Jenny Parnell Willmore lives in Logan, Utah, USA with her husband James. They have four children and two grandchildren. She currently serves as Relief Society president and has taught everything from nursery to Gospel Doctrine. She has a Master of Second Language Teaching from Utah State University and taught Spanish at Snow College, the military’s JLTC, and for the past 17 years at USU. Consequently, she has made every teaching mistake in the book. She and her family volunteer every other summer in Colima, Mexico with Project Amigo and she is an interviewer and producer for the LDS Women Project.
“Despite decades of experience as a college teacher, I’d never encountered a problem like the one I was having teaching my Gospel Doctrine class. I struggled with in-class participation. It was only after class that ward members sought me out in the hallways, called or texted me during the week, or even dropped by my house to ask for help with a troubling bit of information they’d heard. After praying, researching, experimenting, and having no success moving these vulnerable and meaningful conversations into our classroom, I brought it up with our Teaching in the Savior’s Way teacher council. Responses suggesting I pray or get to know my class better left me so much more demoralized that I checked out of that and future teacher councils.”
Surely, you’ve heard the reports of teacher burnout that have reached emergency levels over the last couple of years. At least 300,000 public school teachers and other staff left teaching in the United States between February of 2020 and May of 2022 with similar statistics being reported in other countries. 40% of those remaining reported that they feel burned out (up from about 16% four years ago). Teacher burnout goes beyond being tired. Dr. Doris Santoro, a researcher who studies teacher burnout, describes it as “The demoralization that occurs when people no longer find their work rewarding, and feel they are to blame.”
A Trend in Churches
Similar reports have begun to emerge of burnout among members of the clergy. In a survey given by Barna, a Christian research organization, 42% of pastors said they had seriously considered quitting because of demoralization and burnout.
Doing our best to fulfill our callings as pastoral teachers feels natural because we love God, we love others, and we want to offer hope. But like educators and clergy in the news reports, some of our teachers are suffering from burnout. My informal canvassing of friends and family tells me that our teachers are struggling to feel the peace of the gospel.
Here is a sampling of things I’ve heard:
- I’ve gotten so I pray for specific kids not to be there on the day I teach.
- I tried following some social media accounts and reading lots of church teacher blogs and podcasts, but I just started to feel so discouraged for not counting all my trials and responsibilities as blessings.
- I loved the gospel, I loved the “good word,” but I came to only associate my calling with embarrassment and anxiety.
- I feel like I’m working FOR the sisters in the Relief Society, and not with them.
- I got so sick physically that I had to be released. It was like my body was telling my soul that I needed to stop.
- I realized I needed to be released so I could preserve my testimony.
- I feel like the noise that the criticism and disapproval create make it so I can’t hear God’s voice anymore.
- I’m afraid to ask that His will be done, because what if His will is for me to run myself into the ground?
Early Symptoms of Burnout
I hope that you sense that these are individuals who care about their callings and are ashamed of how hard they have become for them. Most of us want to teach in the Savior’s way, but burnout and demoralization are human psychological responses to chronic stress that need to be acknowledged and addressed. Many members of our wards are already experiencing the withdrawal, self-doubt and loss of inspiration that are early symptoms of burnout. Left untreated, burnout can lead to harmful and sometimes enduring demoralization.
Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter, psychologists who study burnout, found, “when people really get to the extreme, the vast majority can’t go back to the same employer or the same kind of work.” Says Leiter, “They have to change careers. Burnout runs so deep- just the feel of going into that building or that sort of building can be a trigger.” (Here is the link if you are interested in taking the survey or the questions on the survey.)
Hope in Elder Uceda’s Words
Which is why I found so much hope in Elder Juan Uceda’s general conference address “The Lord Jesus Christ Teaches Us to Minster”. In this talk, Elder Uceda shared one of his experiences with ministering. While this specific interaction is beautiful and was surely inspired, I especially noted that Elder Uceda addressed the withdrawal, self-doubt and loss of inspiration that strikes those who suffer from burnout. I believe if we zoom out on the story Elder Uceda shared with us, we can learn valuable lessons about how to minister to a burned-out teacher in the way that the Savior would have us do.
Ministering to Wandering Sheep
Early in his address, Elder Uceda shares a quote from President Nelson:
“The Good Shepherd lovingly cares for all sheep of His fold, and we are His true undershepherds. Our privilege is to bear His love and to add our own love to friends and neighbors- feeding, tending, and nurturing them- as the Savior would have us do.”
He goes on to demonstrate how he, Elder Uceda, ministered to one of the Lord’s lost sheep, the father of a sister named Julia, when he learned he had withdrawn from church activity.
Best Antidote for Burnout
Withdrawing is a common symptom of burnout. Disappointment and demoralization leave us raw and vulnerable, and it can feel safer to pull away from others. Paradoxically, the best antidote for burnout and demoralization is relationships with others, which makes connection an important first step in ministering in the Savior’s way. Elder Uceda tells us that the first thing he did after feeling impressed to minister to the father of Julia was to get his cell phone number and call him.
“After several weeks and many, many phone calls without success, one day he finally answered the phone.”
Just as in the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son that he also cites, Elder Uceda experienced the urgency, “the ineffable love and compassion in the heart” of an undershepherd seeking out a lost sheep. The empathy and commitment he demonstrated helped this father feel safe enough to engage in a vulnerable and meaningful conversation with Elder Uceda.
Upon meeting the father of Julia, Elder Uceda identified him as “a true undershepherd of the Lord…I invited him to share with me some of his experiences visiting, ministering and serving the precious sheep of the Lord. As he was recounting some touching stories, I noticed that the tone of his voice changed and the same spirit he had felt so many times as an undershepherd came back.”
When we are engaged in a task, we use feedback to direct and correct our path- hoping to find the best and most efficient way to complete that task. When we experience burnout, it feels like feedback is either missing or it is all negative. This can lead to the self-doubt that seemed to have contributed to this brother withdrawing from church activity. What strikes me as so inspired about what Elder Uceda did in this moment is that he didn’t address Julia’s father’s doubt by appealing to typical reward centers- he didn’t praise him or point to other external measurements of success. Instead, he asked him to remember times when he had “felt to sing the song of redeeming love.” (Alma 5:26)
In an address to mission presidents in 2018, Elder Eyring said,
“Everyone feels some satisfaction and assurance from being praised for how well he or she did. That kind of recognition is pleasing…but then I remember that only God knows my heart. There is only one approval I can trust perfectly…and the assurance we need is to know that by serving the Lord faithfully, we have become more like Him.”
Like a true undershepherd himself, Elder Uceda reminded Julia’s father of the connection that his loving and caring actions in the past had created with the true shepherd.
The Lord Needs Our Help
Even though that connection with God is what our teachers need to face burnout, sometimes the Lord does need us to step in, as did Elder Uceda, and guide His sheep towards the sources of love and inspiration that might begin to refill their empty spiritual reservoirs. A study out of the University of Virginia found that people judge a hill to be 30 percent steeper if they are alone than with someone by their side. Challenges don’t seem quite so daunting when we can draw inspiration from and lend inspiration to each other. But burnout squashes inspiration and drive, and that loss of inspiration and drive can feel dark. When Julia related that her father stopped attending church, she said that “a negative spirit filled his heart.”
One of my favorite parts of teaching is collaborating with other teachers. When we share our successes and suggestions, it really does feel like “drawing in spirit”- the literal meaning of the word inspire. But when a teacher is experiencing the loss of inspiration associated with burnout, new ideas and activities might not be what is needed. A struggling teacher might need to have their Spirit refilled and replenished. After pleading with the Lord for help, Elder Uceda’s words of recognition, apology and love addressed the dark loss of inspiration directly. “Brother Florian,” he said, “as a servant of the Lord, I apologize for our not being there for you. Please, forgive us. Give us another chance to show you that we do love you. That we need you. That you are important to us.”
Elder Uceda stood next to this brother as he judged the steepness of the hill ahead. Expressing gratitude for his efforts helped to create a loving environment in which this brother could again feel and draw in the Spirit.
The Shepherd’s Route
In a famous sermon, the Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon said,
“The shepherd pursues a route which he would never think of pursuing if it were only for his own pleasure; his way is not selected for his own ends, but for the sake of the stray sheep. He takes a track up hill and down dale, far into the desert or into some dark wood simply because the sheep has gone that way.”
Redesigning the “Kitchen”
We may not be used to the idea of ministering to those who have been called to serve as our teachers. We may even reflect that the potential for burnout in church callings has always existed. But teacher burnout researcher Michael Leiter points out, “There’s that old saying, ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,’ The thrust of our argument is, why don’t you change the heat? How about redesigning the kitchen?”
Rethinking our personal interactions and pursuing a route we would never choose on our own might be necessary to minister in the Savior’s way. But if we feel prompted to reach out to a burned-out teacher, redesigning our idea of ministering to be true undershepherds as Elder Uceda did could provide them with peace and comfort.
To Bear His Love
Reiterating what President Nelson said,
“Our privilege is to bear His love and to add our own love to friends and neighbors- feeding, tending, and nurturing them- as the Savior would have us do.”