Ministerial burnout

Ministerial burnout-cause and prevention

Burnout is becoming common in the ministry because of added stress. But it is a wholly preventable and curable problem. Ministers and administrators need to work together to prevent it.

Winton H. Beaven, PhD., is assistant to the president of KetteringMedical Center, Kettering, Ohio.

Many people today are paralyzed by burn out. This phenomenon is especially prevalent among those in the helping professions, which includes Christian ministers.

The dictionary defines burnout as burning "until the fuel is exhausted, and the fire ceases."1 A more comprehensive definition is that burnout is a cluster of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion reactions. It is the result of constant or repeated emotional arousal associated with an intense involvement with people over long periods of time.

Physical exhaustion means that there is a loss of energy, chronic fatigue, weakness, and weariness. Emotional exhaustion involves feelings of depression, hopelessness, and helplessness, usually accompanied by a loss of coping skills. Often feelings of happiness are replaced by loneliness and discouragement. Mental exhaustion leads to negative attitudes toward work, life, and self. This in turn leads to negative attitudes toward others and feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, and incompetence.

Burnout is a physiological and psychological reaction to long periods of stress. Stress is a natural ingredient of everyday life, but in and of itself it will not cause burnout. It is unrelieved stress that results in burnout.

Why should ministers have burnout? After all, they spend their lives keeping close to God by reading His Word, praying, and meditating. It would seem that ministers would be immune, but the fact that they are not may in itself increase the severity of ministerial burn out.

Stress in the ministry

In my travels I have been told by Protestant and Catholic ministers that their role today is more stressful and much less rewarding than ministry in previous generations. It is so acute that Christianity Today, in its May 17, 1985, issue spent several pages discussing the problems of battered pastors.2

Years ago the pastor was often the best educated man in his church. As a leader of the community he was respected and listened to. But today most pastors have better educated and seemingly more successful members in the congregation.

The new stresses and strains that have faced ministers during the past fifteen years have caused a steady flow of them to leave church work. Just how severe the problem is is difficult to tell.

As the number of things a pastor is expected to do and do well increases, the opportunities for failure increase enormously. The responsibilities under which the clergy labor in the local church are monumental. As Methodist minister Pierce Harris puts it: "The modern preacher has to make as many visits as a country doctor, shake as many hands as a politician, prepare as many briefs as a lawyer, and see as many people as a specialist. He has to be as good an executive as the president of a university, as good a financier as a bank president; and in the midst of it all, he has to be so good a diplomat that he could umpire a baseball game between the Knights of Columbus and the Ku Klux Klan." 3

There is no way any human being can live up to all these expectations. Without being given any clear sense of priorities, so many competencies and skills are expected of the average pastor that most continually find themselves overextended. Equipped with imprecise competence, supplied with inadequate resources, and provided with little or no backup system, many ministers develop feelings of inadequacy and intellectual and spiritual malaise.

In addition, there is a "guilt trip" laid upon the minister who begins to question his or her ability to fulfill all the roles. No other professional in society faces this peculiar problem. It has to do with the significance of the call. Questioning one's call from God often leads to strong feelings of guilt. The scriptures of both the Old and the New Testaments tell of God calling persons into His service. Moses, Isaiah, the disciples, and Paul all received a special call from God. The call concept is not only sanctioned by Scripture but has been acknowledged by the church. Thus the call to Christian ministry sets the stage for burnout because the calling is usually accompanied by certain expectations.

I. T. Jones speaks of the stress of this calling to Christian ministry. The ministry, he says, "is a difficult, many-sided work requiring a large measure of versatility. There are few callings, if any, that make as rigorous psychological and physiological demands, that exact such a heavy toll of nervous energy. First and last a good many ministers fail to stand the strain. Some are unorganized personalities and some are disorganized. Some live on tensions, under pressures, with all sorts of gnarled and unhealthy emotions. Many are frustrated, morose, worried, harried, hurried, driven, irritable, difficult to get along with and to live with. Some develop stomach ulcers, others have heart attacks, still others have nervous breakdowns, a few commit suicide. These are ugly facts, but they should be faced by every minister at the beginning of his ministry." 4

The concerns regarding the stress factors related to calling are com pounded by the administrative process by which the church functions. Within the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the conference president is the chief administrator who largely determines a ministers future. This fact promotes privacy on the part of most pastors. One is hesitant to share personal concerns with those who hold such control over his destiny. This creates a profession that is often characterized by loneliness, suspicion, and a lack of trust in the hierarchy as well as colleagues.

This system also creates a sense of competition between fellow clergy. We are all susceptible to the "superstar syndrome," hoping that our performance will place us on the marquee. The best performers are usually rewarded with the best appointments. This places them in the limelight for greater roles in the future productions of the conference. High performers are not necessarily the ones with the type of creative competence that helps to build the kingdom. Performance in this sense is oftentimes seen as "greasing the machine" or "playing the political game" for the purpose of personal progress. This is obviously not always the case. There are exceptions to every rule.

Dr. Freudenberger in his book Burnout, in a section entitled "Who Survives the System," says, "It would be nice to think that all the things they taught us when we were young are true, that the people at the top got there because they were outstanding in some way. Unhappily, while competence rises, the opposite is true in more cases than not. The imaginative individual who is overflowing with original ideas and abundant energy is often considered a maverick, too difficult to handle, too difficult to pigeonhole. If he doesn't fit a particular niche on the organizational charts, no one knows where to place him, and he's passed over when promotions come due, until eventually he becomes disillusioned and ceases to be effective.

"Meanwhile, colorless, politically oriented hacks who make no waves and offer no criticism (no innovations, either) climb the ladder, creating a dual dilemma for their capable underlings. For one thing, there is the unanswerable question, 'why him instead of me?' For another, there is the necessity to resign oneself to working under one's inferior. Executives who rise despite a lack of intrinsic merit make unsatisfactory bosses. Because they are nervous, they are wishy-washy about making decisions, always looking to see which way the wind is blowing before they commit themselves. They're so busy preserving the status quo, they can't be relied on to back up their staff or to go to bat for controversial viewpoints." 5

This competitive calamity does not create the best support system for ministers. The fault of the system cannot easily be laid at the doorsteps of anyone. However, this problem oftentimes creates a potential for burnout.

Special problems for minister

In addition to the normal problems encountered in any organizational structure, ministers face stiffer competition than most professionals. Whatever the skills and abilities the minister may possess, the rise of the media in American life has guaranteed that on every level of performance the pastor will be compared with the best available in America. His or her evangelistic effectiveness will be judged against the great evangelists appearing on film and video tape.

A very special problem, which is nothing new, but today is magnified many times, is the role of the spouse and the family in the minister's life and church. Years ago it was expected that the wife's primary function was to support her husband by remaining discreetly in the background and playing the piano or organ when appropriate, assisting in Bible studies, teaching in the children's division, and generally being an unassuming, helpful individual, playing a secondary but important role. In addition to her impeccable behavior, the children were to be well clothed, clean, and paragons of virtue. Today, not only is the wife expected to be a servant of the church with perfect children, but she is further expected to have no goals for herself. Stress resulting from expectations placed on families causes a significant departure from the ministry.

Ego can be another crucial concern for ministers. Many persons enter the helping profession because they enjoy the attention given them by those whom they help. Since the minister is constantly called to console persons who are in crisis, ego is sustained by seeing people benefited. This, however, can be a draining demand on the human spirit and thus result in the cost being greater than the reward.

Assessing the problem of the minister's ego, John A. Sanford says, "The problem of burnout and the problem of the exhausted ego are not entirely dissimilar. Burnout can lead to exhaustion, and where we find the exhausted ego, the problem of burnout is also sure to be there. We can liken them to first cousins two clearly related problems, yet each somewhat distinct from the other. The problem of burnout is largely task-oriented and, by definition, stems from the wearing out of one's work. The problem of the exhausted ego is more fundamental, for it revolves around the wearing out of the person's entire ego orientation.

"One might suppose that a ministering person would not be subject to the problem of the exhausted ego, that such a person would be so in touch with God, and the satisfactions of a life in which one person labors for others out of love, that the ego would always be buoyant. But such is not the case. To the contrary, a life in which love and morality predominate has a tiring quality to it because it revolves around real relation' ships and requires the effort of caring." 6

The minister who needs the kinds of ego strokes that come from ministering can be devastated when his ego is not fed. This devastation can lead to exhaustion and finally burnout.

We cannot explore all the conditions that confront clergy in their efforts to fulfill their calling. It is important to understand that the work of the minister of today is far more complex and hazardous than it has ever been before, that the expectations of skill and professionalism are more demanding, and that the ability to meet the demands that are placed on the minister probably has diminished. In the light of the other demands placed by family and society upon them, it is not surprising that ministers burn out. It is surprising that more of them do not do so.

What, then, can be done? First, much needs to be done to clarify and define the role of the Christian minister. More needs to be done in the seminary setting to equip pastors for factors they will encounter that lead to burnout. Denominational hierarchies need to be more sensitive to the severity of the problem. We have no provision for pastors who go through burnout and need to explore other avenues of employment. Many pastors experience judgment and rejection as a result of the perils that accompany burnout.

Ministers need to be responsible for their own destiny by equipping themselves with the necessary tools that will enable them to cope with burnout.


While individuals may vary in their reactions and ability to cope, the root causes of burnout are environmental rather than internal. The concept of burnout implies that anyone experiencing chronic pressures without adequate support will experience some physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. In facing tension and stress, the minister ought not to ask "What's wrong with me?" but rather "Why does my work burn me out?" and "How can I change the situation?"

We use the term coping, which refers to efforts to master conditions of harm, threat, or challenge when automatic response is not readily available. Coping styles vary, and they vary in their effectiveness.

Coping skills can be classified under two general heads: The first is attitudes and behaviors that, if effectively utilized, may reduce stresses and strains, and the second is the general area of coping skills that need developing for diffusing some of the intensity of stressful situations.

All human beings have vulnerabilities. One of the greatest hazards facing ministers is attempting to achieve the perfection that many parishioners expect. We need to acknowledge from the beginning that we are weak and vulnerable.

Prevention and recovery

What steps can a minister take to either prevent or recover from burnout? First of all, it must be recognized that the basis of good emotional health lies on the twin foundations of good physical health and good spiritual health. During the first Hans Selye Stress Conference in Atlanta, I interviewed Dr. Robert Veninga, from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. He has done much research in the field of burnout and has personally treated more than three hundred sufferers. He commented that 95 percent of all of the burnout victims he has treated were lacking proper physical exercise. He stated that he could almost guarantee when someone came to him with burnout symptoms that the individual was not in good physical shape. Consequently, one of the greatest pillars of strength in preventing burnout is to maintain a consistent physical fitness program.

Second, the minister must have a spiritual maintenance plan not dissimilar to that for maintaining physical health. If a young minister has developed a pattern of personal devotions that requires an hour at the beginning of the day, and under the pressure of events, shortchanges it, that may produce a feeling of disease and guilt, which can be a first step toward burnout. Thus spiritual and physical fitness are two of the greatest preventatives of burnout.

Third, the minister must set realistic goals. Most young ministers have not yet learned the wisdom of the old rabbi who observed, "When I was young, I set out to change the world. As I grew older, I limited it to my community. Now that I am older and wiser, I see that I should have begun with myself." The young minister who sets out with holy zeal to rebuild and reconstitute his church may well be a prime candidate for burnout.

Next, the minister needs to learn to provide for himself. No one is more driven to meet the needs of his clients than a parish minister. In this process he sooner or later learns that alone he cannot meet all the needs of any congregation, no matter how hard he may try. It is absolutely essential that the minister organize his work in such a way that, in addition to maintenance of physical and spiritual health he has time off to do anything or nothing. The normal minister cannot work seven days a week anymore than the normal man or woman can. The tired minister is a vulnerable minister, physically and emotionally. Adequate protection of appropriate time off is essential.

Another preventative to burnout is a minister's self-study which permits objective evaluation of strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. In working with alcoholics and drug abusers, we impress upon the recovering alcoholic the necessity of changing life patterns. Joe, the assembly-line worker who always walked down State Street, past Bill's Bar, on his way home (except that he never passed Bill's Bar; he went in), must learn not to walk down State Street. So with the minister who knows that he cannot deal with a specific problem effectively; he should either avoid getting involved in the problem altogether or secure adequate training to improve his ability. In counseling situations pastors need to learn early where they can be effective and where they cannot and where temptations may reside that may cause problems. Acknowledging vulnerabilities is a sign of intelligence and strength, not of weakness.

Another skill that professional helpers must learn is called "detached concern." If we as ministers become emotionally involved with all the problems of our parishioners, we will eventually destroy ourselves. While being empathetic to those who hurt, we cannot shoulder their hurts. Furthermore, when we become emotionally involved we are likely to lose our objectivity and thus decrease our effectiveness in counseling. In sharing the love of Christ, it is difficult for a pastor not to become emotionally involved with his parishioners. While it is idealistic to talk about weeping with those who weep, it is probably physically impossible in the long haul.

Decompressing plans

An allied coping skill is the art of decompressing in a nonharmful way. During the normal day, we who are in the helping professions tend to build up an emotional head of steam that needs to be diffused if we are to function effectively.

Those trained in the abstinent tradition, as I have been, are tempted to make fun of the cocktail hour since it can be demonstrated that the cocktail hour is probably destructive overall. However, its motivation is valid. There are many ways to decompress without the aid of cocktails. If you like music, put on headphones and escape for half an hour; or run, play games, coach a ball team, or do whatever helps you calm down and preserve your health and sanity.

We create problems by not recognizing the emotional state in which most of us find ourselves between four and six o'clock in the afternoon. When a pastor comes home late in the afternoon and meets his spouse, who has been home all day looking after children, it is the tendency of both to immediately want to unload the burdens of the day. Unfortunately, that is not the time to unload anything. If two working spouses return home at the same time, similar situations may exist because of the needs of each, and further conflicts may arise out of the competition. However you do it, it is important to learn how to calm down and how to cool off at the end of a trying day.

Another preventative technique is learning how to compartmentalize activities. It sounds trite, but is true nevertheless. "It is important to learn to leave one's work at work and one's home at home." The efficient pastor will need to learn to use quality time. In essence, that means "when you are doing what you are doing, that's all you are doing." The person who brings his work home ought to feel guilty if he or she is not maintaining home relationships and responsibilities. Conversely, if office work is constantly being interrupted by home duties, proper concentration on work duties is hindered.

Finally, the minister needs to learn to listen to his body and be aware of danger signs. If those of equable temperament find themselves becoming irritable (and this begins to happen on a frequent or regular basis), they need to recognize this as a sign of a problem. If you get up in the morning feeling as tired as when you went to bed, obviously something is wrong. If you didn't have headaches and now you do have them, your body is telling you something. Beware of continuing to place stresses upon body and soul when danger signs appear. Learning one's limitations early is a proven way to avoid burnout.

Support systems

One of the greatest preventatives for burnout is found in the developing of support systems made up of people who provide the kind of ministry that every individual needs in order to survive as physically and emotionally healthy human beings. While I believe in the value of exercise, I believe even more that we are social creatures and that God intended us to support each other in all activities of life.

It is important for a minister to have three kinds of support provided. First, we need someone who can listen. This requires only empathic skills and can be provided by a variety of people. Those with good mothers had someone who listened. Those with good spouses have someone who listens. If a minister has people outside the family who listen, they provide a service that all of us need—at worst, spasmodically; at best, on a regular basis.

One of the weaknesses of the ministry is that the minister often has no one who listens. Because of hierarchical demands he cannot go to his conference administrator without some fear. He rarely has a fellow pastor whom he can trust; thus, as a rule, he is limited to the members of his own family, who, while they can listen in some ways helpfully, may not be able to listen in other ways.

Second, beyond simply listening, a pastor needs to have listening that provides emotional support of a kind that makes one feel better, that figuratively binds up one's wounds and pours soothing oil upon those wounds. It is a support that says, "I love you. I want to help you. It doesn't make any difference what you have done. I love you anyway. "

Do not confuse this with the glib praise sometimes passed out at the church door by parishioners after a good sermon. This is not emotional support; it is merely recognition of a laudable effort The two are by no means the same. You can tell me, "You preached a good sermon," but I can still feel completely worthless.

Emotional support not only allows me to bind up my wounds and carry on, but also can challenge me to greater endeavor. After I have had a good cry and have gotten the poison out of my system and am feeling sorry for myself, a good emotional support can say, "Well, now, let's go on." "Let's be strong." "Tomorrow is a new day." "You can do better." And thus emotional support becomes emotional challenge.

Finally, in the field of "people" support, the minister needs technical support and technical challenge. Most ministers in our church are physically remote from colleagues. While we have ministerial meetings, they generally deal with the business of the church and the work of the minister. They frequently set goals without much input on the part of the minister. And in "cranking up" the church program, they may actually increase the pastor's stress and tension.

Meetings of professionals, organized by superiors, tend to increase stress rather than reduce it. The agendas normally place emphasis on getting more work done better, rather than on how the individual can more effectively relate to the work that has to be done. Administrators would do well to learn that ministers' meetings need to be balanced and that as much time should be spent dealing with the concerns of the individual minister in the carrying out of his duties as is spent on developing and maintaining the program of the church.

In order to develop technical support, either formally or informally, small groups of three to seven ministers ought to get together on a rather frequent basis. These groups should be self-created and formed by people who trust each other. In that setting, with no agendas, technical support and technical challenge can be forthcoming.

What do I mean by technical support and technical challenge? Pastor A is trying program 1, Pastor B has tried program 1. Pastor B can say to Pastor A, "This did not work for me and is not a good idea." Thus he provides, as a trusted professional, competent advice in a technical area. Speaking loosely, only a minister can provide technical support to another minister. Second, technical challenge means, "Joe, you're running the same program in your church you did five years ago. Isn't it time you changed?" Ministers, like other people, have a tendency to fall into ruts. Only a fellow minister can point out the width and depth of the rut in which a colleague may be running.

The work of the pastor/minister is, I believe, the highest calling of man on earth. I also believe that God will provide us the strength to perform the duties of the calling. I also believe that God has given us intelligence with which to make good choices in order to make ourselves efficient workers in His vineyard. I believe the scripture that tells us that God will not burden us with more than we can bear. But I also believe that the stresses of life in which the minister finds himself today may, if not handled wisely, place him beyond the breaking point and destroy both his ministry and himself.

In my judgment, the ultimate step in the process of stress prevention is changing the way we view ourselves and our place in the world. If I can examine my priorities and make the necessary changes, I can be freed from my captivity to unwanted stress. I can understand that my identity in the image of God is secure and that my life has special value quite apart from environmental influences.

1 Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary of
the English Language (New York: World Publishing
Co., 1971), p. 244.

2 Marshall Shelley, "The Problems of Battered
Pastors," Christianity Today, May 17, 1985, pp.

3 Ibid., p. 35.

4 H. Richard Niebuhr and Daniel D. Williams,
The Ministry in Historical Perspectives (New York:
Harper and Brothers, 1956), p. 231.

5 Herbert J. Freudenberger and Geraldine
Richelson, Burnout (New York: Bantam Books,
1980), p. 167.

6 John A. Sanfbrd, Ministry Burnout (New
York: Paulist Press, 1982), p. 87.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Winton H. Beaven, PhD., is assistant to the president of KetteringMedical Center, Kettering, Ohio.

March 1986

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