Stop the burnout, enjoy the ministry

Pastoral burnout: positive strategies for living above it

James R. Kilmer, Ph.D., is the Sabbath School Director of the Upper Columbia Conference, Spangle, Washington.

First the bad news: burnout threatens up to 65 percent of North American Adventist ministers. This is revealed by a 1994 survey conducted by the Upper Columbia Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. It can strike the best of pastors without warning. Under its influence, more than one member of the clergy has succumbed to despair, an extramarital affair, or some other reactive behavior.

Now the good news: burnout is preventable.

Consider the common symptoms of pastoral burnout. Ministry's old joys are no longer there. Spiritual ardor takes on a cooling mode. Depression, insomnia, anxiety, hostility, relational conflict, low self-esteem, and feelings of loneliness become common. The pastor may continue to perform well but may have no sense of eagerness, no real concern for mission or outreach, and may find it difficult to discern God's direction when making decisions.

The Washington Conference survey of 76 pastors revealed that burnout prevention must be a part of a pastor's personal strategy as he or she seeks to flourish in today's ministry settings. Pastors who have a more proactive orientation in their ministry, who attend to prayer and ministry of the Word, train members in a discipling relationship, and depend upon the Holy Spirit, report less tendency toward burnout. In contrast, pastors who have a more reactive orientation in their life and ministry, and who focus on troubleshooting and dealing with problems and do not disciple or train members, are more likely to experience burnout.

Look at figure 1. Sixty-seven percent of pastors surveyed expressed that they have experienced some burnout. All of them also reported that they did not train church members, nor did they consider their ministry to be basically that of discipling members. These pastors reported that they did not enjoy the ministry. Most of their time was spent dealing with problems and trouble shooting. The lines indicate a statistical correlation between pastoral burnout and pastoral attitudes and approaches to ministry.

Do we know anything more about these pastors who were problem-oriented and spent most of their time troubleshooting? Figure 2 shows that they are also the ones who indicated that they (a) deal with an overabundance of relational problems; (b) spend more time dealing with symptoms rather than cures; (c) spend more time than they would like in keeping the organization running; (d) do not work with a consciousness of the presence of Jesus with them in ministry; and (e) tend not to depend on the Holy Spirit in their lives. These patterns are statistically related to a style of ministry that is oriented to a troubleshooting, problem-preoccupied approach to life and ministry.

By the very nature of their work, pastors rub shoulders with difficulties. Within a single week, a minister may have to deal with a divorce, a suicide, and a fatal accident. Pastors must referee church fights, oversee financial matters for church and school, visit that elderly person who lives alone, or rush to the hospital to pray for a member who has just undergone surgery. As these kinds of things become routine to pas tors, many tend to focus their ministry on solving these difficulties. This focus can head a pastor for burnout.

However, these pastoral dilemmas need not rule their lives and drain their emotional energy. Aside from being a reactor to problems, reeling from blow to blow, it is possible for pastors to control their environments and to meet the daily emergencies from a reservoir of inner strength.

Jesus was never pressurized by circumstances. The sisters of Lazarus were concerned that He was not as "pastorally available" for them and their brother as He should have been, and that therefore Lazarus died. But Jesus still took His time getting to them, and when He arrived He fulfilled His ministry. When pastors run from one crisis to another without taking time for the reflection and restoration that comes from their relationship with God, they are not fulfilling their ministry; instead, they have opened themselves to burning out.

Some view ministry as they do a business. The job is to keep the machinery in motion: attend board and business meetings; keep the agenda going; raise funds for projects and programs; and support the church school. In this kind of pastoring there is little that is genuinely spiritual, and much that is fundamentally at odds with the real call of God to any kind of prophetic minis try. One of the fundamental flaws in many burnout-prone ministers is that they are sidetracked from the gospel commission to serving tables (Acts 6). This kind of pastoring can be demanding and disheartening, while for the discouraged pastor the cause for such feelings is difficult to recognize.

People may become dependent upon a strong nurturing pastor and multiply their burdens by making selfish demands. Our egos sometimes lead us as pastors to become codependent; viewing ourselves as great problem solvers. Dedication and love for people are essential in ministry, but they must not be allowed to deprive pastors of time for their personal devotion and spiritual recharging. Pastors need their spiritual strength to meet the crises that come their way.

Another characteristic of pastoral burnout is the tendency of pastors not to develop and rely upon adequate lay assistants. There is nothing new about pastors doing all the work. The hazard goes back to Moses and Jethro. Jethro observed the people coming continually to Moses and he asked, "Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?" Moses was quick to point out that the people came to him so that he might be a link between themselves and the Lord. Jethro, however, said: "What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone" (Ex. 18:14, 17, 18).* Jethro's suggestion of sharing responsibility with others saved Moses from ministerial burnout.

Burnout prevention

Figure 3 describes pastors who tend not to experience burnout in their ministry. They spend time training members. They view ministry as one of discipling members. And they enjoy ministry. All these positive characteristics are statistically related to burnout prevention. These characteristics are also statistically linked to each other: that is, those who enjoy ministry spend time discipling and training members.

Figure 4 shows additional patterns and attitudes of ministry that are statistically linked to the main characteristics in figure 3. When thus diagrammed, this cluster of statistically related characteristics shows a pastoral profile that resists burnout.

Such pastors begin the day with significant quality devotional time. They focus attention on the presence of Christ in them and in their ministry. They spend time in prayer and the ministry of the Word. As Leroy Eimes writes: "Burnout doesn't result from overwork but from getting too busy to have time with the Lord. Pretty soon you're functioning out of the energy of the flesh rather than the power of the Spirit." 1 Pastors must carry the burdens alone or let Jesus do it. The first leads to burnout; the second to ministerial fulfillment.

From personal devotion comes a conscious presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit that helps the pastor to meet every crisis with calm assurance. Such pastors become instruments in God's hands. This also releases the pastor from a sense of guilt or failure as well as from a sense of pressure to achieve.

Pastors who depend on the real presence of the Holy Spirit also enjoy the ministry. They give first attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word. They spend time training members, describe their ministry as one of discipling members, and find active spiritual gifts manifested in members under their leadership.

When pastors drink deeply at the fountain of God's grace and love, genuine love flows out from them. It is the nature of love to multiply itself. It is much more rewarding to extend a ministry based on grace and love than it is to attempt to coerce people into service. A love-based ministry makes disciples out of members.

But what is a discipling ministry and how does one do it?

Discipling ministry

According to Ephesians 4:11-13, the pastor's role is that of a trainer. The apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers were "to prepare ["equip ping," NKJV] God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up."

Pastors should not be preoccupied with requests for keys to buildings, custodial service, balancing accounts, doing the bulletin, filling the baptistry, caring for the building, raising money for worthy students, or any other of a multitude of things that some members expect of them. One pastor made a list of whom to contact for each detail. At the bottom of the list were these words: "For prayer, ministry of the Word, and training, contact the pastor."

The first essential step to church growth, according to Elmer Towns, is for the pastor to lose contact with the congregation. This would sound heretical if it were not followed by another essential element. The pastor must establish contact with lay leaders who serve as shepherds to smaller flocks. The pastor's efforts then are directed toward equipping these undershepherds to minister to their respective flocks.2

For example, one pastor in Upper Columbia Conference established local elders as care coordinators of Sabbath school classes. He met with these elders weekly for prayer and sharing concerning the state of the flock. He emphasized that these men and women had more access to the people than he did. This approach, coupled with personal and public evangelism, resulted in 300 baptisms during a five-year period.

A discipling ministry does not necessarily mean outreach ministry. It could be as simple as stopping by the office of a professional member and asking for five minutes of time, then asking the member to pray with the pastor over some concern and in return asking if there is anything he or she would like to pray about.

Several pastors in Upper Columbia Conference are training members how to find and give Bible studies. Using a simple door-to-door contact tied to Positive Life Radio, members are able to start numerous Bible studies. Members learn quickly and in turn teach others. When this approach is followed, it is not difficult to have hundreds of Bible study contacts going prior to scheduled evangelistic meetings. The most dramatic blessing is that the dynamics are totally different during the meetings. Members are supportive and the church is alive with activity. The Holy Spirit blesses. When members are active, they tend to focus less on their own problems.

Last year a group of us went to Russia to train Russian members how to lead others to Christ through personal Bible study. Our translator told how her mother and others in the local congregation were excited about their studies. One woman had been suffering from depression, but since she had become involved with people who needed her and depended on her, she found she had a purpose in life and was coming out of her depression. When members have something significant to do, they tend to get into fewer church fights. When fishers do not fish, they fight.

Mobilizing for service

Perhaps the best way to mobilize the church is through spiritual gifts inventories. One church I pastored brought spiritual gifts and job descriptions together in the nominating committee. The church was organized with five major leaders (figure 5) under the pas tor and five areas of responsibility under each of those five. When the nominating committee contacted members, they read each job description. The major leaders were the head elder, head deacon, personal ministries leader, social committee chair, and educational leader. Under the head elder were elders in charge of visitation, worship, youth, Sabbath school, and stewardship. A financial administrator under the head deacon held the financial responsibility of the church. The head deacon also took care of building construction, maintenance, and custodial details.

The head deaconess worked with the chair of the social committee, who planned the recreational and social events. She also supervised the chair of the committees dealing with flowers, weddings, funerals, worship service, greeting, and fellowship meals.

The personal ministries leader ministered directly to the Community Services leader, the outreach coordinator, and the persons in charge of Ingathering, Signs, and religious liberty. The educational leader worked with the school, fund-raising, sponsoring worthy students, and parenting education.

The pastor was able to give attention to training those in key positions, helping them to minister to those under their care. The pastor visited with visitation elders, trained those gifted in evangelism, and worked through the five main leaders. The result was a joy to behold and be a part of.

One event illustrates the beautiful manner in which this plan worked. One person with the gift of healing came to the pastor and said she wanted to sponsor a health seminar involving people from Loma Linda University. The pastor at first thought it would be too expensive. Then he remembered that the church now had a financial manager. He told her to talk to him, thinking that the manager would say no. She came back and said he had said yes. The event was planned, executed, and wonderfully supported. The pastor did little to move this activity forward and thus was free to train members in other arenas. One member minister was instrumental in winning 13 persons in one year. More than 90 people joined this congregation in a little more than two and one-half years. The most beautiful thing was that the church experienced the joy of working together.

Tips to try

In conclusion, if you want to prevent pastoral burnout, try the following:

• Build a ministry around meaningful devotional life.

• Depend on a conscious presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

• Develop a discipling approach to ministry.

• Train members.

• Avoid a crisis-oriented approach. Act rather than react.

• Heal the sickness of sin rather than help people manage sins.

• Organize the church for action according to their assessed spiritual gifts.

• Share the work of the ministry with trained member leaders.

• Enjoy the ministry.

* All scriptural quotes are from the New International Version, unless otherwise specified.

1. Leroy Eiraes, "Time With God," Today's Better Life, Summer 1993, pp. 76-79.

2. See Elmer Towns' video, 154 Steps to Revitalize Your Sunday School and Keep Your Church Growing.


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James R. Kilmer, Ph.D., is the Sabbath School Director of the Upper Columbia Conference, Spangle, Washington.

June 1996

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