Burnout in clergy families

Ministers are particularly subject to burnout. And there are some indications that wives of ministers may be even more susceptible. But you can prevent it or even reverse its early stages if you are willing to work at it.

Besides being a frequently published author, Madeline Johnston works as a secretary in the Department of World Mission at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. She has an M.A. in developmental psychology and has done further study in the area of counseling.

We hear a lot about burnout these days. The term is bandied about freely. We even joke about being "burned out" when we really mean only "tired" or even "bored." But burnout is no joke. Ask the husband whose wife just left him and their three children because of it. Or ask the woman whose pastor/husband is in a severe depression as a result of it.

What precisely is burnout? Does it really affect ministers' families? And what can we do about it?

Burnout is a complete exhaustion of one's physical, mental, and spiritual resources. It is not mere stress, though stress (particularly job-related) may precipitate it. Stress is the body's response to the demands made on it. Any change, good or bad, takes its toll on our energy resources. But stress alone, like rainfall, is not bad—it is the intensity or quantity of it that becomes dangerous. A person merely under stress may exhibit some symptoms of burnout but will recover quickly if the stress is removed.

Burnout strikes primarily in the helping professions—medical personnel, psychologists, social workers, and clergy.

A 1983 Gallup survey indicated that 29 percent of American clergy have "often" or "occasionally" considered quitting the ministry because of frustrations or disappointments. 1 In 1977 the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health published a study of nine thousand persons admitted to mental health centers in Tennessee. Clergy ranked thirty-sixth among 130 professions represented—ahead of teachers (forty-seventh), policemen (seventieth), and physicians (106th). 2

Roy Oswald, a behavioral scientist with the Alban Institute, estimates that at least one clergyman in four is burned out. 3 After administering both burnout rating and life-changes rating tests at seminars he conducted for clergy and their spouses, he concluded that wives of clergy have higher stress levels than either clergymen or clergywomen. 4

Most pastors and their wives do not bum out. But many who don't may still be functioning at a less-than-optimal level—so let's take a look at the symptoms of burnout.

Burnout symptoms

The symptoms of burnout fall into three categories: physical, emotional, and spiritual.

Joan didn't sleep well, had little energy to cope with her children, and showed little interest in sex. These are some of the physical symptoms. Others include frequent illness, excessive drug use, or motor difficulties.

At the emotional level one might observe apathy, anger, guilt, negativism, irritability, loss of creativity, worry, increasing rigidity, withdrawal, self-preoccupation, paranoid obsessions, loss of humor, loss of playfulness or interest in hobbies, excessive crying, inability to concentrate, feelings of failure and hopelessness, and marital and family conflict.

Emotions spill over into work-related attitudes, which some authorities list as a separate category. Here burnout manifests itself as absenteeism, clock-watching, resisting and postponing contact with clients or employers, loss of positive feelings toward these people (often replaced by cynicism and/or blame), and avoiding discussion of work with colleagues. Pastor Tom went to the church office later and later each morning, became annoyed at parishioners who needed him, and sniped at the conference leadership more than he ever had before. His wife's concern and perplexity intensified until someone explained burnout to her and led them to seek professional help.

Spiritual symptoms include significant changes in moral behavior or theological positions, loss of interest in personal devotional life, loss of faith in God and the church, moral judgmentalism, perfunctory performance of church responsibilities, and loss of joy and celebration in spiritual matters. In a pastor, of course, even a few of these symptoms can destroy a previously effective ministry.

No one person exhibits all of these symptoms, but two or more from each category would usually indicate a burned-out person.

Typically, burnout develops gradually, progressing from mild stress and anxiety to more anxiety and fatigue to complete exhaustion. People in the earlier stages can recover without outside help, but those in whom the problem has become entrenched often need pro longed therapy.

What causes burnout? Several factors may contribute:

1. Stress resulting when the demands of the job tax or exceed the resources of the person. These demands may be either external, from the job itself or the supervisor(s), or internal, from pressure the individual puts on himself/herself.

2. A gap between expectations and reality. Clergy with high expectations of church work may instead meet problems, perhaps even hostility from some of the members.

3. The need of people in the helping professions to feel efficacious. If a minister comes into a church with great plans for change and growth in that church, and then the church doesn't respond as expected, frustrations and feelings of inadequacy may result. Some clergy, instead of reexamining their goals, lose the feeling that their work is meaningful.

4. Methods used to cope with stress. Sometimes people use more and more desperately their same ineffective coping mechanisms, without objectively analyzing and gaining control over their situation.

5. Sometimes lack of challenge, or boredom. People need intellectual stimulation and a feeling that their abilities are being fully used.

6. The structure of the organization. The more centralized and hierarchical the decision-making process, the more a staff person feels like a small, easily replaceable cog in a large machine. A person needs some autonomy and control. Both bureaucratic structure and low salary make one feel less autonomous. This is one for church administrators to note.

7. Individual personality factors. One's response to stress is more important than the stress itself. Clergy, particularly, often possess traits that tend toward poor stress management.

8. Stresses of interrelationships. The pastor suffers all the usual ones, sometimes with more intensity than other people do. Failure to maintain good relationships with fellow staff members, congregation, community, and family will jeopardize both personal life and job. At the same time, the nature of the job often subjects clergy to a unique loneliness and lack of affirmation.

On the other hand, successfully coping pastors usually have a strong sense of self and personal identity. Furthermore, they view stressors as opportunities to grow, rather than as unfair problems or circumstances.

What about clergy wives? They are subject to all of the general factors listed above. Granted, roles are changing, and some clergy spouses today are husbands. But thinking of the traditional role many ministers' wives still fill, consider each of the above factors from their viewpoint: stresses of their role expectations, their anticipation of church/parson age/members versus reality, their need to feel effective, the coping mechanisms they likely have learned, the challenge (or lack of challenge) to their skills, their position vis-a-vis the decision-making process at home and/or church, their personality traits, and the stresses of their interrelationships. Clearly, the pastor's wife could qualify for the endangered- species list.

Stressors clergy wives face

Roy Oswald, of the Alban Institute, has delineated the following stressors, briefly summarized here, that may con tribute particularly to burnout in clergy wives:5

1. The role expectations (self-imposed or imposed by others) for a pastor's wife.

2. The lack of pastoral care for herself. To whom can a pastor's wife go with her personal problems?

3. Lack of support. Clergy wives sometimes feel they can have no close friends or confidants.

4. Frequent geographical relocation. Here the wife may provide emotional support for the other family members while stifling her own needs.

5. Parsonage living. Although it may not be the problem in Adventist churches that it is in some others, the clergy wife still may have to deal with the feeling that church members are scrutinizing her housekeeping skills.

6. Finances and having to work. Many men today are having to adjust both their attitudes and their habits to accommodate wives who must and/or want to work outside the home, but for clergymen and their congregations this can be especially difficult. And the wives themselves may suffer conflicts over going out to work.

7. Being surrogate clergy. Parishioners may at times expect the wife to take the pastor's place.

8. Being a conduit for messages to the clergy. Parishioners may ask her to pass messages, especially unpleasant ones, on to her husband, often deliberately to avoid confronting him directly.

9. Disfranchisement. Clergy wives "exist in a sociopolitical system without any form of direct power within that system." They are not to take positions on controversial issues or run for office, but are to sit quietly and dress properly.

10. The strain on clergy marriages. While the husband may find little time for his family, he pays a lot of attention to other women (by the nature of his job) and maintains an adoring public.

11. The ordination of women. In some churches this now adds certain threats to the pastor's wife. Her husband may now be working closely' with a woman on his staff and often this woman replaces the wife as "the resident holy woman," who previously enjoyed the respect and confidences of the congregation. This is no reason to withhold ordination from qualified women, but clergy families need to adjust accordingly.

How can burnout be prevented? Basically, by changing either the causes or one's response patterns. If you, for instance, fear burnout from pressures you or your family experience, examine what you can change. If the external demands of your job are too taxing, eliminate some of them, either by delegating or by explaining your limits to the congregation. Or increase your resources to meet the demands. If your internal demands are too great, remind yourself that you can't do everything.

Don't take responsibility for everyone else. Jesus didn't. Give people choices.

Avoid pushing your own programs in a church.

Learn to develop autonomy where you can. Take control of your life. Plan, organize, respect your limitations and needs. Set clear, specific goals.

Learn to handle anger and conflict.

Learn to relax—take frequent brief vacations; set aside times with your spouse; develop hobbies.

If you suffer from a lack of challenge, find outlets, personal ministries, goals—involvement that will give you a sense of self-confidence and identity.

Nurture yourself—physically, spiritually, emotionally—not out of selfishness, but from a desire to enable yourself to minister more effectively.

Learn to view problems as exciting challenges to grow on.

Build a solid support system. Make friends. You can develop a few special friendships even within the congregation as long as you continue to be friendly to everyone. Find other friends within the larger community, perhaps other pastors' wives. Keep your marriage strong, keep communication open, be vulnerable. Explain your needs to your mate. Work out a role for yourself that is acceptable to both of you. Take time, for real intimacy requires time. Evaluate your relationship periodically. With a solid marriage you can face the rest of the world.

Above all, stay close to God. Be faithful in devotional time. Affirm to yourself God's love for you. Live beyond self-preoccupation; give glory and praise to Him. "O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good" (Ps. 118:29).

1 Religious News Service, "Experts Say Clergy
Stress Doesn't Have to Result in Burnout,"
Christianity Today, Nov. 9, 1984, p. 71.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Roy M. Oswald, "Why Do Clergy Wives Bum
Out?" in Alban Institute Action Information,
January-February , 1984, p. 11.

5 Ibid., pp. 11-15.

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.

comments powered by Disqus
Besides being a frequently published author, Madeline Johnston works as a secretary in the Department of World Mission at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. She has an M.A. in developmental psychology and has done further study in the area of counseling.

June 1986

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

The gift of prophecy and "thought voices"

Has God changed His mode of inspiration? Is He dictating letters to His church today? Is it too late for normal prophecy? It's time to take a careful look at "thought voices."

How to write a Bible

Was all Scripture inspired by means of dreams and visions? Can the writers of the biblical books be considered authors and theologians in their own right? Did some of their material come from their own research?

Harvest 90 administrative slogan?

Is Harvest 90 just another slogan, motto, or current catchword? Find out how it is a process and not a program.

Christ's human nature: an alternate view

The science of salvation will be the study of the redeemed through all eternity. Here is a glimpse of what that study will be like.

A quick response says we care

Adventist Information Ministry helps you find high-grade interests in your area. Some pastors report an almost 50 percent rate of success in establishing Bible studies with people who sent in general interest cards to AIM.

Making Sabbath special

Sabbaths aren't always a perfect delight in fact, they can turn out to be a hassle. But the right balance among ritual, planning, and flexibility can help.

Democracy by design

Can a man's or woman's worth be measured in square feet of office space? Major corporations are turning from office sizes graded by status to equal-sized offices for all professional employees with an upturn in morale.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up

Recent issues

See All