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What is Caregiver Syndrome? Advice for Care Ministry Burnout

phone cover what is caregiver syndrome

What is Caregiver Syndrome? Caregiver Syndrome is a condition that can result from the stress of full-time or long-term caregiving. Symptoms may include depression, fatigue, anxiety, anger, and physical distress. Sometimes Caregiver Syndrome is called Caregiver Stress Syndrome.

According to Andree LeRoy, M.D., “A major cause of Caregiver Syndrome is the heavy workload caregivers may take on. The stress also stems from grief, as caregivers experience a loved one’s declining health.”

We recognize that families that care for aging parents, special needs children, or debilitating illnesses suffer from this.

They are heavily invested in someone else’s ongoing care that they love and neglect their physical and emotional health.

The pandemic has made this even more stressful by limiting their care options and opportunities for safe interactions.

Caregiver Syndrome: Pastors’ & Christian Vulnerability

What is caregiver syndrome, and why are pastors and Christian caregivers especially vulnerable to it?

Like a doctor, nurse, or any long-term caregiver, ministers are concerned with the person’s physical, emotional, and mental health.

But a minister is dedicated to the individual’s spiritual well-being as well. The minister is typically there for moral support and sometimes acts as a sounding board for difficult decisions and complex questions.

Finding the right balance to address both sensitively at the same time is difficult and puts an additional layer of stress into the situation for the minister or caregiver.

The individuals in their care are part of their spiritual families.

What is Caregiver Syndrome, and why is it significant for Pastors and care ministers?

But the care a Pastor or Care Minister provides has an additional layer of complexity.

Many ministers are volunteers. Some collect a part-time salary while providing on-call quality care and holding a full-time secular job.

Often the Pastor or care minister interacts with multiple people in need of care at the same time while trying to balance their time spent with their spouse, children, and other Church members.

Pastors and Care Ministers are susceptible to depression, anger, sadness, and physical and spiritual exhaustion due to the heavy workload of people in their care.

Is it any surprise that, much like the caregiver in a family with a debilitating illness or aging parents, a Pastor or care minister often neglects to care for themselves?

And this neglect can lead to care ministry burnout.

Caregiver Syndrome: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Prevention 

Considering the question, “what is Caregiver Syndrome” ultimately leads us to diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

Diagnosis:

It is easier to diagnose another person’s health than your own. A caregiver is often unaware of their health deficit because they focus on the person they care for.

From personal experience, I know the danger of neglecting my health while caring for others.

I often counseled younger ministers to look for home and ministry balance, but sadly I could not recognize my deficit. I behaved as if no one else was as skilled or as invested as I was in the care of others. I felt responsible for results that I knew were not within my power. I was blinded to my condition.

And then my health broke. I was in a hospital, wondering if I had a heart attack. (It wasn’t a heart attack. It was overwhelming stress and undiagnosed sleep apnea.)

Treatment:

The doctor prescribed rest, but I knew that was not enough. So I took a leave of absence from care ministries at church. It wasn’t easy. I felt like I was abandoning the people who needed me. But I was burnt out and had nothing left to give.

I attended our central location for the next eight weeks instead of the campus where I had served.

I saw others step up to fill the void in those eight weeks. They did well without me. They performed better than I did. I saw God work through others to meet the needs of our campus.

I received soul-nurturing from others during this process. I renewed the healthy rhythms and boundaries that were needed.

For an additional eight weeks, my default answer to any request on my time was “NO,” or “I need to check my calendar and pray before I give you an answer.”

Prevention

On my journey, I have found three principles to help prevent Caregiver Syndrome and ministry burnout.

  1. We work in teams.

Team members can share the load. They can hold us accountable for caring for our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. They can be there for us when facing our crises or vice-versa.

They may not have the same skill level or experience that you have. But they can call or be physically present for a person in crisis. And often, that is all that is needed.

2. We learn to say no.

Even Jesus took time away from others to pray and be with his Father. Every commitment we say Yes to is a No to something else. Let others help you by being a gatekeeper and scheduling your calendar. They can help you determine what is essential and what is urgent.

3. We schedule a mini-sabbatical at regular intervals.

I know this sounds impossible to do. But hear me out. Your church or ministry can survive without you. They have Jesus.

By modeling this behavior to your congregation, you teach the spiritual discipline of rest. Your community is exhausted and needs to hear that it is okay to relax, breathe, and experience grace.

At least once a year, ask your congregation, “What is Caregiver Syndrome?” Hopefully, they will recognize the term. If not, maybe someone in your community can explain it because you were vulnerable and authentic.

Help them understand they need a planned sabbatical from service, and they will be your biggest supporter for yours.

As a bonus, more people are willing to volunteer when it is not a life sentence, and sometimes fantastic leaders are waiting to be asked to serve.

Conclusion. 

What is Caregiver Syndrome, and why should we care?

There are only four kinds of people in the world. Those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers.” Quote from Rosalynn Carter.  

If you know a pastor, friend, or family member experiencing Caregiver Syndrome, please share this article with them and ask them to let you help.

They may be reluctant, but be persistent. Even the caregiver needs care.

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