From burned out to burning bright: Cures for eight causes of burnout
Burnout statistics and stories about those who leave the ministry because of burnout abound, but we try to insulate ourselves. “It will not happen to me. I’m different.” Unfortunately, this attitude can be dangerous because it blinds us to the warning signs, allowing burnout to creep up on us. In this article, we tell our stories, pointing out causes of burnout and explaining the process we have discovered to find healing and hope. Jonny Wesley Moor story provides the background for the first four causes; Joseph Kidder’s for the next four.
Burning out when you are fresh
After a few years of pastoral ministry, I, Jonny, left my district to earn my master of divinity. I had been in ministry for only 32 months, but I was burned out. I had joined the 33 percent of pastors who indicate a burnout within their first five years of ministry.1 What happened?
Burnout cause 1: I started working in full time ministry in 2012 after four years of theological training. Ministry consumed my life. An apt example comes in the form of a ten-pound bag of corn chips I found at the church and relocated to my office. That bag was all I needed. I would stay late into the night making phone calls, developing handouts, crafting sermons, and preparing for presentations—me, my chips, and my ministry. Who needs regular sleep when you are doing the Lord’s work? After getting married, my habits did not change much. Even at ten o’clock at night, if that church member was calling again, I had to pick up. I could not say No to work. My problem was a lack of boundaries.
Creating positive boundaries is a key factor in preventing burnout.2 Without boundaries, people in helping professions find themselves dangerously constricted.
Burnout cause 2: My work responsibilities encroached on essential areas of my life. I began attending meetings and school events, mentoring students, teaching regularly in Bible classes at church and school, running ministries, and performing other ministry-related activities. With all these responsibilities, my daily prayer, study, and reflection time was replaced by ministry activities, and my soul began to suffer. I was running on empty, for I lacked vibrant spirituality.
Diane Chandler names spiritual renewal as one of the three major factors “crucial” for preventing burnout.3 As my personal connection with the Divine decreased, daunting activities I used to accomplish by God’s power had to be done in my own strength.
Burnout cause 3: My work responsibilities also affected my relationships with friends and family. My parents lived less than ten minutes away, but months would pass before I would see them. Even when my parents’ church held a special dedication as they were moving across the country, I missed most of the program because I “had” to teach a Sabbath School class. They are not mad at me. They still love me, but I can never undo my absence. I was not there to support them in a key time of transition.
My relationship with my wife suffered. Often, I did not give her my full attention until there was some sort of relational emergency. We did not date much, and sometimes our dates would be school or church events. We began to drift apart, and my other friendships fared no better. People who could have been friends were cloistered into ministry groups. I took on the responsibility of being a pastor, my friends and, in so doing, ended up feeling alone. I was lacking deep relationships.
Research demonstrates that “strong relationships outside the ministry setting [are important] for promoting clergy resiliency.”4 We need relational intimacy.
Burnout cause 4: I had two supportive churches, but even then, conflicts arose. I had a church member who told me my preaching held back the Holy Spirit, another who insulted me with profanities because of a decision I made, and individuals who felt it was their responsibility to inform my wife and me where she or I needed to be and when. Then there were the conflicts between church members regarding the use of the church, words that were said, or decisions made on the church board. I was not adequately prepared to maneuver through these conflicts. Many of them I simply left unresolved, and the tension clung to me. I lacked the ability to manage conflict.
Conflict in the church becomes a significant contributor to pastoral burnout.5 Often the individual conflicts we face are not particularly severe, but these small wounds and strains take their toll over time.6 The resentment builds.
Burning out when you are seasoned
I, Joe, had been in the field for several years. I finished seminary, was ordained, and found a system that seemed to be working. My churches did relatively well, and my supervisors were happy with my performance. Then one Thanksgiving my wife and I went to visit her parents. As I drove, my heart started beating tremendously fast, so fast we had to stop. My wife took me to the hospital, but there were no signs of a heart attack or stroke. “What you have is severe stress,” I was informed. I felt good because this did not seem like a real health problem. But then, the next day, it happened to me again. Maybe my problem was real after all. What was causing this stress? This led me to seek counseling, and I discovered I was burning out and that several factors were to blame.
Burnout cause 5: In my approach to pastoral leadership, I had to be at every committee, every function, everything. I thought I had to be omnipresent. I was working more than 60 hours each week and often invested my time in activities that were not in my areas of strength. In addition to my long hours, no day was set apart for rejuvenation. I had no Sabbath and no evenings off. I lacked the biblical practice of rest.
Consistently working more than 50 hours each week is harmful to pastors because it tends to induce suffering “physically, relationally, and spiritually.”7 Without rest, the likelihood of burnout increases dramatically.8 In addition to long hours, many pastors do not create margins in their schedules of dedicated opportunities to rejuvenate.9 Pastors, too, benefit from Sabbath rest.10
Burnout cause 6: I had received a quality education, but I still felt deficient in casting vision, planting churches, resolving conflict, and so on. I was hungry to learn these skills. One day my church administrator called me and said he wanted to take my wife and I out to dinner. Perhaps this contact would bring resources addressing the issues I was facing in my ministry. We had a fine time at dinner, but I did not hear from him again. To be fair, even meeting with a supervisor once comes as more support than many pastors receive, but I needed more. I, like so many other pastors, lacked intentional, professional support.11
Ministry professionals do not know it all. Support from church organizations or outside sources such as a counselor or support group can provide essential guidance, training, and encouragement. Without it, pastors stagnate. This rut often leaves them feeling empty and overwhelmed.12
Burnout cause 7: In every church endeavor, we had to meet our expectations; the church had to perform. Baptismal goals were one example. The church led the union in baptisms five years in a row, but the sixth year we did not. One afternoon the Union executive secretary called me and asked whether there were any more baptisms than I reported. There were none. I felt as though we had let him down. If the church did not perform, I, as its leader, had to work harder so that we could accomplish our goals. I lacked the ability to relate to expectations in a healthy manner.
Managing expectations is one of the factors most frequently cited by pastors experiencing burnout.13 Churches and denominations have many expectations for their ministers, and pastors often fall prey to these expectations.
Burnout cause 8: My high expectations affected more than my work performance; my expectations also became my gage for self-worth. If the church was doing well, I was good. If the church was doing poorly, I felt inadequate. If my sermon went flat, it was a personal failure. My identity was bound up in the success of the church rather than Jesus Himself. I lacked healthy self-worth.
A “sense of inadequacy” has been identified as a significant contributor to burnout.14 No matter what the specific causes of this self-worth issue, inadequacy complexes will whittle away at health.
Both of us—the beginner and the experienced—came to the realization that we were burning out and needed help. Regardless of background, age, experience, or intentions, burnout looms at every pastor’s door.15 What did we do? We read books, talked with counselors and friends, recognized the causes, and began to make changes in our lives. This three-step strategy becomes synthesized from our experiences, and provides a framework to help struggling pastors heal, remain healthy, and keep burnout at bay.
1. Cultivate biblical self-worth. Whether our value comes from others, our ability to finish projects, or some other place, these sources will never satisfy us. God wants our sense of self-worth to come from Him. As His created beings, we are dependent on our Creator for complete emotional health. Even Jesus did not preach a sermon, perform a miracle, or gather disciples until He had received affirmation from God about His identity. “And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’ ” (Matt. 3:17).16 Jesus’ self-worth came from His Father. God gave Him a sense of identity, and He wants to do the same for us.
Reflect on how your identity in God can be stronger than any other identity. Common sources of identity, such as our heritage, accomplishments, positions, or possessions, can be taken away from us. But, according to the Bible, we have more and are more than all of these; we are princes and princesses of God. We are beloved children of the King, and no one can take away that position. Our Father gave it to us. God so loved us that He sacrificed His Son as a ransom for our sins in order that we could be a part of His family. We can be discredited, but nothing can discredit our God and what He has done.
Remember that in beholding we become changed (2 Cor. 3:18). God can renew our minds and transform us (Rom. 12:2). In your time with God, take moments to seek out who He is. Read Scripture, pray, and journal, listening for God’s voice. Do not merely ask what He wants you to do; also ask what He thinks of you and how He delights in you (Zeph. 3:17).
2. Adopt God’s priorities. As we begin to identify as God’s sons and daughters, our priorities also begin to change. This priority transformation is essential for resolving burnout because much of our burnout results from a misappropriation of priorities. Though we are tempted to elevate one above the others, the recurring presence of these priorities throughout the Bible demonstrates that they must be maintained in balance. Here are some of God’s highest ideals for us:
Spirituality. God wants an intimate connection with us. In Genesis, value is given to walking with God (Gen. 5:24; 6:9; 17:1; 48:15). God’s rationale for the sanctuary was that it would allow Him to be with His people (Exod. 25:8). Jesus practiced spiritual disciplines to be close to the Father (Luke 5:16). He also recommended seeking God’s kingdom to others through fasting (Matt. 6:33; 4:2; 6:16), engaging scripture (Matt. 5:17–20; Luke 10:26; 24:45; John 7:38), worshiping (Luke 4:16; John 4:24), praying (Matt. 6:6–13; Mark 14:38; Luke 18:1). Jesus was always busy, but maintaining His connection with God protected Him from burnout.17
Close relationships. God intended for us to live in community (Gen. 1:27; 2:18). One way to explore the depths of community in the New Testament would be by studying the “one another” verses. Examples include “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another.” “Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing” (Rom. 12:10; 1 Thess. 5:11).18 Loving and deep relationships provide insulation against burnout.
Rest. God created us in such a way that we need time to rejuvenate. He gave us the Sabbath as a weekly reminder of this reality (Gen. 2:3). He promises to give rest (Exod. 33:14). The principle of the festivals provides times of rest throughout the year. Jesus Himself called His followers to rest: “And He said to them, ‘Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.’ ” (Mark 6:31 cf. Matt. 11:28–30). When we rest, the entirety of ourselves experiences rejuvenation, and we can work and live with enthusiasm.19
Vision of the church. God has a mission for the church. He intends for our church to bless the world, invite people into God’s way of life, and train up those who respond (Gen. 12:2; Exod. 19:6; 1 Pet. 2:9; Matt. 28:19, 20). God wants us to make eternally significant impacts on the lives of others rather than simply checking boxes on the church’s list of busy work. Realizing God’s clear and meaningful vision prevents burnout because it motivates us and helps us identify which tasks are helpful and which are not.
3. Develop the skill to draw boundaries. Having adopted God’s priorities, we now need to protect them. In Acts 6:1–7, the early church demonstrates functional, priority-oriented boundary drawing. There was a need for more care for the widows, but it was too much for the apostles. If they took it on, it would have detracted from what they were called to do. In verses 2–4, the twelve said: “ ‘It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’”
The apostles did care about the needs of their community. They recognized something must be done, but they also recognized that with everything else on their plates, they could not attend to this matter as well. So they chose the priorities God had placed in their lives—prayer and the Word—and delegated other responsibilities.
Jesus also set boundaries based on God’s priorities. His mission was “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). Because of this mission, He drew boundaries throughout His life. Jesus did not allow Himself to suffer untimely abuse (Luke 4:28–30). He did not pander to the disciples’ political agenda for Him (Matt. 16:23). And He withdrew from the crowds to rest and rejuvenate spiritually rather than spending all of His time healing and preaching (Luke 5:16).20
If we are to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and be free of burnout, we must draw boundaries. Most of us know how. The problem is putting our expertise into action.21 Start small and begin to communicate your boundaries clearly with others. Recognize that maintaining boundaries seems to be what it takes to be true to your calling not only today but also for years to come, and remember, boundaries are beneficial for your health and for the growth and character of others. We do not need to feel guilty about our boundaries.22
From burned out to burning bright
Burnout strangles the vitality out of life and ministry. Lack of boundaries, vibrant spirituality, deep relationships, conflict-management skills, support, rest, expectation-management skills, or healthy self-worth can lead to burnout, but this does not come as an unassailable foe. We can restructure our lives to overcome these root causes and reignite the joy of knowing and following God in ministry. This restructuring follows the framework of establishing biblical self-worth, adopting God’s priorities, and developing healthy boundaries. God’s vision for us is that we would live life joyfully and “abundantly” (John 10:10).
So, what will it be? Do you want to settle for burnout, or do you want to burn bright? Recovery becomes a journey and this may be daunting at first, but we find it worth it. Burning bright is worth it.
Sidebar: Are you burning out?
If you can check any of the following boxes, you may be on your way to burnout.
- I cannot say no to my members or employer.
- My personal spiritual time is eroded by work.
- I do not maintain close relationships.
- I feel overwhelmed by the results of conflict.
- I do not receive adequate professional support.
- I am not equipped to perform my ministry.
- I regularly spend more than 50 hours working each week.
- I do not take at least one full day weekly to rejuvenate my soul.
- I feel like I am failing if I do not meet my ministry expectations.
- I catch myself determining my value by how well ministry is going.
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1 Daniel Sherman, “Pastor Burnout Statistics,” PastorBurnout.com, accessed December 12, 2016, http://www.pastorburnout.com/pastor-burnout -statistics.html.
2 Elizabeth Ann Jackson-Jordan, “Clergy Burnout and Resilience: A Review of the Literature,” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 67, no. 1 (March 2013): 2, 3.
3 Diane J. Chandler, “Pastoral Burnout and the Impact of Personal Spiritual Renewal, Rest-Taking, and Support System Practices,” Pastoral Psychology 58, no. 3 (2009): 275.
4 Jackson-Jordan, “Clergy Burnout and Resilience,” 4.
5 Barry J. Fallon, Simon Rice, and Joan Wright Howie, “Factors That Precipitate and Mitigate Crises in Ministry,” Pastoral Psychology 62, no. 1 (February 2013), 27–40. This is also well-documented by Randy Garner, “Interpersonal Criticism and the Clergy,” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 67, no. 1 (March 2013): 1, 2. Finally, this was recognized as a problematic issue for Seventh-day Adventists as well by Edgar Voltmer, Christine Thomas, and Claudia Spahn, “Psychosocial Health and Spirituality of Theology Students and Pastors of the German Seventh-day Adventist Church,” Review of Religious Research 52, no. 3 (March 2011): 290.
6 H. Peter Swanson, “Pastoral Stress Management to Maximize Family Function,” Ministry Magazine (March 2013), 17–20.
7 Franco Vaccarino and Tony Gerritsen, “Exploring Clergy Self-Care: A New Zealand Study,” International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society 3, no. 2 (2013): 71.
8 Fallon, Rice, and Howie, “Factors That Precipitate and Mitigate Crises,” 28, 33.
9 Richard A. Swenson, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2004). This is an excellent treatise on creating space in one’s life.
10 Erik C. Carter, “The Practice and Experience of the Sabbath Among Seventh-day Adventist Pastors,” Pastoral Psychology 62, no. 1 (February 2013): 25.
11 Barry J. Fallon, Simon Rice, and Joan Wright Howie, “Factors That Precipitate and Mitigate Crises in Ministry,” Pastoral Psychology 62, no. 1 (2013): 33.
12 Benjamin D. Schoun, Helping Pastors Cope: A PsychoSocial Support System for Pastors (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1982), 191–200.
13 Fallon, Rice, and Howie, “Factors That Precipitate and Mitigate Crises,” 28, 33.
14 Chandler, “Pastoral Burnout,” 273.
15 Some have pointed out that as many as 1,500 pastors quit the ministry every month, partly due to burnout. However, LifeWay Research has challenged this data with a study that found the number to be substantially smaller. Their study found that 13 percent of pastors had resigned from ministry for reasons other than death or retirement from their test group over a ten-year period. “New Study of Pastor Attrition and Pastoral Ministry,” LifeWay Research, accessed December 12, 2016, http:// lifewayresearch.com/pastorprotection/.
16 All Scripture references are from the New King James Version.
17 John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 84.
18 Carl F. George, Prepare Your Church for the Future. (Tarrytown, NY: F. H. Revell, 1991), 129–131.
19 Vaccarino and Gerritsen, “Exploring Clergy Self-Care,” 72.
20 Bill Gaultiere, “Jesus Set Boundaries,” Soul Shepherding (blog), July 20, 1998, http:// www.soulshepherding.org/1998/07/jesus-set -boundaries/.
21 Henry Cloud and John Sims Townsend, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1992). If you are unsure about how to develop boundaries, this classic work is an excellent place to begin.
22 Margarita Tartakovsky, “10 Ways to Build and Preserve Better Boundaries,” Psych Central, accessed December 12, 2016, https://psychcentral .com/lib/10-way-to-build-and-preserve-better -boundaries/