Preventing Burnout In the High Priest and Priestess
The wear and tear on the leaders of Wiccan Covens and communities can be tough but it is also a very hidden problem. A High Priest (HP) or a High Priestess (HPS) has spent many years working on his or her spiritual path, learning how to meditate, connecting with the Divine and have learned many coping skills for dealing with stress and burnout so they may be able to keep the burnout at bay for a long time, inching toward it so slowly even they don’t see it coming. Also many beginners in the Craft tend to put the HP/S on a pedestal so sharing distress, anxiety or other symptoms of burnout can cause judgement, disillusionment and heavy criticism.
The Elders often keep their feelings to themselves. Rather than being honest about their feelings they bottle them up and keep going, trying to create the illusion that all is status quo. Everyone else in the Coven shares their feelings and experiences but when the HPS talks about her feelings she may be criticized for bringing negativity into the circle. That is not what many people want; they want a HPS that they can look up to, not a real struggling human being trying to find her way to peace. I think this comes from the idea of wanting an enlightened guru who can show you the way, making your journey much easier and safer. This idea has leaked in from Yoga, New Age Dogma and Hinduism but guess what? Each Witch walks her own path into the darkness of her soul to find her authentic and magickal self; the HPS cannot go with you. You still have to do your own work, sorry! She can give you the tools and teachings of the Craft, show you how to connect with the God and Goddess, point you in the direction of joy and ecstasy, but she cannot do it for you! I think that sharing her struggles with her Coveners and jumping off the pedestal can be more beneficial for them than trying to pretend she is a guru at peace with the Universe!
Being a HPS is tough! (I’ll use HPS but this also covers the HP as well.) First of all it is not a paid position so working to pay the mortgage and put food on the table (and candles, incense and flowers!) is a real part of her experience. Raising kids, taking time to maintain loving relationships with spouses who may or may not be Wiccan as well as caring for four-leggeds adds another dimension to the busy days. In my case I am a palliative care nurse working full time and although I love my job it can be very tiring. My second job of being one of the leaders in the Wiccan community also takes a lot of work and time: from answering e-mails, to one-on-one meetings, preparing Coven work and Sabbat celebrations, updating the web site and fund raising, etc. Most beginners to the Craft expect and even demand that their HPS be available whenever they need her. At one time my day job was 35 hours a week and my community work was 40+ a week. Now I’ve learned that I’m not Super Witch and that is one of the coping strategies I’ll talk about later.
The work involved in running a large Coven or a community is not always seen by the Coveners or visitors. They show up, sit down, and expect to be spoon-fed awesomeness. They don’t see the HPS coming early, setting up the Covenstead, cleaning, setting up the altar, making handouts and planning the rituals, staying late to pick up, plunging the toilet and the list goes on. At some point the work can get so big that even taking time for personal spiritual time seems to be impossible. Waking up in the morning to answer 50 e-mails before work, working on handouts and Coven teaching at lunch, meeting Coveners in the evening and so on can take up all her spare time. I have seen Priestesses fall into the habit of doing all the work for the Community first and then if they are not too tired, they may do their own spiritual pathworking as almost an afterthought. This is a recipe for disaster and burnout. But what is the difference between stress response and burnout? How do you know if you are burned out and what can you do about it?
“Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.” (1)
Here is a useful chart that can help you see the difference between stress and burnout.
Stress Vs. Burnout
- Stress is characterized by over engagement while burnout by disengagement.
- In stress emotions are over reactive and in burnout they are blunted
- Stress produces urgency and hyperactivity while burnout produces helplessness and hopelessness.
- Stress causes loss of energy while burnout causes loos of motivation, ideals and hope.
- Stress leads to anxiety disorders but burnout leads to detachment and depression.
- In stress the primary damage is physical but in burnout the primary damage is emotional.
- Stress may kill your prematurely but burnout makes life seem not worth living.
- It is important to understand that your own personal spiritual work should come first. Start your day with your own rituals, meditation or pathworking and then if there is time answer some e-mails. Don’t forget to eat breakfast! Even if you start by lighting a candle and saying a prayer, get back into this important habit of starting your day connecting with the Divine.
- Eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep rejuvenates you and keeps you well enough to meet the demands of your life. Signing up for a class such as Nijutsu, Zumba, dancing or anything else that keeps you in shape and that you enjoy will help you to keep going. Sometimes the support of the group is what you need.
- Set boundaries, learn how to say no, delegate to others and don’t pretend to be Super Witch!! It won’t help you and it won’t help others. If we all share the load there won’t be one and it will be fun! Community means a bunch of people, not one person doing it all.
- Having a fun project or dream is the most powerful antidote to burnout. So plan a dream! It could be a cottage in the country, a trip to Stonehenge, learning how to paint, creating a garden or anything that takes you away from the everyday stress and feeds your soul.
- Disconnect from the internet. You don’t have to have your phone on all the time, or facebook or hotmail etc. Schedule times during the day when you check in and let people know that you will answer e-mails within 24 hours. They will get used to it
Recovering from Burnout
Here are some ideas to help you if you are already burned out. Don’t try and push through the exhaustion, realize what is happening and make a plan to recover. Ask your spirit guides and Deities to help you and don’t underestimate the power of healing from the Coven.
At this point in your recovery you need to slow down and cut back on as many activities as you can. Have someone else take over the web site and the e-mails for now; get the Maiden and the Summoner to lead the Covens for a few months. Give yourself time to enjoy everyday things like sitting with a purring cat or taking your dog for a walk. Don’t leave the Covens though, it is important not to isolate yourself but teach your Coven and your community how to recover from burnout by having them help you. It may be a little hard on your pride to admit that you, the Great High Priestess has crashed and burned, but giving up ego is one of the most healing things on the spiritual path. Make sure that you re-evaluate your goals and dreams. Are you doing what you really want to do? Let your husband or wife pamper you and take care of you. As Neil Young says: “It’s going to take a lot of love to change the way things are!”
Please listen to the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhQr0kndwBE
1. Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Robert Segal, M.A. Preventing Burnout. http://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/preventing-burnout.htm
2. Croucher, Ronald. Stress and burnout in ministry.