Health and Religion

Ministerial Burnout. This affliction of the "Bionic Minister" can be avoided by taking some common-sense precautions. Here's how.

William Rabior is an associate pastor in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan.
Clifford D. Achord, Ph.D., is associate professor of marriage and family counseling at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.


by William Rabior

He was a colleague in the ministry whom everyone described as a human dynamo—certainly one of the hardest-working men we knew. He seemed to thrive on work, driving himself constantly toward new goals, new projects, new horizons. And then one day he simply found him self unable to function ministerially. It became necessary to seek medical attention, including psychotherapy. At the age of 42, he had burned himself out physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Because we are ministers of the gospel, some of us get the idea that we are somehow invulnerable to the kind of break down my friend experienced. We are doing the Lord's work, we reason, and therefore are immune to the ills that afflict ordinary mortals. Yet ministerial activity is often accompanied by a high degree of stress, which can prove overwhelming and take a terrible toll. Although called of God, we are, like other professionals, susceptible to what has been termed "burnout."

Boston University professor LeRoy Spaniol describes burnout as "a sense of dead-endedness, a feeling that you have nowhere to go, that nothing new is happening." Not infrequently it is accompanied by such psychosomatic com plaints as insomnia, excessive fatigue, or severe headaches. In some cases it may actually take the form of some kind of emotional collapse. According to Professor Spaniol, burnout occurs in those people who ignore their own needs by trying to live a Spartan existence.

How can you avoid ministerial burn out? First, stop trying to be the "bionic minister." Remember that you are human and can accomplish only so much in the lifetime God has given you. Be realistic in setting goals and objectives for your ministry. Keep in mind that despite all indications to the contrary your church will go on after you are dead.

Second, make time for yourself. Even Jesus scheduled periods of time when He could be alone for prayer and undoubtedly just to relax. Each week try to build into your schedule one day with no professional duties. If that is impossible, try to find at least part of a day. Periodically break out of the grind.

Exercise is an excellent means of relieving tension and stress. More and more ministers are turning to jogging or some other form of active exercise as a means of combating the effects of work pressures. One colleague has been jogging for the past year and says that he feels ten years younger. I honestly have to admit that he looks it!

Try to find someone with whom you can share the frustrations that come with ministry. Ventilate your feelings by dis cussing them with that person instead of allowing them to build up inside. Pastors minister to hundreds of people, but who ministers to the pastor? Who is the pas tor's pastor? Many clergy are forming support groups that meet periodically not only for relaxation but to talk over problems, goals, attitudes, and personal feelings related to ministry. If the people in the group are willing to be honest and open with one an other, they can provide excellent opportunities for emotional release and personal growth. The group to which I belong provides me a forum to let off steam, to share ideas, and to build friendships.

Finally, learn to relax and appreciate each day. The evidence from Scripture is that Christ Him self, despite His intensity of purpose, deeply en joyed life. He appreciated a good meal, the beauty of nature, a quiet walk alone. He knew the importance of inner serenity and how to relax. This is one area of imitating the Master that we often forget or simply ignore, especially as the pace of our ministry accelerates and we strive harder to accomplish even more. We may actually become so busy doing God's work that He can't even get our attention!

We may be God's ambassadors, but we are also human beings with very real needs and limitations. Unless we pay some attention to those needs and take care of ourselves in some fashion, ministerial burnout is always a possibility. A sound mind in a sound body makes for a sound ministry, enabling us to serve God longer and more effectively.

Perhaps if my colleague, the human dynamo, had read this article a few years ago, he would still be pastoring today. Health and Religion--Continued

Health and Religion—Continued

by Clifford D. Achord

When something goes wrong in a family, where can people turn for help? A few years ago an acquaintance of my wife called her on the telephone and asked, "Will you raise my daughter after I'm gone?" My wife gave her a few reassuring words, then hung up and rushed across town to the woman's house. She found her on the floor with a loaded pistol in her hand. My wife took the gun away gently and asked whether she might drive her to the local hospital. The woman indignantly refused and said she would see her pastor. So my wife called the pastor and stayed until he arrived.

What would you do if you were that pastor?

People often turn to the church pastor instead of other professionals because they think they know him better. Thus he is often at the "front line" of crisis-intervention systems of the community. Not every case that comes to him for help is as direct as this suicide case, of course. Sometimes children from dysfunctional homes will signal their dis tress with "acting out" behavior at school. If the pastor is called in on such a problem, he should look at the family situation before disciplining the child. It might be the youngster's indirect way of crying out for help.

Counsel in family-crisis situations is difficult even for trained professionals, but here are some suggestions that may help you when your turn comes.

Reach the people as quickly as possible when you become aware of an impending crisis. In such a situation, every day may seem like a lifetime to the people caught in the conflict, and delay may add complications.

Include as many members of the family as possible in the counseling sessions. It is sometimes difficult for you to get all the family members to participate in analyzing and solving the problem, but it is also unlikely you will make progress unless all are included. In a marriage crisis, if you see one spouse only, you may make the problem worse, because the two will make even less effort to communicate while you are a factor.

Focus only on the immediate crisis. Many people have chronic conflicts that have been troubling them for years. When a crisis arises, focus only on the critical event and their emotional responses to the immediate problem. Don't try to solve everything at once; leave the historical problems out of the picture.

Be a neutral part in the conflict. It may be very easy for you to identify one person in the dispute, or side with one faction. Some might expect you to take a judgmental attitude toward the "sinful" member of the family, but don't do so; try to be neutral and listen to both sides.

Be a facilitator to help a family resolve its own conflicts, rather than an authoritative giver of advice. If you take an authoritarian position, the family situation may stabilize more quickly, but when the next problem arises, they will be after your advice again. You should help them learn to solve their own problems.

Become a team player on a community mental-health team. Get acquainted with professionally trained social workers, marriage and family counselors, and psychologists and psychiatrists. If you have questions about how these people handle spiritual issues in their counseling, ask them directly and openly. You may then relate confidently to mental-health workers who appreciate the spiritual and subcultural concerns of your parishioners. Recognize the difference between pastoral and psychological counseling. Most people who contact a pastor expect spiritual or pastoral counseling. Family crises are usually psychosocial in nature and have a spiritual component. When a serious intrapsychic or interpersonal crisis is exploding, the person or family may need a profession ally trained mental-health worker, as well as the support of the pastor. Mental-health workers and pastor ought to be able to work together better than they do, to provide the best possible assistance to people.

Be supportive, not critical. A person in crisis needs hope and love. The pastor can provide warmth and affection perhaps more than any other person in a crisis, and can help his people experience the comfort of the Holy Spirit and the assurance of justification by grace. These can be very important to the success of family counseling.

When a family crisis erupts, it is sometimes already past hope for salvage. Much crisis counseling, therefore, comes "too little and too late." Even experienced crisis counselors recognize that perhaps half the families they see can never be stabilized really satisfactorily. Whatever comes of family conflicts, however, the pastor can help each member of the family to realize that the love of Christ is eternal; and they can always put their hope and trust in Him.


Recommended reading: Robert Carkuff and C. Truax, Toward Effective Counseling and Psychotherapy (New York: Aldine-Atherton, 1967); Howard J. Parod, Crisis Intervention: Selected Readings (New York: Family Service Association of America, 1965).

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William Rabior is an associate pastor in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan.
Clifford D. Achord, Ph.D., is associate professor of marriage and family counseling at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

March 1979

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