Posts Tagged ‘avoiding pastoral burnout’

There is a silent epidemic stealthily creeping its way through Christian churches and pastor’s homes these days.  It’s called burnout, and it may not be what you think.

Many years ago, I served as the pastor of a church that sold its property and moved to a warehouse in the light industrial area of our city.  We were simultaneously closing down one church (what to do with all the pianos?), running our current church, and planning for a new church, all at the same time.  The whole exercise just about killed me.  In addition, we had scores of board meetings, most lasting five to seven hours.  When we were done by eleven at night, we got home early.

During one stretch, I worked three 70-80 hour work weeks in a row.  One Friday, on my day off, I received a call telling me that the city demanded that a pile of trash in front of the warehouse be removed immediately.  Since almost everyone else in the church was at work, guess who went down there, threw the trash into the dumpster, and then jumped in and smashed the trash with his feet?  (I used to ask myself, “Would Chuck Swindoll do this?”)

But though I was becoming increasingly tired, I was stressed out, not burned out.  There’s a difference.

When you’re stressed out, you’re overloaded.  You have too much to do and not enough time to do it.  For example, I’ve been feeling a bit stressed out lately because my wife and I are moving to another house forty minutes away and we have to pack our place and move everything by the end of the month.  In fact, it will be our eighth place to live in thirteen years.  But even though it’s stressful, I’m up for it.

But when you’re experiencing burnout, you’re not up for anything.  As Dr. Archibald Hart says, burnout won’t kill you, but it will make you wish you were dead.

Pastors who suffer from burnout try and connect with God but can’t seem to do so.  They feel that God has abandoned them and no longer cares about them.  These pastors desperately need encouragement from their Christian brothers and sisters but are afraid to share how they’re doing because they don’t feel very spiritual.  And if the key leaders of the church find out how they’re really feeling, pastors are afraid they will be forcefully terminated – because in too many situations, when the news leaks out, they are terminated.

Pastors who suffer from burnout find themselves emotionally wrung out.  Because they don’t feel joyful, they have a hard time feeling or expressing pleasure.  The only emotions they can easily express are negative ones like frustration or sadness, but they try hard to keep those feelings to themselves.  Like Samson in the Philistine temple, they keep asking the Lord to get them through the next service or the next meeting because their energy resevoirs are spent.  They feel numb and dead inside.

Pastors who suffer from burnout find themselves increasingly isolated from others.  They know they’re not acting like themselves and are afraid to show their worst side to their congregation.  So they try and manuever their way through each day by only connecting with those people they must contact.  As much as they dislike it, they might even find themselves hiding from people on Sundays because they seem to have little control over how they feel and act.

Pastors who suffer from burnout usually only confide in their spouse, if anyone.  Most pastors are too proud and stubborn to seek counseling (although that’s the very thing they need most).  Yet without counseling, they will continue to spiral downward.  Trained counselors can provide an accurate diagnosis of burnout and point a pastor toward the road to recovery.

Pastors who suffer from burnout become overly sensitive.  They misinterpret any form of criticism and cannot seem to restrain their negative emotions, which just makes them want to avoid people all the more.  They are afraid of inflicting damage on the people they love.  When they act like this, pastors feel tremendously guilty because ministry is all about loving and serving people.

Pastors who suffer from burnout cannot find the motivation to do their best work.  They might scrape together the energy to prepare and deliver messages but they lack the necessary drive to be proactive in beginning new projects.  They spend a lot of time asking themselves, “What’s wrong with me?  What has happened to me?  Why don’t I feel normal?”  And the truth is, they honestly don’t know why.

Burnout doesn’t announce itself through a sudden bodily pain or injury.  It creeps up on you unaware, tackles you, and then flees before you ever see its face.  But the effects of burnout linger on: mental confusion, energy loss, relational aversion, internal emptiness, and a seemingly hopeless future.

Because so many pastors are burned out these days, they are leaving pastoral ministry in droves.  Some seek help and gradually recover, but many seek secular work, and some never darken the door of a church for years, if ever.

One of America’s most famous pastors came to a breaking point last year.  Although he says that he hadn’t yet done any damage to his ministry and relationships, he was concerned that might happen, so with the blessing of his church board, he took more than six months off to try and recover.  Sadly, most pastors who suffer from burnout need at least that much time off or more, but their church boards aren’t likely to give them that kind of time.  It’s easier to just let the pastor go and hire one with fresh energy.

This burnout issue is growing more and more serious.  It’s serious for pastors because, as Dr. Archibald Hart says, it can mean the beginning of the end of a career.  But it’s serious for churches too because some churches can actually set a pastor up for burnout.

I’ll talk more about pastoral burnout in my next article and suggest ways that both pastors and churches can aid in recovery – because pastors cannot do it alone.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: