Confronting Burnout in the Ministry (Part 1)
By Daniel Sherman
“I’m exhausted! I don’t think I can endure one more day.”
You might be surprised at how many ministers feel this way. If you are a minister and you are worn-out, you are not alone. Church leaders need to be a constant source of support and encouragement for a minister so he doesn’t become a member of the “former ministers” group.
But we need to be careful not to equate exhaustion with burnout. Exhaustion may be a symptom of burnout, but it isn’t burnout.
Burnout is a gradual process of loss during which the mismatch between the needs of the person and the demands of the job grows even greater1.
What does this mean?
First, burnout is a gradual process. Burnout takes time to develop. Something that happened last week doesn’t cause burnout. What happened last week might contribute to burnout, but burnout undoubtedly has been creeping up on you for a long time. Emergencies and crises add up and can be significant causes of burnout. But they are not likely to be the sole culprits. Burnout progresses at a slow pace, usually without even being noticed.
Second, burnout is a process of loss. You might say it’s a process of losing your mind! But it is the loss of ideals, the loss of hope, the loss of focus, joy, relationships, and the loss of pride in your work.
Third, burnout is a mismatch between a person and his or her work. You and your ministry are out of sync. Ministry no longer gives you the sense of satisfaction it once did. It is a source of frustration rather than pride. You’d rather do just about anything else than go to the office.
Last, this process of mismatch continues to increase without any hope of resolution. It feels like it is your new way of life and your permanent condition.
In The Truth About Burnout, Michael P. Leiter and Christina Maslach contend burnout has three basic elements2.
Exhaustion. This measures the feelings of being emotionally overextended and exhausted by one’s work.
Cynicism. This measures an unfeeling and impersonal response toward people in the congregation, other staff members, friends, and even family members. You go about ministry tasks without feelings of compassion. It’s your job, so you do it. But you withdraw psychologically from those you are with.
Ineffectiveness. This measures feelings of competence and successful achievement in your ministry. You feel like a failure. You feel that no matter what you try it’s not good enough.
A person is not really burned out until he feels all three to one degree or another: exhausted, cynical, and ineffective.
What Causes Burnout?
Our natural assumption is to blame overwork as the primary cause of burnout. But as we saw above, work overload is only part of the picture. So what is the primary cause? To answer that, we need to return to our definition.
Burnout is a gradual process of loss during which the mismatch between the needs of the person and the demands of the job grows even greater3.
No one is perfectly matched to his or her job or ministry. As ministers, there are certain things about ministry that we like and a few that we don’t care for. Some ministers enjoy administration, while others hate it. Some ministers are excellent preachers, and some struggle in the pulpit. No one likes every aspect of a job or career. There are no perfect matches.
But as ministers, we were called into ministry by God, confirmed in ministry by an ordaining body, and chosen in ministry by a congregation. So by the time we get into a ministry, we know we are a pretty good match to the pastorate.
But as burnout slowly creeps into a life, the mismatches begin to deepen and new mismatches start to appear.
According to Leiter and Maslach4, there are six areas where a person can become mismatched with his or her ministry.
Workload. A person’s workload can have negative consequences in two ways.
First, there may be too much to do. Ministry, by its very definition, is a job that’s never finished. There’s never a time when a minister can’t find something to do. It’s an everyday expectation that ministers take their work home with them. A minister is always on call. There is never a vacation that can’t be interrupted. A day off must be forced—and when a minister takes a day off, his mind stays at work. People expect a minister to be available at any and all times. This expectation wears out a minister because he can never escape his ministry role.
Second, the work may be too intense. Ministers often deal with the dark side of life. They do crisis marriage intervention. They serve as peacemakers in the congregation. They counsel battered women. They face conflict whenever they want to make changes. The church leaders are often at odds with each other over what is most important.
Preaching is also an intense activity. It takes great effort to prepare for Sunday services. And preaching is a whole body, mind, and emotion event that drains a minister of all his energies.
This intensity requires one’s body to produce adrenaline. This chemical in the body helps a person focus intently, have clarity of thought, and gives a boost to mental, emotional, and physical activities. But because so much of what a minister does is high-stress, the body is constantly producing adrenaline. Too much of this chemical and one’s nerves begin to wear down, preventing a person from getting needed rest. Continually tapping adrenaline will eventually have negative repercussions in one’s body. But intense work is demanded of ministers.
Control. Churches often expect their ministers to lead, but then don’t give them the authority to make decisions. When ministers try to make some adjustments to the ministry, people often rise up against any proposal. When ministers are given responsibility for the congregation but are not given authority, it inevitably leads to either burnout or a resignation—or both.
Reward. Churches receive ministry from the minister, but we often forget that churches need to minister to their ministers. This may come via monetary compensation. It might include an occasional thank-you card. But the primary reward ministers look for is the satisfaction that they are making a difference for the kingdom. Conflict and continuous immaturity rob a minister of that special satisfaction. The main reason some ministers become disillusioned is that the people to whom they minister refuse to show grace toward one another.
Fairness. How are different staff members treated? Is one treated better than another? Fairness, or the lack of it, is also seen in the minister’s salary package. Is the minister fairly compensated?
Community. Nothing burns out a minister more quickly than a breakdown in community. Conflict weakens a minister and makes him more prone to burnout. I believe there is no greater hazard to pastoral ministry than a congregation that won’t even try to get along with one another.
Values. Conflict in values is an area that often goes unnoticed. Ministers believe that certain things are more important than others—and sometimes church leadership doesn’t share his opinion. Is preaching more important than visitation? Is availability more important than private study time? Is it more important to satisfy the senior saints or the youth?
Ministers have their own hierarchy of values, church leaders have a different set, and members of the congregation have numerous others. Everything works fine when the hierarchy of values is shared. But when there is values conflict, a minister will burn out trying to figure out why he is doing everything “right” but no one likes what he is doing.
Mismatches in any of these six areas can lead to burnout. We need to understand, though, that just because a mismatch is present doesn’t necessarily mean burnout will occur. For instance, a minister might be willing to work 60 hours a week if he is receiving the reward of an appreciative and responsive congregation. There are trade-offs. A minister might be willing to endure an intense workload if his congregation has a very strong sense of community.
But as a whole, if there are significant mismatches, burnout is probably not far behind.
Are you burned out? Is your minister showing signs of burnout?
Next week: Action steps that can be taken to confront burnout.
1Michael P. Leiter and Christina Maslach, The Truth About Burnout (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997), 24.
41Michael P. Leiter and Christina Maslach, Banishing Burnout (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass), 2005.
Dan Sherman is regional director for PastorCare North Central (pastorcare.org) and editor of PastorBurnout.com and My-Pastor.com. This article is a summary of the Pastor Burnout Workbook, a resource available at PastorBurnout.com.