Confronting Burnout in the Ministry (Part 2)
By Daniel Sherman
Burnout is one of the fiercest foes of pastoral ministry. It robs a pastor of needed energy and creates an atmosphere characterized by cynicism and futility. But it’s neither inevitable nor permanent. Still, one must be on guard and have appropriate weapons to confront burnout.
Last week we discussed the definition and the cause of burnout. We learned a minister is suffering burnout when he (1) feels exhausted; (2) becomes cynical, removed, emotionally distant from people and ministry; and (3) believes he is not making any difference—that all his work is in vain.
A burned-out person will experience all three of those characteristics, but one or two of them will be most severe.
After discussing the nature of burnout last week, we looked at the six areas in which a person can get out of sync with his ministry. When these combine, burnout is the inevitable result. The six are:
Workload. Burnout can occur when there is too much work to do or when the work is too intense.
Control. If a minister is given responsibilities but not any authority to make the necessary decisions, he will burn out.
Reward. Ministers aren’t in ministry for the money; they want to make a difference for the kingdom. But when things don’t go well in the church, ministers lose their sense of reward.
Fairness. If a minister is not compensated fairly, burnout has found a foothold.
Community. When there is conflict in the congregation, ministers become disillusioned, which can lead to burnout.
Values. Conflict arises when congregational values don’t match the minister’s values.
In light of all these things, how do we defeat burnout?
There are some clear steps a person can take to confront each of the six causes of burnout. Each one requires a plan of action tailored to that particular cause.
However, there are a few strategies that apply to all of the causes of burnout, including:
A well-balanced diet. This gives a person energy and helps keep him focused.
Exercise. The body in motion burns off stress and gives an emotional lift.
Prayer and meditation. Few things calm a person more than slowing down and focusing on God.
Delegation. No one can do everything. If there isn’t anyone trained to do a certain task, train someone.
Rest. Get at least seven hours of sleep a night. Take at least one day off each week. Take off two days in a row at least once a month. Find a retreat away from home at least twice a year.
Take your vacation. I’m surprised at the number of ministers who take only one or two weeks of vacation a year. No minister should take less than four weeks of vacation each year. And church leaders should make sure the minister takes those four weeks. Then, once every five to seven years, take a two-month sabbatical. Ministers need rest. It is good for the minister and his family, and it is good for the church.
Eliminate hidden sin. Pornography is a rampant problem in our society. Ministers sometimes fall victim to this sin—and the guilt associated with it can eat a minister alive.
Confront your anger and frustration. No congregation is perfect. Sometimes ministers allow frustration with people to become anger or resentment. Ministry leaders need to confess their anger and let go of it, or it will cause burnout.
Find a traveling partner. Being a minister usually is a lonely occupation. But it shouldn’t be that way. In my observations, ministers who have a close spiritual friend are more likely to avoid the perils of ministry.
Know and submit to your limits. No one can do everything—not even you. Do what you can, delegate whenever possible, and leave the rest alone.
Now let’s look at some specific actions that target each of the six potential causes of burnout.
Workload: What can you do about work overload?
Delegate as many tasks as possible.
Discuss your workload with your church leaders, establish a list of priorities in order of importance, and then work on the basis of that hierarchy. If people ask you why you aren’t doing certain things, tell them the leadership puts a higher priority on other things.
Negotiate the reduction in work volume. If leaders don’t want to prioritize or do a poor job of it, see if you can come to some agreement on the reduction of your responsibilities. Explain the danger of burnout—that it will lead to reduced effectiveness in the church, which will mean greater frustration for everyone.
If the office walls seem to be closing in, find other places to study.
Control: What can you do about lack of control?
You might have more control than you think you do. Try to test the limits to see if it’s only your perception. Make a decision on your own. Invite a guest speaker without asking permission. Do something that stretches the boundaries a bit and see if you get in trouble. You might be freer than you think you are!
Begin training new leaders. Disciple them. In the process, instill in them the need for the minister to lead. As these new leaders take positions of authority in the church, they will grant you more control over ministry.
Earn the right to control your ministry. This will occur as you build your reputation in the church. As you gain people’s respect, you will also gain their trust. Then they will give you more control. This takes time—years in fact. But as you demonstrate your integrity, you will slowly gain their trust (Hebrews 13:7, 17).
Reward: How do you generate a sense of reward in ministry?
There are two primary ways to feel good about the ministry you’re performing.
Gain satisfaction from a ministry done well. Do what you can to be faithful, and rest in the fact that God approves of your ministry.
Congregation members can show genuine appreciation for their minister. A minister can’t control this—it has to come from those who receive the ministry. Do you appreciate your minister? Does he know you appreciate him?
Fairness: How do you overcome a lack of fairness?
Talk publicly about your burnout. Those I’ve counseled tell me that when people learned about their struggles, they rallied around to do what they could to support the minister.
Trust others in the congregation. As a minister shows trust in church members, those folks will be more likely to treat the minister fairly.
Be fair in your ministry. Don’t treat one group better than another. Demonstrate through your actions that everyone is important—not just those with whom you are comfortable.
Have open conversations with church leaders about your financial package. Be sure the package is fair. But you also must realize and accept that the minister down the road has a better financial package than you do. That will not change no matter how fairly the church treats you.
Community: How do you overcome a lack of community?
Confront division. Use the experience of Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2, 3 as an example. Confront with gentleness, as Paul urges in that passage.
Teach and model effective community.
Create ways for people to spend time together so they can develop their relational skills.
Values: How do you overcome values conflict?
Have an open and honest conversation with church leaders about their hierarchy of values and yours. Develop a compromise that works for everyone.
Gently preach and teach your values.
Slowly reshape the congregation’s expectations of how you should do ministry . . . and I emphasize slowly.
Confront, Don’t Accept
Burnout is the silent ministry killer. It creeps into a servant’s life, usually without anyone noticing . . . until it’s too late. But we need not give in to burnout as if it were part of ministry.
Confront burnout, rather than accepting it. Actively pursue its demise in your life. Don’t give up . . . never give up. You can beat this. You will beat this. You will get back to normal.
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.