Posts Tagged ‘symptoms of pastoral burnout’

Years ago, I attended a spring training game at Municipal Stadium in Phoenix where the Oakland A’s play.  I arrived right when the gates opened, as I often did, and heard U2’s song With or Without You blaring through the loudspeakers.  (And it sounded so good.)  Several times in the song, Bono sang these words:

And you give yourself away

And you give yourself away

And you give, and you give

And you give yourself away

Those lyrics could describe the feelings of a mother with small children, or a caregiver working with a terminally ill patient, or a customer service representative at a department store, or even a public school teacher trying to control a large class.

Or a local church pastor.

For most of my ministry life, I liked being a pastor.  Yes, there were some tough times, but the good that was done usually outweighed the bad.  I was doing what God called me to do, I was surrounded by Christians who acted like Christians, and I could sense the smile of God upon my life and ministry.

But then slowly, things changed.

Eighteen months ago, I felt like I was falling apart, and I had no idea what was happening to me.  I took a few days off work to read a couple of books that seemed related to what I was feeling, and they helped some, but I still wasn’t right.  Eventually, I saw a Christian counselor who gave me some tests to take, and after he scored them, he told me, “You’re suffering from a severe case of burnout and you’re near a breakdown.”  While his diagnosis initially shocked me, the literature confirmed his conclusion.  Burnout had crept up on me without my knowledge or consent.

But I had all the symptoms.  I felt empty inside.  I didn’t want to hang around most people because I couldn’t control my negative emotions.  After always being a self-starter, I could not seem to motivate myself.  And worst of all, it felt like God had abandoned me.  In the past, it always seemed like I could sense God’s presence, but now He seemed to be a million miles away.  Although I wasn’t suicidal, it would have been okay with me if I had just vanished.

How could a veteran pastor experience such symptoms?

When pastors suffer from burnout, they don’t want to tell anybody.  There is still a stigma about the condition in Christian circles because people assume that if a pastor is truly spiritual, he will never experience burnout.  Because it was hard enough to admit it to myself, I only told a handful of people.  I believed that if the word got out, I would be forced to leave the church because burnout victims require prolonged inactivity.

I didn’t fit the usual profile of a burnout victim.  I had a regular quiet time with the Lord.  I exercised 30-45 minutes at least five times a week.  My home life has always been wonderful.  And I didn’t feel driven inside.  The issues that were draining me were not in my private life.  Instead, they were all at church.

Like many pastors, I am a person who needs to see things happen in his life.  Early in my ministry, I liked cutting the grass at my house because I could immediately see the results of my labor.  (This strategy doesn’t work all that well in Phoenix because you have to look hard to find grass.)  I needed to see attendance rising, giving increasing, and lives being changed.

While I tried not to measure my self-worth exclusively by numbers, I was always conscious that some people in the church – especially those who are business-oriented – almost always judge a pastor’s worth “by the numbers.”  I’ve had a lifelong battle with that value system, but in the ministry, whether you like it or not, “You are your stats.”  To keep the stats going up, you need momentum.  And to keep momentum, you need to continually make plans for new growth.

I once was acquainted with a church that had been in existence for nearly thirty years.  Despite the fact that the church lacked a worship center, it had grown.  To accommodate new growth, the leaders proposed putting a new worship center on the front lawn right next to a major street.

When the proposal was brought before the congregation, matters became contentious, and when the vote for the new building was taken, it failed by a slim margin.  At that point, many of the church’s most gifted individuals left the church and the congregation went through a few years of tough times, culminating in an invitation for the church I served as pastor (which was five miles away) to merge with it, which we did.  But we struggled because it’s hard to resurrect momentum.

When a church is growing, it needs to seize those God-given opportunities to “take the land” or it may very well end up wandering in the wilderness for a long, long time.

Without going into details, I spent months in my last church doing research and putting plans together to keep the momentum going only to have those plans blocked.  Although I told very few people at the time, I knew that was the beginning of the end of my ministry in that place.  It was only a few days later that I was diagnosed with burnout.

My story can be replicated thousands of times in the lives of pastors all over this country.

My guess is that most of you reading this blog are not pastors.  Let me share with you several things that you can do to help your pastor avoid burnout.

First, pray for him daily – and let him know you’re praying for him.  (It’s been my experience that those who pray for their pastor rarely attack him, while those who attack him rarely pray for him.)  And when appropriate, pray with him.  Pastors are so used to praying for others that they are usually greatly moved when someone wants to pray for them.

Second, encourage him to stay home most nights.  Years ago, I heard Chuck Swindoll say that a church that expects its pastor to work many nights will eventually lose him.  Andy Stanley, who pastors one of America’s largest churches in the Atlanta area, says that he’s home almost every night of the week.  Toward the end of my ministry, being out three to four nights a week began to take its toll on me – especially as I got older – and I longed to be home more often.

Third, honestly let your pastor know when he’s doing a good job.  Some pastors are able to affirm themselves and don’t need as much external affirmation, while other pastors constantly need to know they’re helping somebody.  It always meant more to me to receive a note of encouragement on Monday or Tuesday than it did on Sunday – although I always appreciated it regardless of the timing.  When the pastor doesn’t hear affirmation from anyone for a week or two, he may very well question his effectiveness, which is one of the symptoms of burnout.

Finally, intervene if you think your pastor is headed toward burnout.  Talk to him.  Talk to his wife.  Talk to the board.  Talk to the staff.  While the pastor needs to care for himself, many could sing with Bono, “And you give yourself away … and you give … and you give … and you give yourself away.”  But if you don’t take in more than you give … you will burn out.

Burnout happens more in the helping professions (doctors, nurses, paramedics, psychologists, missionaries) than in other professions because the work never ends and because the caring mechanisms of the body shut down after prolonged stress.

I will write more about this extremely relevant issue in the days ahead.  If you’d like to read more about this issue, here’s a brief description of the symptoms and cure for pastoral burnout:


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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.

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