Recognizing and handling burnout

How can you recognize burnout and differentiate it from other physical and psychological problems? And what can you do about it?

Jose A. Fuentes was an assistant professor at Loma Linda University School of Health, and a psychologist for the Clearview Family Clinic, Loma Linda, California, when he wrote this article. He worked as a pastor and administrator for 20 years before entering the health-care field.

What is burnout? We read and hear a lot about it these days, but the term has come to be a catchword used to describe any number of problems. The term caught the public's imagination in 1980 after the book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement1 was published, and now it stands in danger of losing all meaning because of the number of maladies that get lumped under the heading "burnout." Recent studies have shown that patients and even clinicians often misdiagnose depression, anemia, or just plain boredom as burnout.

So what is burnout? and more important, how will it affect a pastor? My own succinct ontological definition is as follows: The gradual but eventually severe or critical exhaustion or depletion of one's physical, mental, and/or spiritual resources by taxing one or more of them without providing time for recovering or recharging.


The accompanying table shows many of the symptoms and describes how they develop. It is important to realize, though, that development of burnout does not necessarily follow exactly this pattern. For example, a pastor or other helping professional may experience the symptoms at stage 4 before the symptoms of stage 2 become obvious, but all stages usually take place.

These stages should not be regarded as levels of burnout, but as stages leading to burnout.

Various influences in the pastor's personal and home life may slow or speed up the development of burnout. Personal reconsecration or the efforts of a resourceful and dedicated wife may alleviate the symptoms for a time. But if the burnout is resulting from depletion in areas other than spiritual, reconsecration will not necessarily replenish the energies that are ebbing. And if the wife does not have the psychosocial resources to cope with her husband's needs, her reactions may accelerate the burnout process.

The administrators who deal with the pastor may try to alleviate his or her problems as well. One commonly used tactic for trying to help a pastor snap out of lethargy is to move him or her to a new church. But you can't move away from burnout. It moves with the pastor and soon becomes obvious in the new location, as well. In each new location the pastor may progress through the stages leading to burnout faster than in the previous place.

In the later stages a key symptom of burnout is loss of insight--the ability to take a wide view and understand the reasons behind events. One or more psychosomatic illnesses such as a lingering cold, excessive headaches, lower back pain, and diarrhea often are present in the later stages also. 2 Since burnout results from depletion of energy reserves, it is important to recognize that not everyone will experience symptoms in exactly the same way. A person whose physical resources are depleted will show different symptoms from one who is mentally burned out. Thus a hardworking carpenter will experience very different symptoms than will a hardworking mathematician.

Depletion and exhaustion are primary symptoms that can lead one to a diagnosis of burnout. Obvious loss of insight is a further symptom that indicates that the burnout is in an advanced stage.

Who is affected?

The tragedy of burnout is that it often strikes the most highly motivated, idealistic, and enthusiastic workers in the helping professions. 3 In the church it is the full-time professional leaders who are most often victims of burnout. 4 Estimates of the number of pastors experiencing burnout vary widely. R. Oswald found that "one out of six clergy was experiencing the debilitating effects of burnout," 5 while another study done in Wisconsin in the same year indicated that only about 2 percent of the pastors involved were burned out. 6


The causes of burnout can be grouped under three basic headings. First are causes within us, such as a psychological makeup that makes it difficult or impossible to deal creatively and flexibly with stressful events. Second are external causes such as noise, violence, weather, and catastrophes. Third are causes that result from our interaction with our environment. The way we respond to these determines the impact they have on our lives.

Ministers are particularly susceptible to the third group of causes because of their constant interaction with people. E. M. Ansel points out that anyone who has direct and intensive interpersonal contact with people and assumes a helping role is a candidate for burnout, and that it is the especially zealous or overdedicated worker who is most susceptible. 7

Factors contributing to burnout among helping professionals include limiting work to one type of activity, overwork, the general difficulty in dealing with people's problems, discouragement, and the tendency of therapeutic work to bring out the professional's own personal conflicts. Added to these problems are frustration and a sense of hopelessness that develop from caring deeply but being unable to alleviate some people's problems. 8

These frustrations lead to a series of symptoms that make it more and more difficult to be effective as a helping professional. First, the burned-out helper begins to work mechanically, showing little or no concern for the person being served. Second, he or she develops a sense of detachment and lack of identification with the other person's problems. Third, work becomes a mere duty rather than a joy. Fourth, cynicism and apathy prevent the helper from getting into the other person's problem and dealing aggressively with it. Fifth, the helper becomes paranoid and blames others, including clients or patients, for his or her problems. Sixth, fatigue, irritability, and psychosomatic com plaints develop.

Preventing burnout

Having determined the causes of burnout, we can now move on to look at ways of avoiding these causes. Here are seven preventive measures.

1. Attend good conferences and seminars. This will provide new dimensions and perspectives that can replenish your tank of ideas for sermons, activities, and programs.

2. Avoid being constantly on the giving end without doing something that will give you some sense of accomplishment or recognition.

3. Do something different regularly. Work in your garden, paint the house, or take a day off and go away with your family. By having interests other than your work, you can renew yourself. But don't overdo yourself in your outside activity, or this will only contribute to your sense of exhaustion.

4. Be sure you recognize your own limits. Do not overextend yourself by assuming responsibility for everything that needs to be done. Delegate authority and give your members a chance to feel needed and important in the church.

5. Don't be afraid to deal with negative feelings about your work. It is better to work through them than to internalize them. Dealing with them will increase your insight into your problems and your work, and will prevent the problems from showing up later as one or more psychophysiological disorders such as asthma, allergies, and peptic ulcers.

6. "Stop the world and get off." Every so often take time to do an inventory of your responsibilities versus your resources. And while you are doing that, take time to meditate, talk with the Lord, and seek advice, but not as you do it routinely. Make it an intensive self-disclosure and confession--you'll find it soothing and renewing.

7. If none of these remedies help--after you have given them a thorough try--you may already be experiencing full-fledged burnout. Seek help. Burnout syndrome is not a self-terminating illness.

Interrupting the burnout cycle

During the past two years I conducted several stress management seminars in which I dealt with burnout. Two confer ence presidents asked me to give them one tip for helping pastors overcome burnout. My suggestion each time was for the president to take time to let the burned-out pastor know that he is important, and to do this not just for the purpose of therapy, but because he is important. Take him out to eat; share with him plans that, though not classified, often escape the rank-and-file minister. Those important working lunches that administrators sometimes spend rehashing decisions they have already made, if spent with a pastor on the burnout path, could be a turning point for him.

The administrators to whom I suggested this tried it, and they shared with me the fact that this therapy has helped. Three different pastors wrote to them to express what a change this type of treatment made in their lives.

1 H. Freudenberger and G. Richelson, Burnout:
The High Cost of High Achievement (Garden City,
N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1980).

2 E. M. Ansell, "Professional Bumout: Recognition
and Management," Journal of the American
Association of Nurse Anesthetists, April 1981, pp.

3 T. Muldary, Burnout and Health Professionals:
Manifestations and Management (Norwalk, Conn.:
Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1983).

4 R. Oswald, Clergy Bumout: A Survival Kit for
Church Professionals (Minneapolis: Ministers Life
Resources, Inc., 1982).

5 R. Oswald, Clergy Burnout, cassette (Minneapolis:
Clergy Resources, Inc., 1982).

6 G. Rediger, Coping With Clergy Burnout
(Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1982).

7 Ansell.

8 G. Corey, M. Corey, and P. Callanan, Issues
and Ethics in the Helping Professions, 2nd ed.
(Monterey, Calif.: Brooks/Cole Pub. Co., 1983)

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Jose A. Fuentes was an assistant professor at Loma Linda University School of Health, and a psychologist for the Clearview Family Clinic, Loma Linda, California, when he wrote this article. He worked as a pastor and administrator for 20 years before entering the health-care field.

July 1987

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