We don’t talk about burnout: Family systems lessons for the church from Disney’s “Encanto”
May 10, 2022
If you have seen Disney’s “Encanto,” you probably have all the songs stuck in your head. The animated film tells the story of the family Madrigal, who live in the mountains of Colombia, through the eyes of Mirabel, one of the matriarch’s granddaughters. A family in which everyone has received a magical gift, except Mirabel.
The story explores the themes of how we are given gifts and how others’ expectations on how we use those gifts can help shape us, but also can burn us out. Perhaps this is the reason so many clergy parents I know resonated with the movie from the minute it was released on Disney +. Besides being a new family film favorite for those with children at home, the story struck a nerve among many of my clergy colleagues. In Facebook conversations, many colleagues immediately recognized the themes of family systems theory, including the roles we inherit and participate in, triangulation, and over-functioning/under-functioning.[i]
While the hit song on the radio is “We don’t talk about Bruno,” which we could explore easily regarding the figures and events in church history that often churches do not talk about, there’s another song that has made the rounds, especially among my clergy friends. The third song in the film, “Surface Pressure,”[ii] is sung by Mirabel’s older sister. Luisa’s gift is superhuman strength, and she is often tasked with fixing everything in the town that is broken, including moving mountains and churches. However, Mirabel notices something is wrong. As things begin to break apart at home, Luisa’s eye starts twitching. When Mirabel tries to get her to talk about what is going on, Luisa sings about the pressure that is like a drip that won’t stop, how “I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service,” and how she puts on a tough face for everyone but is ready to crack underneath. “Who am I if I can’t carry it all?” she cries out, bearing the pain that has been growing under the surface.
The current talk about clergy burnout often relates to the last two years, when pastors had to lead congregations through dramatic shifts such as the move to online worship and later hybrid worship. However, the pressures under the surface have been building for years before COVID-19. How many churches have placed all the burden of pastoral care onto the pastor? As membership has shrunk and leadership has grown older, pastors have been expected to take on all the load—and this multiplied in the pandemic. The demand to grow the church when often churches are barely surviving puts an incredible toll on the pastor. The expectation that if ministers don’t create more, produce more, and reach out more, they won’t have a job, is a harmful cycle and recipe for burnout. When Luisa sings, “give it to your sister, your sister’s stronger, see if she can hang on a little longer,” I think of all the times something has had to be done at a church leadership meeting and no one was able to or willing to step up, and it falls to the pastor’s desk.
Those who have studied family systems theory know that self-differentiation and becoming a less anxious presence are ways of breaking out of these cycles. There’s a moment when Luisa stops for a moment and asks, “But wait, if I could shake the crushing weight of expectations, would that free up some room for joy?” Unfortunately, at least in the song, she can’t figure out how to shake off the pressure.
Understanding family systems theory helps us to self-differentiate and remember that we are important and valued for who we are as people, as children of God. While we have different skills and gifts for ministry, the burden should not be solely on our clergy or on one group of leaders.
Many clergy don’t know how to let things go without the fear of losing their job. As so many churches struggle to survive, budgets are placed in front of pastors like carrots. I know in my personal experience it felt like I had to work twice as hard in order to justify my salary not being cut. Once I left that church, I realized that nothing had changed by my working harder. I hadn’t convinced anyone of the need to increase salary and instead the church continued the pattern of being uncertain about paying the next pastor. It is hard to break that cycle when one is the pastor in that situation. The fear of not having a salary is a real threat.
Regional executive ministers or judicatory bodies in other denominations can help relieve this fear by recognizing these patterns and naming them. Tell the truth. Church leaderships and pastors must break the cycle. One person or one group taking on more work and more responsibilities while others don’t will not save the church, or the pastor. The church’s living or dying does not rest solely with one person. The church must shift its understanding of both pastor and leadership roles as well as its expectations.
Far too often, the myth that the pastor is “the professional Christian” has entered our churches. The myth that the pastor is uniquely gifted to do pastoral visitations, plan and lead worship, lead Bible study, preach the sermon and preside over the ordinances has been upheld far too long. Our own Baptist principle of the priesthood of all believers can help us break this cycle and create healthier pastors and churches. Baptist principles teach us that we are not all a Luisa, and that we are more than just our gifts.
The story of “Encanto” is the story of a family whose gifts were needed for the community, but the burdens placed on them to use their gifts became too great under the weight of expectations. As everything literally falls apart, the characters come to recognize that each person is important and of value, including Mirabel, whom they believe has no special gift. Near the end of “Encanto,” Mirabel sings the song, “All of You.”[i] “The stars don’t shine, they burn, and the constellations shift, I think it’s time you learn, you are more than just your gift.” [ii] She goes on to sing, “the miracle is you, not some gift, just you.”
Understanding family systems theory helps us to self-differentiate and remember that we are important and valued for who we are as people, as children of God. While we have different skills and gifts for ministry, the burden should not be solely on our clergy or on one group of leaders. This may take some hard conversations within churches to determine what needs to be let go, what needs to fall apart in order to rebuild.
While Mirabel is singing this final song in “Encanto,” she turns to find the entire town has gathered around the family, and their response is to all the family, who have been using their gifts to keep the town safe, to “lay down your load.” Breaking the cycle of over-functioning/under-functioning is hard work, but when it is done, what is built up later will be stronger and better for it. Once the expectations are gone, each character finds new ways of using their gifts that bring life to them without the burden. They rebuild their home and community. Mirabel sings, “I like the new foundation. It isn’t perfect, but neither are we.” It’s a perfect image for what the church can do and who the church can become when everyone is valued as a child of God. Just think of what the church could be if we knew it didn’t have to be perfect. How healthy our pastors could be if they knew they could let go and they didn’t have to do it all. What a strong foundation we could build together.
Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell is executive minister, American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin.
[i] Family Systems Theory was developed by Dr. Murray Bowen as an understanding of how human beings live with one another in community. https://www.thebowencenter.org/core-concepts-diagrams
[ii] The lyrics to “Surface Pressure” can be found here: https://www.billboard.com/music/lyrics/surface-pressure-lyrics-encanto-jessica-darrow-1235024302/ Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
[iii] The lyrics to “All of You” can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JyvyUi30bD0&ab_channel=DisneyMusicVEVO Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda.