was working on research study. I had several students working under my supervision. Typically I would be behind my desk with computer data punch cards, computer printouts of statistical information, a partially written report, frequently on the phone on matters related to the study. At times a research assistant or student would come into the office and ask me a question. In my own mind I would do my best to answer, usually in one or two words, with gesture, and keep on ‘multitasking.’

Now in my view, I was being accommodating. I soon got feedback, I was ‘uncaring and aloof.’ I asked the assistant who gave me this feedback to interrupt me with a signal when I was doing an activity that was perceived as being ‘uncaring and aloof.’ I very quickly discovered what I just described above as the problem. My solution was to place the importance of the assistant and his question first, by stopping all other tasks. I invited him to sit down, I looked him in the eye with full attention, and answered his question.

It was not a difficult adjustment. I am happy to report, favorable feedback began to follow. I learned a valuable lesson. “Stretching myself” was perceived by me to be ‘caring and helping.’ but was not the perception of others. In this case changing my own behavior was aiding the research project by increasing morale and was more in fulfillment of Christ-like charity.


Another common practical adage: An executive with ten secretaries can do ten times the work than ten executives with one secretary. In the average Orthodox parish, the pastor could easily get bogged down with clerical or even building maintenance tasks. This is said not to denigrate these valuable functions, but the primary function of the parish priest is to be a servant as minister, that is to say, preach, teach and sanctify. Letter writing, addressing envelopes, preparing the Sunday Bulletin, scheduling Baptism and Holy Marriage, putting water in the baptismal font, filling Holy Water bottles, preparing service booklets for the parishioners can easily be done by those of the royal priesthood in their service to the Body of Christ, or in the case of a technical or extended work designation such as Parish Secretary, a salaried position (by someone not a member of the parish).

The Shepherds of the Church using the gifts of all

The visible Churchiii is ‘conciliar,’ but is not a democracy. The Church founded by Christ and enlivened by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is also hierarchical, that is to say made up of bishop, priest, deacon and those baptized into the royal priesthood. The teachings of Christ are understood and expressed in Council by the bishops and confirmed by the priests that surround them and the people of God, the royal priesthood. This is done in union with the common teaching and common mind of the church as passed on through the apostles and Church Fathers. Bishop Hierotheos (1998) quotes St. John of Damaskos on this matter: “We accept all those things which have been handed down by the Law and the Prophets and the Apostles and the Evangelists. We know and revere them, and over and above these things se seek nothing else.”

St. Basil in his Divine Liturgy of reminds all who surround the Holy Table: “Be mindful also, O Lord, of the Priesthood, the Deaconate in Christ, and every priestly rank, and put not to confusion any one of us who stand about Thy Holy Altar.” The ministry of service of the priest-bishop is to preach, teach, sanctify and pastor, that is to say lead the flock of Christ. But the grace that outflows from ordination is not personal but is effectuated by God. Archbishop Hilarion (2002) quoting St. Ambrose of Milan says: “It is not Damasius, or Peter, or Ambrose or Gregory who baptizes. We are fulfilling our ministry as servants, but the validity of the sacraments depends upon you. It is not within human power to communicate the Divine benefits – it is your gift, O Lord.”

Thus all who make up the visible Church on earth each a different function depending on God’s grace. As St. Paul tells us: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. (1Cor 12: 4-6) The priest has to reflect on this fact and the parish reminded and taught the meaning of the words of St. Paul: “For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him. For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them…” (Rm 12:3-6). The service of the laity baptized into the ‘royal priesthood’ is to unite their prayer of offering, their sacrifice of praise, during Divine Liturgy with that of the priestiv and offer their talents to Christ’s Church under the shepherding of the pastors and arch-pastors of the Church in accordance with their gifts.


Assertiveness is defined as an honest and true communication of real feelings in a socially acceptable (and for the Christian in a Christ-like) manner. It starts with the least effective response, that is to say the most gentle words in meaning and tone of voice that is needed to communicate a message. This can escalate to a firm neutral tone, in keeping with Christ-like charity in choice of words and tone of voice (emotional control: Morelli, 2006b). Development of this psychological cognitive-behavioral skill enables the priest to remove self-imposed or other-imposed demands that do not fit with the event prioritizing discussed above or that could be better handled by delegating tasks. The priest with an understanding of the structure of the visible Church founded by Christ and the individual gifts that may be of service to the parish community will not hesitate to assertively ask for aid needed in the parish. In imitation of Christ’s words “Follow me” (Mt 4:19).

As mentioned above assertiveness may also have to be used in setting and maintaining priorities especially when requests are made by parishioners out of a sense of entitlement, those who misconstrue their role in the parish structure or some who wants preferential treatment of some type that would set a bad example, be seen as blatantly unfair or even puts undue stress on the pastor that minimizes his effectiveness.

I am sure priests can come up with many example of all of the above. I will use a rather common example of a request that I am sure every pastor received. A young person applying to college or university asks for a recommendation. Situation I: He/she have given a least a months notice. I ask the applicant to email me all relevant information (e.g. GPA, school honors, extra-curricular activities, Church/social service etc.) I will schedule doing the letter of recommendation, promptly (one-two weeks) based on my personal knowledge of the person and the information supplied me. Situation II: He/she tells me a letter of recommendation is needed immediately (right then and there, tomorrow). I find out this is not a last minute request (therefore emergency request) from the school, the applicant procrastinated in asking me. Speaking assertively, but (I pray) with Christ-like kindness, I simply tell the student, “it will take me a couple days after I get the required information. I feel sorry for the problem, but it was your responsibility to come to me earlier.”v Once again in the context of marriage I discuss this communication problem more extensively (Morelli, 2009b)

Have a psycho-spiritual expert to talk to

Clinicians and researchers who have worked with professionals who have dealt with victims of trauma, have themselves pointed out the importance of having a knowledgeable professional with which they can debrief and have support. It has been found that mental health professionals have attenuated their own compassion fatigue by having a peer support network, in which their own thoughts and emotional feelings can be shared (Figley, 1995, Boscarino, J. A., Figley, C. R. and Adams, R. E. (2004).

Distress tolerance

Albert Ellis (1962) has expended much of his clinical intervention with psychologically suffering individuals helping them to lean to tolerate distress: “And we have Rational-Emotive imagery, where we get people to imagine the worst and then feel terrible, and then work on their feeling. We have my famous shame attacking exercise, because shame is the essence of much disturbance, where we get you and other people and our clients to go out and do something asinine, ridiculous, foolish, and not feel ashamed. Now don't get in trouble; don't walk naked in the streets or anything like that. But yell out the stops, if you're civilized enough in your city to have a subway, like we're civilized enough in New York. And stop somebody on the street and say, "I just got out of the loony bin. What month is it?" and not feel ashamed when they look in horror at you and think you're off your rocker, which they think you are but you're really not; you're being very much saner than they are.”vi

Learning to tolerate distress in such exercises, can be applied to other distressing situations. “Yes very unpleasant events occur in life, but I can learn to get through them and go on.” In actuality this is very similar to an intervention that would be given to person that has actually experienced a traumatic event. (Morelli, 2009a).

The priest who is subject to compassion fatigue can learn to perceive shocking narratives with coping thoughts. Below is a partial list of such coping thoughts:

  • This situation won’t last forever.
  • I have been through similar painful experiences and have survived.
  • I can do what I have to while still being anxious.
  • This is an opportunity to learn to bear with my fears.
  • My anxiety or sadness won’t kill me; it just doesn’t feel so good right now.

In my pastoral-clinical experience I have given those I have counseled as well as myself ‘homework’ exercises that are geared to practice distress tolerance. I might accompany the distressed counselee during the exercise either close or at a distance as necessary. Debriefing takes place as soon as possible after the exercise. During debriefing, the patient is helped to identify the feelings accompanying the exercise and, most importantly, to recognize that they can modify the thought pattern they attached to the exercise. They did survive, thus change is possible and can be acquired. Such exercises are repeated as necessary. I recommend priest-counselors discuss their particular experience with such exercises with their personal psycho-spiritual ‘expert.’

Spiritual aids to prevent and combat compassion fatigue

Re-creation: Desert in the City

The Holy Gospels record one of the first events at the beginning of Jesus’ public life. St. Mark (Gospel, 1: 10-12) writes that after the Theophany in which: “… the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased." The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness [desert].” It is in the desert that Our Lord, God and Savior encountered the evil one and triumphed.

Throughout Jesus ministry, the evangelists record events of Our Lord going off by Himself to pray. For example, this account by St. Luke (5: 15-16): “But so much the more the report went abroad concerning him; and great multitudes gathered to hear and to be healed of their infirmities. But He withdrew to the wilderness and prayed.”

Before the greatest of sacrifices for our salvation which St. Basil in his Divine Liturgy describes as “…His voluntary, and ever-memorable, and life-creating death…His saving Passion and life-giving Cross, His three day burial and Resurrection from the dead…” Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane praying: “And he came out, and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place he said to them, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation." And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed…” (Lk 22: 39-41)

We have to imitate these withdrawal actions of Christ in ourselves. In this way we can make effective in our own lives and ministry, the priest’s supplication after The Lord's Prayer in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom to be united to the Christ who: “…[heals] the sick, Thou who art the physician of our souls and bodies.” The importance of the desert and prayer for priests and all contemporary committed Christians, is delineated by Carlo Carretto (1985) in describing his own ‘desert’ experience: “In the desert we had discovered the Divine Absolute, and problems were no more, including the gap between city and desert. For there was no gap: the desert was no longer absence of men, but presence of God…The desert trail leads through the city now, summoning man to contemplate the mystery of the Absolute God” This mystery is love.

St. Isaac of Syria tells us “Purity of prayer is silence ..[whereby we can contemplate the meaning of Our Lord’s death] that the world might become aware of the love which God has for creation.” (Brock, 1997). This is because: “God is love.” 1Jn 4:8). When we imitate the withdrawal of Christ into the desert and pray we can take the first step in interiorizing God’s love for us, our love for God and our love for all mankind.

Retreating in the Midst of the City

St. Theophan the Recluse tells us: “Begin retreating into solitude at your own home, and dedicate these hours of solitude to praying above all for one thing: ‘Make known to me, O Lord, the way wherein I should walk [Ps 142: 8]. Pray thus not merely in words and thought, but also from your heart. For this time of solitude, set aside certain hours every day ….” (The Art of Prayer). In the spirit of St. Paul who tells us: “…pray constantly…” (1Thes 5:17) “Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.” (Eph 6:18)“ St. Theophan also reminds us; “Some Godly thoughts come nearer the heart than others. Should this be so, after you have finished your prayers, continue to dwell on such a thought and remain feeding on it. This is the way to unceasing prayer.”

Prayer is also an instrument of compassion fatigue prevention and healing. St. Isaac of Syria notes: Once someone has doubted God’s care for him, he immediately falls into a myriad of anxieties…Knowledge of truth [through experiencing God in prayer] fills the heart with peace, establishing a person in joy and confidence.” (Brock, 1997). St. Theophan explains how this can be accomplished in the city, in the world: “I remember that St. Basil the great solved the question how the Apostles could pray without ceasing, in this way: in everything they did, he replied, they thought of God and lived in constant devotion to Him. This spiritual state was their unceasing prayer…What is required is a constant aliveness to God —- an aliveness present when you talk, read, watch, or examine something.”

The Church is a hospital

Consider the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10: 30-37):

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.' Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed mercy on him." And Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

Bishop Hierotheos Vlachos (1994) emphatically states: “In St. John Chrysostom’s interpretation of this parable it is clearly evident that the Church is a Hospital which heals those sick with sin, while the bishops and priests, like the Apostle Paul, are the healers of the people of God.”

It is in this context that we can understand the other words of Bishop Hierotheos: “..the priest is properly a spiritual physician who cures people’s sicknesses. Worship and sacrament must be placed within the therapeutic method and treatment.”

The fullness of this healing can only be enlivened with the reception of the Holy Mysteries of the Church. Holy Baptism; Chrismation; Eucharist, (reception of the very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ); Holy Confession, (metanoia, repentance in mind, heart and action, true sorrow for sin and longing for and working on being in communion with God); Holy Unction, the quintessential Holy Mystery of healing in which the priest prays: “… this oil, that it may be effectual for those who are anointed therewith, unto healing and unto relief from every passion, of every defilement of flesh and spirit, and every ill; that thereby may be glorified Thine all holy Name, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.” Healing can also come from the grace of the Holy Mysteries blessing an individual’s personal calling in life: Holy Orders, (ordination to the diaconate, priesthood, episcopacy) and Blessed Marriage, (male and female uniting to become one flesh, blessed by the Church).

The fullness of Healing: Communion with Christ’s Church

It is important for all priests to reflect on the enormity of the gift of healing for themselves and for those to whom they minister by being in communion with the Church, founded by Christ Himself. As St. Paul told the Hebrews (5: 1: 2-3,6): “For Every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is bound to offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. … "Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek."

St. Paul tells us what this dignity and healing grace is based on: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1Cor 10: 16-17). Thus ordinary path of the fullness of healing Grace becomes possible only by being in communion with the Orthodox Church, whose spirit, came upon this Church at Pentecost.

Extreme thankfulness of Communion with the Church, but with extreme humility

However, not only is the glory of the priesthood veiled to save priests from the passion of pride, as St. Silouan tells us, but all of us who have received this Divine gift of ordination must consider that God cannot be limited in the economia of His Grace. In this regard I want to quote the caveat of Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev (2002):

When dealing with the difficult questions of Christian divisions, we must also bear in mind that God alone knows where the limits of the Church are. St. Augustine said, “Many of those on earth considered themselves to be alien to the Church will find on the day of Judgment that they are her citizens; and many of those who thought themselves to be members of the Church will, alas, be found to be alien to her. To declare that outside the Orthodox Church there is not and cannot be the grace of God would be to limit God”s omnipotence and to confine Him to a framework outside which he has no right to act. Hence faithfulness to the Orthodox Church and her dogmatic teaching should never become naked triumphalism by which other Christian Churches are regarded as created by the “cunning devices” of people, while the whole world and ninety-nine per cent of [mankind] is doomed to destruction.

In other words we priests have to be spiritually thankful and be enlivened by the unique gift of grace given in the priesthood and recognize our position is not a , personal resplendence but is rather a ministry of humble service.

Acceptance of being a servant

Christ told His apostles, “It [domineering others] shall not be so among you but whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mt 20: 26). For as St. Paul told the Corinthians: “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake.” This implies that we interiorize the compassion of Christ: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mt 9: 36). This recognizes that the priest and all who are true Christians “Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another…”. (Col3: 12-13). For as St. Paul explains “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1Cor 12: 26-27)

But with discernment must come discrimination

"Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Mt 10: 16). St. Peter of Damaskos (Philokalia III):

This then is the general picture [preferring one’s own thoughts and wishes to those of God]. But situations and pursuits vary, and one needs to acquire discrimination, either through the humility given by God or through questioning those who possess the gifts of discrimination. For without discrimination nothing that comes to pass is good, even if we in our ignorance think that it is. But when through discrimination we learn how it lies in our power to attain what we wish, then what we do begins to conform to God’s will.

Especially for a priest, being a servant to others for Jesus sake make up part of their ‘path to perfection.’ St. John of the Ladder (1982) points out “Among beginners, discernment is real self knowledge … it is the spiritual capacity to distinguish unfailingly between what is truly good and what in nature is opposed to the good.”

Opposition to being a good servant – the priest’s Achilles heal: not really ministering without ‘constant caring’

Empathy is defined in the psychological literature as thinking and feeling what the other is thinking and feeling. (Morelli, 2007b). It is my observation that many priests feel they are not fulfilling their presbyteral calling unless they ‘feel’ themselves the psycho-spiritual suffering of their parishioners at all times. This self-imposed definition of the service of priesthood would appear to be another significant contributor to compassion fatigue or burnout.

A reading of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ public life indicates that after encountering someone suffering he would heal the person and then move on. There is no mention of Him perseveratingvii over the ill person. For example, in the account of healing of the man born blind as recounted by St. John (9: 1-41), there is the observation of Jesus healing, but in the context of the assurance and of the power of God that He possessed. He announces simply as a matter of fact: “We must work the work of Him who sends me…I am the light of the world…” (4,5).

After the healing and the Pharisees’ disparagement of Jesus, He appears focused on the reality of his mission and not caught up in an emotional entanglement. Jesus asks: "Do you believe in the Son of man?" He answered, "And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?" Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you." He said, "Lord, I believe"; and he worshiped him. Jesus said, "For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind." (35-39). Thus the priest must minister in truth but also in wisdom.

I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world (Jn 17: 15-18)


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i. (http://www.goarch.org/en/ourfaith/articles/article8076.asp)

ii. An example of the original research is to give subjects in the experiment a list of random numbers or letters: increasing in span and asking them to repeat them back either forward or backward (e.g. 86, 249, 3409, 52647, 951438, 61824913, etc.). In another example, most individuals would find the following task quite difficult—hearing them repeating back a series of twelve letters grouped as follows: FB – INB – CC –IAIB – M. However, most people would readily recall FBI,NBC,CIA,IBM. The terms working consciousness and short term store are functionally synonymous. Another common example is remembering a telephone number with an unfamiliar area code that you cannot write down and must keep in working consciousness (short term store) to be able to call it immediately after it has been given to you.

iii. The Church also includes the invisible Church. As Bishop Hierotheos (1998) tells us: “Members of the Church exist in all the ages … [they are commemorated] on the paten during the Liturgy there are many people. They are the Panagia, the Angels, the Prophets, the Holy Fathers, the great martyrs, and, in general, the witnesses of the faith, the saints and ascetics, the living and the dead who have a share in the purifying, illuminating and deifying uncreated energy of God.”

iv. As is said in the Prothesis Prayer of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

v. My thanks to one of my editors Sh. Laura Sanders who commented on this section as “an old adage has it, 'I am not required to hurry because you procrastinated.'”

vi. (http://www.intuition.org/txt/ellis.htm).

vii. Clinically, perseverating  usually is accompanied by the dysfunctional emotions of anxiety or anger. It may also be related to certain personality and psychotic disorders. Spiritually may also be related to pride and vainglory.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: April 21, 2010

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